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The Paul Dunmall Trio at the Vortex, London

John Sharpe By

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Dunmall spat out on short tenor phrases, and working from these foundations they erected an edifice of fiery emotionally charged interplay which summed up the group's approach
Paul Dunmall/Nick Stephens/Tony Marsh
The Vortex
London, England
May 19, 2009

British reedman Paul Dunmall breaks bread with a wide range of collaborators. While the ensuing documentation is less prolific than say Anthony Braxton's or Steve Lacy's in either's heyday, there is rarely overlap in personnel on consecutive discs. Saxophone, bass and drums have proved a particularly fertile configuration for Dunmall, borne out by his Deep Joy trio (Duns Limited Edition, 2004) with Paul Rogers and Tony Levin (long time associates in improvising ensemble Mujician) and most recently by what has come to be known as the Profound Sound Trio with Henry Grimes and Andrew Cyrille. Such has been the success of the latter, first at the 2008 Vision Festival and then at the 2009 Cheltenham Jazz Festival in England, that a November UK tour is mooted.

Less headline catching, Dunmall's trio with bassist Nick Stephens and drummer Tony Marsh contains associations, spanning over nine years of shared history. Stephens was a long-term collaborator with the late drummer John Stevens from 1976 onwards, but has also worked with Louis Moholo-Moholo and most recently Norwegian saxophonist Frode Gjerstad's Circulasione Totale Orchestra. Of similar vintage Marsh first came into view alongside tenor saxophonist Don Weller, but has more recently worked with Mike Westbrook, Howard Riley and Spring Heel Jack, and is a regular fixture in one of saxophone pioneer Evan Parker's trios. Their ongoing association found them assembled at the Vortex under the clear blue sky of a beautiful spring evening for two unbroken sets of unfettered literate jazz blowing.

Stephens' nimble pizzicato scumbling opened the first set in sparse relaxed dialogue with Marsh, brushes and hands extracting a broad timbral range from his kit. After a while, Dunmall casually joined on conversational tenor saxophone, exchanging contrapuntal lines with Stephens atop Marsh's clattering propulsion. A delicate filigree figure from the saxophonist over throbbing bass and cymbals signaled a change of gear and an accelerating rhythm presaging wave after wave of invention breaking over the appreciative audience.




Dunmall was abstractly lyrical on both tenor saxophone and clarinet. Shorn of obvious influence, he touched on folksy or hymn-like inflections, but rarely strayed to the extremes of his horn, putting tonal distortion at the service of nuanced group interplay. When he did take flight in full free-jazz mode, eyes tight shut, swaying back and forth with increased animation, forcing out twisted gobbets of sound, the impact was all the greater.

Stephens scattered rhythmic motifs among his bowed and plucked improvisation, providing a superstructure which anchored the ensemble and gave Marsh and Dunmall a force to react against. To extend his tonal options at various times, the bassist applied a small brush handle to his fretboard as he plucked, or rubbed his hand across the body of his bass, or, more straightforwardly, varied the pressure on his arco swipes to modulate his pitch.

As a drummer, Marsh was foremost a texturalist, deploying a range of sticks, brushes and mallets in combination with his hands to draw forth an astonishing breadth of seemingly unconnected sound, contextualized into narrative thrust. Eyes closed, head still, the drummer's hands floated around his kit, the calm appearance belying tumultuous outbursts, as if the whole kit were tumbling down a flight of stairs.



Together with Stephens, he reveled in the plentiful space allowed for rhythmic dueting, like a British version of the sainted William Parker-Hamid Drake Duo, less in their partiality to groove, but more in how they delighted in each other's sport. At other times, he contrasted cymbal washes with arco harmonics, or evoked a ritual feel by beating of his hands and deployment of mallets along with Stephens' resonant pizzicato. Nonetheless he could still be taken by surprise—as when Stephens banged his brush on the body of his bass—prompting a split-second pause before Marsh responded by tapping the shell of his floor tom.



Marsh also enjoyed a great rapport with Dunmall, evidenced by his clattering tattoos in response to the tenor man's cries, or in the second set, interjecting flurries of stickwork into Dunmall's clarinet squawk, or tolling on his cymbal to summon a mournful tenor-led procession.

Cohesive group interplay predominated in an absorbing journey evincing a shared sense of purpose which eschewed the string-of-solos syndrome. Thrilling moments included a piercing passage for clarinet, intertwining with arco harmonics over rumbling drums. Later in the second set, Marsh introduced a repeated pattern on cymbal, attenuated with his hand, punctuated by tenor gasps and burps over Stephen's insistent pizzicato. After one bass solo, Dunmall and Marsh rejoined in perfect unison. Dunmall spat out on short tenor phrases, and working from these foundations, they erected an edifice of fiery emotionally charged interplay which summed up the group's approach.

Each musician needed good ears to thrive in this rarefied atmosphere—and deep listening and selfless interaction typified the whole trio as exemplified by the conclusion of the first set. As Marsh and Stephens pursued another joint adventure, Dunmall stood poised, gently swaying while he listened for his entrance. Eyes closed, he interjected thick muscular tenor lines over throbbing bass and whirlwind drums. As Stephens frantically plucked, he glanced at Dunmall with a big smile before launching a sequence of vibrant double stops that signaled a gradual subsidence into silence, and left all three breathless and glowing.

While this trio may not garner the same attention as some of Dunmall's other outings, given festival opportunities they would prove the equal of the higher profile groupings.

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