Z-U, The Drum Arts Centre, Birmingham, U.K., April 13

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The Drum Arts Centre
Birmingham, U.K.
April 13, 2008

Where were you? That's the question to the people of Birmingham following an evening of excellent music witnessed by a small but enthusiastic audience of approximately thirty people.

The concert was part of "Live Box," a series of twelve wide-ranging gigs centred at The Drum and curated by Birmingham-based alto saxophonist and rapper Soweto Kinch. Jazz, soul, r&b, rap, hip-hop and poetry have all been featured in a diverse and stimulating series of programs. Tonight the spotlight was on contemporary jazz with a performance by Z-U, a trio nominally led by bassist Neil Charles, who appeared tonight exclusively on bass guitar. Charles has played with trumpeter Abram Wilson and with the group Empirical, rising stars of the British jazz scene.

Charles was joined on this occasion by reedman Shabaka Hutchings on clarinet and tenor saxophone. Besides also leading his own groups, Hutchings is a member of Courtney Pine's Jazz Warriors and appears on the latest Warriors release Afropeans. Completing the line-up was the young drummer Tom Skinner, an associate of London's influential and innovative F-ire Collective. (By the way, was there ever a more appropriate name for a drummer?)

The emphasis of the band is very much on group improvisation, using the themes of Charles and Hutchings as a starting point. With the judicious use of loops and other electronic effects the group is able to create a surprisingly broad sonic palette: the results are consistently fresh and engaging, with strong melodies spontaneouly developing from within the improvisations. It's music, moreover, that manages to be challenging while remaining accessible. Z-U's approach is a welcome contrast to the "in your face" belligerence frequently characteristic of the more extreme end of the free improv spectrum. The event may have been sparsely attended, but none of those present would have cause subsequently to be frightened away.

If anything, the first number of the night was the most challenging. The title "Sermon" was a play on words as the band had developed the tune at a workshop with the great British saxophonist John Surman. Hutchings' solo clarinet opening incorporated circular breathing, and the group built up layers of sound: Charles mutated the sound of his bass by means of loops and pedals as Skinner roamed around his kit, pushing out polyrhythmic pulses. Hutchings then switched to fluttering tenor sax before Charles' solo bass provided the segue into Hutchings' tune "Rocky." With an irresistible groove created by Charles and Skinner and relatively straight-ahead tenor from Hutchings, this tune was far more accessible than the abstractions of "Sermon," and the piece was warmly received by the audience.

Unaccompanied clarinet again ushered in Charles' composition "Breaking The News." Hutchings, a player of great technical facility on both clarinet and tenor, was quickly emerging as the star of the show. it was refreshing to see the clarinet being used in such a modern context with Hutchings proving that the instrument still has a place in contemporary jazz. As clarinetists from Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw to Buddy DeFranco, Eddie Daniels and Mort Weiss have shown, the instrument doesn't have to be all "licorice sticks" and Acker Bilk. It's likely that American clarinetist Don Byron has been an influence on Hutchings' approach. Charles' bass and Skinner's drums skirted around Hutchings' ruminations before Charles concluded the piece with a solo utilizing wah-wah effects.

Hutchings' lengthy The Chief Suite saw the composer distorting his clarinet sound by use of echo as Skinner chattered around him, occasionally dropping in a ferocious rim shot. The rhythm team then locked into a deep drum and bass groove, with Hutchings' clarinet first probing then dancing over the top. The piece climaxed with stunning high-register clarinet notes and further use of echo. (These guys certainly fit a lot into the course of a tune!)

The first set was concluded by the brief "The Middle Passage," which featured a solo bass intro from Charles and the searching tenor of Hutchings. The playing had gained in authority over the course of the evening, and the set was well received by those present.

After a very short break, Soweto Kinch took to the stage to host a good-natured jam session. His presence was a welcome bonus. This reviewer had not seen Kinch play live before despite enjoying his two album releases Conversations With The Unseen and A Life In The Day Of B19: Tales From The Tower Block. Kinch joined Z-U for a take on a typically elliptical Wayne Shorter composition entitled "Fall." Kinch's alto and Hutchings' tenor combined to form interlocking horn lines before both men delivered powerful individual solos.

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