If some of the commentary in the jazz press is to be believed, it can only be a matter of time before European jazz musicians sail up the Potomac to burn Washington again. Jazz in America, so the thesis goes, is dead. The baton has been passed to Europe.
Such ideas would presumably be quite puzzling to the musicians on Romance Among the Fishes. This group, under the leadership of British pianist Liam Noble, was put together for a performance at the 2004 Cheltenham Jazz Festival (typical of the visionary programming of director Tony Dudley Evans). Phil Robson, a leading UK guitarist in his own bands, Partisans, and with Christine Tobin, is Noble's front-line partner. The US contingent is provided by the crack rhythm team of Tom Rainey and Drew Gress.
Liam Noble has been a regular feature of many of the bands touring Britain since the early 1990s. His excellent 2003 recording In the Meantime, with such luminaries as Stan Sulzmann and Chris Biscoe, served notice of a distinctive compositional talent. Romance Among The Fishes should bring his music to a much wider audience.
The cover pictures an aquarium of illuminated fishes, an image that fits perfectly with some of the slower pieces. Most of the material has been composed by Noble, generally quite terse themes that provide knotty jump-off points for the improvisations. Just as in a fish tank a variety of fishes can be seen moving in contrary directions, yet give a sense of common movement, so all four musicians follow highly independent paths, whilst obeying the general direction of the composed music. The opening "Jitters" is built around a pentatonic theme, reminiscent of Debussy in his more Eastern-influenced piano music, though at a cracking pace. "Therapy" is more dreamy, with a beautifully melodic bass solo from Gress and striking solos from Robson and Noble. Three tracks appear to be virtually free improvisations, setting up short duets.
Though in constant flux, this is far from a wild recording, having more in common with the music of Jimmy Giuffre or Lee Konitz. The musicians are not afraid to leave space between the notes, helping to establish a watery, floating feel. Especially impressive in this respect is the concluding title track, where Robson's guitar is rich in reverb, sounding almost Cuban in texture. The faintly out-of-synch wooziness of the track sums up Noble's musical approach, avoiding clear-cut, finished phrases.
The artificial divisions set up between "European" and "American" jazz are blown apart by carefully crafted collaborations like Romance Among The Fishes. Where the fusion of Ken Vandermark with Norway's Atomic explores the fiery side of jazz, this four-way collaboration investigates a cooler but no less fascinating aspect.
All praise too to Basho Music, rapidly emerging as one of the UK's most dynamic organisations in promoting and recording contemporary jazz.