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Live From Birmingham: The Sonics, Otis Gibbs, George Huxley & John Altman

Martin Longley By

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An American ex-tree planter on an extended tour, he's one of those visitors who is keen to delve deep into his traversed culture, making pointed observations about English existence, and checking out whether these are translatable to his homeland ways. He stayed in a good hotel for once, he quips, and the towels were so fluffed and thick that he could barely close his suitcase. A deep rasp delivers cutting humour and the Gibbs lines are so full of substance that it's a challenge to grasp their meaning and consequences whilst simultaneously treating them as a song. His ditties demand a few more airings, so it's almost advised that any potential audience prime themselves before the gig. It's preferable to have a surplus when absorbing, rather than the insufficient matter common to many singer-songwriters. "Caroline" wove a particularly vivid tale of a kind of romanticised abuse, and "The Darker Side Of Me" narrated another deeply-etched story. The Gibbs guitar style is quite basic, with most of the action happening on the vocal front, but this doesn't mean that he avoids inserting unexpected string-figures at strategic moments, little atonal runs that leap out when the listener might be getting complacent.

George Huxley
Solihull British Legion
July 30, 2015

For years, the veteran reedsman George Huxley presented his monthly club night at Silhillians in Knowle, but the session has recently relocated to the Solihull British Legion, which is already a well-established home for the local traditional jazz club. Huxley alternates between soprano and (white plastic) alto saxophones, but favoured the clarinet during this crowded pair of Thursday evening sets. As a youth, it's certain that the bulk of his vinyl collection was taken up with Sidney Bechet platters, an influence that remains dominant. Huxley's soprano tone captures the essence of that distinctive Bechet vibrato, and his lively negotiations just seem to get better each time he's witnessed at a gig, naysaying any expectations of greater age dwindling the powers.

"Fidgety Feet" set the pace, which was frequently dashing. An invitation was made to dance, but the floor remained curiously empty for most of the evening. Perhaps the Huxley tempo was a touch too accelerated, and his repertoire sometimes turning away from familiar chestnuts, picking out some lesser-aired delicacies, such as Kid Ory's (and Louis Armstrong's) "Savoy Blues." John Penn's piano had a lively ragtime-y jangle, a kind of pert dancing across the keys. "Passport To Paradise" was delivered as a duo with Huxley and Penn, then "Eccentric," as laid down by Muggsy Spanier, featured a flighty clarinet solo, buoyed by the riffing trots of trumpeter Gordon Whitworth and trombonist Ron Hills. The varied arrangements kept on coming, with Whitworth fronting a quartet for his vocal version of "I Can't Get Started." Towards the end of the second set, Penn played a completely solo "Chevy Chase," an old Eubie Blake number, chased up by "Coal Black Shine," with Huxley paradoxically bright and shiny on soprano horn.

John Altman
The Ruddock Performing Arts Centre
August 1, 2015

Saxophonist John Altman is not so well-known on the jazz scene. His work is usually as a sideman, an arranger, or sometimes composer, with much of his work inhabiting the soundtrack or advertising spheres. One glance at his credits will reveal a Zelig-like presence, standing just to the side, or lurking behind a whole host of famed artists. He's contributed, in his various guises, to the careers of Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Amy Winehouse, The Rutles and thence the Monty Python gang, just to name a handful of his massed credits. He's a 65-year-old with a boyish demeanour, shiny-domed and, for this gig, favouring the soprano saxophone, possibly so it will fit inside his hand baggage-sized, wheeled suitcase, which remains at his side wherever he roams, even onstage. The last artist that your scribe witnessed displaying such an attachment was Lee 'Scratch' Perry. Altman has the look of Lol Coxhill, including a similarly dry and wily sense of humour.

The chosen venue for this gig is also easy to miss, hidden away in the grounds of Birmingham's King Edward's School, and rarely presenting acts that impinge on the outside musical world. It's a relatively new joint, and proof that there are always undiscovered scenes lurking where least expected. Altman fronted a quartet, with bassist Andy Cleyndert being the most familiar presence from the jazz firmament. Mitch Dalton (guitar) and Pete Cater (drums) completed the line-up.

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