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Amethyst at McHughs, Belfast

Ian Patterson By

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Amethyst
McHughs
Belfast, N. Ireland
August 10, 2016

With an increasing number of talented Northern Irish jazz musicians recording and gigging both home and abroad, jazz is this corner of the world seems to be in fairly robust health. Add to that Belfast's own jazz festival of international standing, Brilliant Corners- -making waves since 2013—and there's plenty to be excited about. Amethyst, a straight-ahead quintet featuring local and foreign-based musicians, is the latest group to bolster the local scene. Based on the evidence of this gig, Amethyst can go on, with the right kind of support, to achieve great things.

It was a pity that so few punters turned out on Wednesday evening to support Amethyst's excellent debut gig in Northern Ireland, but as jazz musicians the world over know, mid-week gigs can be a hard sell. That said, the band's Republic of Ireland debut the night before in Dublin's renowned International Bar had drawn a good crowd. In fairness, that venue hosts regular jazz gigs and has built up a goodly crowd of aficionados over the years, something that Belfast is presently lacking.

Still, from small acorns grow great oaks, as Amethyst's trumpeter Linley Hamilton knows. Hamilton, an educator, mentor and BBC broadcaster to boot, is tireless in his endeavours to propagate great music, which is precisely what Amethyst did, serenading the enthusiasts gathered in McHugh's cellar bar to a set of striking compositions and playing of nuance and panache.

The bar was set high from the off, with Dermot McNeill's sophisticated "Modal Conspiracy" drawing early fire from tenor saxophonist Lewis Smith and a snaking solo from pianist Scott Flanigan, where classical élan gave way to boppish fluidity, coaxed by drummer Markus Strothmann's inventive bustle. The Hamburg-based drummer, with roots in Westport, called on all the timbres of his drum kit, which, added to his rhythmic flexibility, provided the perfect foil for the bassist's grooving ostinatos and searching melodic lines.

The quintet slowed things down on Lewis' slow-burning "Haven't the Foggiest." Hand percussion and brushes, and a slow-circling bass motif underpinned the tenor player's plaintive narrative, with Hamilton—on a very handsome flugelhorn—and Flanigan chipping in with persuasive solos. Lewis then upped the temperature with a feisty exploration—the storm before the closing calm.

There was a touch of classic-era Blue Note about "Avenue to Nowhere," a hard-bop burner composed by McNeil for Canadian director Jacob Migicovsky's film of the same name. The film noir movie was itself inspired by Louis Malle's film Ascenseur pour échafaud (1958) with its Miles Davis soundtrack, but the intensity in Hamilton and Lewis' soloing was closer to the spirit of Lee Morgan and Jackie McLean. A ripping version of Hank Mobley's standard "This I Dig of You"—with a lovely baroque-meets-bop intervention from Flanigan— flowed in similar vein.

Flanigan switched to organ on "Homeboyz"—one of two tunes by the late South African pianist Bheki Mseleku—teasing out tumbling, melodious figures over swinging bass and rhythmically intricate drum patterns. Hamilton followed suit on flugelhorn, though to more subtle rhythmic accompaniment. The quintet's ability to transition through the gears almost surreptitiously, playing with the mood, was as noteworthy as the quality of the soloing. The second Mseleku tune, "Viknu," founded on a martial drum pattern, saw trumpet, tenor and piano stretch out over a cooking rhythm.

Smith's tender ballad "The Elders" featured beautifully weighted solos from the saxophonist on soprano, and Flanigan, where space trumped virtuosity. Bowed bass, dreamy keys and pattering brushes set the seal on a fine tune. Strothmann's composition "Leave" highlighted the drummer's lyrical sensibility, with trumpet, tenor saxophone and bass all afforded generous space to stretch out. Flanigan's composition "Elevate" from his recently released debut as leader, Point of Departure (Self-Produced, 2015), closed the set with appropriate drama as piano and drums soared over Hamilton and Smith's repeating motif—creating a powerful collective crescendo that ended in pointed exclamation.

With excellent musicianship and writing strength across the board, Amethyst possesses all the credentials to make a lasting mark. Hopefully, more extensive touring and a studio date will follow from this exciting new group. This was a low-key gig on one level, but musically, a highlight of the Irish jazz year so far.

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