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Alexander Hawkins Ensemble: London, UK, April 5, 2011

John Sharpe By

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Alexander Hawkins Ensemble
Café Oto
London, UK

April 5, 2011

What do you do when two mainstays in your band leave? Tonight's gig was the first outing for the new line up of pianist Alexander Hawkins' group, necessitated by the loss of regular bassist Dominic Lash to New York City for a year, and drummer Javier Carmona's return to Barcelona. There was a lot to live up to: the old aggregation was a cohesive unit of long standing which had built up a fine rapport around Hawkins' challenging compositions, with their signature blend of written trickery that bespoke opportunities for improvisational expression.

With representation from almost every instrumental type, the new group appeared unprecedented and potentially full of mouthwatering combinations. Perhaps as a result of the new member's unfamiliarity with the charts, there were elongated free-form passages which showcased individual prowess. A case in point was the lengthy intro to the opening song, spotlighted by invigorating work from new face Oren Marshall on tuba and old stager Hannah Marshall (no relation) on cello. Ms. Marshall sat poised at her cello while Mr. Marshall drew sustained, resonant tones from his tuba. There followed a wonderfully responsive and expansive duet with the cellist squeezing the strings together as she scraped abrasively with the bow, while the bassman spluttered and popped. Eventually he shifted into a relaxed walk, around which she embroidered percussive textures generated by rubbing the body of the cello and strumming hard, before everyone launched into the lurching "Ologbo," named after the Yoruba word meaning a cat that comes home. Hawkins' illuminations seemed appropriate for the tune's ABA structure, with the bookending theme surrounding a trio section for Orphy Robinson on marimba alongside the two Marshalls and swirling interplay.

From left: Mark Sanders, Hannah Marshall and Orphy Robinson

Even with this weightier ensemble, there was a predominantly chamber feel to proceedings. All Hawkins' tunes grant lots of room for improvisation, often while other subsections propagate composed material. So it was with "Baobabs." After an initial threesome of drummer Mark Sanders using his hands and mallets in tandem, Robinson on pealing marimba and guitarist Otto Fischer adding discreet swells—transmuted from quiet to tumultuous—reedman Shabaka Hutchings interpolated a calming phrase on clarinet, hinted at by others while the improv continued. That predilection for multiple events in the same space also manifested itself during a restless version of saxophonist/composer Anthony Braxton's "40F."

Oren Marshall, yet again, demonstrated his versatility with a mercurial multiphonic lead-in to the second set, layering broad vibrato to yield growling chords as a counterpoint to his brassy eruptions. He supplied even more excitement as the piece progressed, shouting and muttering through his mouthpiece as he blew to great effect.

One drawback to the larger company were the fewer chances allowed to savor Hawkins' ivory bothering skills. As well as being an ambitious composer, Hawkins is also a compelling improviser, as gainsaid by his appearances with a growing roster of talent including reed men Evan Parker, Joe McPhee (witness his organ work with Decoy on Oto (Bo'weavil, 2010) and drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo. A reminder of what we were missing came in a splendid excursion during the second set where the pianist shone with double-handed runs, incorporating combustive outbursts of barrelhouse stride along with traces of melody.

The rest of the ensemble were no slouches either. Fischer, positioned far left in the shadowy nether regions of the Cafe Oto stage, featured on "76-4," used his pedals and effects to create an impressionistic mélange of ringing lines and fluttering tremolos. Sanders would be a wonderful addition to any combo, but here the arrangements played to his strengths and fondness for timbral exploration. He took out one tune with a beguiling solo mixing unusual tonalities, drawn from cymbals and woodblocks placed on his drum heads, with blasts of pulsing abstraction.

From left: Oren Marshall, Mark Sanders

Hawkins routinely pays homage to the early 1970s loft jazz movement, by covering unexpected classics from the era among his own pieces in the program. Tonight was no exception. As well as the aforementioned Braxton composition, there was a standout rendition of saxophonist Arthur Blythe's "As Of Yet" from 1977's The Grip (India Navigation) featuring a cello, tuba, and drums rhythm team. At that point in the program is where the thought that maybe this lineup did have antecedents, after all, started to take hold.

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