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Live Reviews

Alexander Hawkins Ensemble at the Vortex, London

By Published: September 3, 2009
Hannah Marshall, Javier Carmona, Orphy Robinson, Otto Fischer, Dominic Lash

Hawkins' arrangements allow ample space for individual expression. One feature of the band was that there always seemed to be someone in the group improvising, even during composed sections. Affirming a connection to an ongoing tradition, they opened with Leo Smith's "Nuru Light," also featured on disc, with the trumpeter's portentous melody sandwiching passages of open invention. Spacey guitar swells from Otto Fischer communed with Javier Carmona's edgy percussion in the first interlude, while the legato lines of cellist Hannah Marshall and bassist Dominic Lash melded only to fragment during the second.

Demonstrating another trademark, in unexpected combination of compositions, "Light" merged imperceptibly into Hawkins' "120-4."As on disc, it provided a showcase for what Hawkins calls Fischer's "meandering-yet-logical-thing" with the guitarist musings over the stately grandeur of the repeated theme accompanied by plucked piano strings which developed into the first of several notable keyboard excursions by Hawkins. Next up was one of the highlights of the set: a wonderful mash up of little-played Anthony Braxton compositions (numbers 69(I) + 6(O) + 40(O) + 6(I) for those for whom these things matter) adapted for the unusual instrumentation in a way which breathed fresh life into the saxophonist's music. Starting with one of Braxton's jaunty bebop-esque lines delivered by unison piano and arco cello over a funky rhythm, it soon opened out for Fischer's freeform runs and grace notes fronting a group improvisation which merged into the next piece in the suite in typical Braxton fashion. Hawkins' affection for Braxton's work has had the chance to bloom since receiving the early quartet books from Bynum his collaborator in the Convergence Quartet, and a long time Braxton associate.

Live the band was able to step out from the ensemble more than on record. Fischer was the featured voice for much of the first set, his guitar lines, enhanced with effects pedals, tiptoeing and dancing through the dense soundscapes. Fischer may be best known for his until now sole release Songs (Incus, 2006) though this is shortly to be supplemented by his self-released Somersault. Marshall made the most of the cello's ambiguities, supplementing the front line with rhapsodic soaring lines at some times, but then again sawing as if trying to rend her cello in two at others. She had a wonderful feature at the start of Leroy Jenkins' "Albert Ayler (his life was too short)," ranging from the romantic to the desperate before initiating an open group colloquy around the late violinist's beautiful melody. A loose nervy drummer, Carmona wielded various unusual sticks for delicate timbral effects, but then was tight and arhythmically funky when needed.

Lash has forged a strong association with Hawkins, featuring alongside him in the Convergence Quartet as well as in the Barkingside collective. He proved well versed in avant bass vocabulary but also ready to dig into a riff with gusto, this ambidextrousness being a trait which characterized the whole band. During the improvisational space in the second set's "Sarah Teaches Kirsty to Read" Lash demonstrated his credentials in one solo where he threaded his bow between the strings of his bass to produce koto-like sonorities before proceeding with a buzzing drone. Elsewhere his search for the unconventional saw him bowing on the neck of his bass alternately behind the key stops and below the bridge to novel effect.

Alexander Hawkins

Aside from his astute selection of covers to sit alongside his own varied and challenging compositions, Hawkins impressed as a thrilling improvisor, rampaging up and down the keyboard. He took a great solo spot at the conclusion of his own "Song Dance Blues" which from a bluesy kneesup, corralled Ellington's "Take The A Train" into a hyperspeed blur within an explosion of notes at the opposite extremes of the keyboard, reminiscent of some of Matthew Shipp

Matthew Shipp
Matthew Shipp
's more stark juxtapositions. To complete the rollcall of homage he finished the solo by segueing into the churchy opening chords of Sun Ra's "Love in Outer Space." As the band piled into the joyful rolling vamp behind him, Robinson extracted even more sunshine from his rumbustuously tolling pans concluding what was one of the evening's highlights with a warm glow. Multi-instrumentalist Robinson, more usually heard on vibraphone was almost the elder statesman in this company, having first come to prominence alongside Courtney Pine
Courtney Pine
Courtney Pine
with the Jazz Warriors in the early 1980s and numbering two Blue Note albums in his discography from the mid '90s. However he didn't hog the limelight and his pans added subtle accents to the rhythmic stew and spiced the thick interplay with their distinctive sonority.

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