Jazz Weekend In Old York: Eric Dolphy, Benny Goodman, and Wayne Shorter Revisited
Jazz Weekend In Old York
The National Centre For Early Music
York, England November 21-23, 2008
England's deeply historical city of York is far from being a jazz nexus, but its main alternative music venue does have an ongoing policy of presenting oneoff gigs in an atmospheric converted church space. The National Centre For Early Music also runs a specialized Jazz Weekend at least twice each year, usually focusing on significant artists on the UK scene, although rarely venturing across international waters. This small-scale activity can't really compare to the bigger, wider spreads of action in nearby Leeds (or even the coastal resort of Scarborough), but a feeling pervades that there isn't much of an audience for jazz in York, at least judging by the scarcity of gigs within its walls. A weekly jazz column in the local newspaper, The Press, always seems to be struggling to find events to fill its space, and is usually forced to look further afield, to smaller towns with slightly bigger scenes, whether traditional or post-bebop in nature.
Just the same, the audience for the first of these three nights of the NCEM's Jazz Weekend must have been close to sell-out status, and seats were also looking well-filled during the next two daysproof, surely, that there is a potential market for more jazz in York featuring British (or even American) big-name players.
There's been copious positive publicity surrounding the young Londoner combo Empirical, but most of the buzz emphasizes their energetic commitment to modernity, and is therefore unlikely to hold any appeal in the conservative lane of the gigging circuit. Even though Empirical are currently probing the legacy of a jazz composer's music from well over forty years ago, Eric Dolphy's pieces retain their completely current nature, making it all the more impressive how enthusiastically the music is received by a crowd that might not be accustomed to such rigorously complex sounds. If this sounds like a patronizing view, it's Leeds and not York that is well-known for its long-term support of avant-jazzing.
Gone is the repertoire presented on Empirical's debut album. Departed too are a pair of pivotal members (well, everyone is pivotal in such a precisely poised outfit). Their horn front-line formerly featured two of Britain's fastest rising flash-technicians, but trumpeter Jay Phelps is now concentrating on his own output, whilst pianist Kit Downes has returned to his studies. With bassist Tom Farmer already being a recent replacement, alto saxophonist Nathaniel Facey and drummer Shaney Forbes are the remaining key players from this youthful combo's old guard. Nevertheless, a steely sense of empowered direction remains, and Empirical are now pushing their new Dolphy project, which will be recorded for an imminent album release in December 2008. It won't be so much a general overview of Dolphy as a direct engagement with Out To Lunch!, the reedsman's most well-known album, and surely his compositional and performing summit. A major help in the project's realization is the addition of new member Lewis Wright on the vibraphone, adopting the demanding Bobby Hutcherson role. Wright might look even more fresh-faced than his bandmates, but his virtuosic skills are already in keeping with those of a gig-wizened voyager of the highest order. He has the touch and control of a greater experience, striking with varied velocity, allowing notes to shimmer glowingly into a sensitive death.
Empirical might make its audiences tense. Dolphy's music is intricate and precise, so they're striking every note, meeting every twisting theme head-on, making no "mistakes." Rarely can such concentrated music succeed as "accessible" entertainment. Fortunately, the entire audience appears to be locked into Empirical and their Messianic mission, all the way. Even the quartet's original compositions are very much in the post- Dolphy spirit. There are astounding interpretations of "Gazzelloni," "Straight Up And Down" and "Out To Lunch!" itself, quite possibly three of the most cerebrally rousing compositions in the entire history of jazz. Empirical interprets them with pinpoint vigour and devout passion.
It's curious that the next night sees the crowds diminish slightly, as London reedsman Alan Barnes is the king of mainstream blowing in the UK. His Liquorice Stick All-Sorts is a trio that's primarily dedicated to the music of Benny Goodman, with Barnes concentrating on clarinet for much of the evening. Drummer Paul Clarvis arrives from more adventurous musical quarters, but his range is so broad that he can easily encompass the history of jazz, from 1920s dance band to complete free-forming. In an echo from the previous evening (surely a coincidence), another vibraphonist completes the line-up, with Jim Hart still qualifying as a young Turk on the instrument, even if he's more established than Empirical's Lewis Wright. Although this is a completely contrasting manifestation of jazz, Barnes and company are still negotiating a sensitively arranged complexity, and the Goodman/Dolphy repertoires existed in quite close proximity, in terms of time-periods. This is what made the latter's music so revolutionary, embodied with a quality of freshness that it retains to this day.
Barnes is an excellent comedian too, his between-number remarks relaxing the audience prior to his next fleet run of reed-rippling. Clarvis calls up the drumming style of the old vaudevillian days, reducing his kit to an absolute minimum, clumping his tight-booming bass skin, lashing brushes across his tinny snare and rummaging in his kit-bag for small tambourine, maracas, spoons, and the tiniest can of shaker-beans he can find. Barnes and Clarvis are the jokers, perfectly balanced by Hart's straight-man demeanour. Barnes takes up the alto saxophone for a few tunes, prompting Clarvis to strike louder, using his hard sticks. They're playing completely acoustically (apart from the necessary whirring power needed for the vibraphone), and it turns out that this condition brings out the best of the church-space's acoustic properties.
University of York Jazz Band with Rob Lavers
The weekend's Sunday evening gig draws the smallest gathering, which is not surprising given its low-profile local nature. The newly-formed University Of York Jazz Band is co-led by drummer Simon Roth and pianist Dave Morecroft, who are stand-out personalities within that same institution's big band. Both are also composers, but the evening's programme is dubbed Get Shorter, and is devoted to the works of saxophonist Wayne Shorter ("Juju," "Witch Hunt," etc.). Once again, this is an ambitious body of work to address, but the quintet acquit themselves well, aided by the presence of guesting saxophonist Rob Lavers, who is lately getting noticed outside of York's city walls. Roth has a sly sense of humour, seemingly obsessed with wringing every pun out of Shorter's name. His drum solos aren't as confident at first, but eventually he builds up some thunder to bolster the surging Lavers. Trumpeter Matt Postle also impresses with some crystalline constructions, complex and cutting.
Perhaps by accident, the weekend is dominated by interpretations of great jazz composers. Eric Dolphy, Benny Goodman and Wayne Shorter all receive the necessary attention to detail, but all of their self- appointed spiritual heirs are committed to filtering the old works through their own strong playing personalities. It doesn't feel like a stale nostalgia trip. The works retain their vitality, and their legacies are maintained by a youthful circulation of new blood. Apart from Alan Barnes and Paul Clarvis. But, fortunately, this pair is still blessed with an unstoppable enthusiasm more commonly enjoyed in younger days. Hopefully, Empirical, Jim Hart and the UOYJB will hold onto their own vital fluids well into middle age.