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Jay Phelps at the Harrow Arts Centre

Barry Witherden By

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Jay Phelps
Harrow Arts Centre
Hatch End, London
July 7, 2017

Harrovians don't know what they're missing. The Harrow Arts Centre, tucked away in Hatch End off the teeming Uxbridge Road in London's north-western suburb, has an adventurous booking policy—most such enterprises seem unwilling to recognise any jazz other than trad or dinner-jazz—but whenever I have been there the audience has never exceeded 50. In an area that includes a large South Asian community this was especially disappointing when Jesse Bannister presented his gorgeous and mesmerising melding of jazz and Indian classical music there. The space was again less than half-full for this gig by trumpeter Jay Phelps's quartet... given Phelps's impressive cv, a disheartening indication of the marginal status of the mainstream of jazz in the UK... but the musicians gave their all and the audience was properly appreciative.

Most of the concert consisted of Phelps's originals. These are engaging and nicely enough put together to hold the attention. The band played well on all of them, but on this occasion it was the standards, such as "My Shining Hour" and Monk's "We See," that prompted the most fiery and inventive improvisations.

The influence of Clifford Brown, one of the early inspirations for Phelps, is discernible, but he has his own distinctive musical personality which comes across strongly in his writing and singing: several of his compositions have lyrics which he sings as the theme statement before launching into his solo. Like many of his generation, Phelps regularly mixes (or "dilutes" in the view of purists) the jazz with elements from other genres, including hip-hop, soul and so-called World music.

Phelps proudly declares his mixed-race heritage, and opened the first set with "Everyone's Ethnic," a lithe line with some interesting twists and turns, backed with Caribbean-style rhythms. He connects with the audience through amiable chats between numbers as well as through his appealing playing. "Amphitrite's Bounty" further confirmed his knack for tunes that are catchy without being clichéd, for solos that can be smooth without being superficial, and for diverting anecdotes that throw light on the compositions. Rick Simpson provided solid, funky comping and several involving solos spiced with various striking tonal effects on electric keyboard. This was the penultimate gig with the quartet for the outstanding bassist, Mark Lewandowski, who was soon leaving to work at Juilliard.

At the time of writing Phelps is in negotiation with a record label, but his current album, Free As The Birds, is a self-issued limited edition. One of the tracks, "Angel," has been released as a single.

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