Basquiat Strings and Oriole, St George’s, May 23

Pleasant surprises at this double header. St George’s with cafe style seating (though their tables are pretty big), looked pretty nice. And two bands who I had not heard anything from before both sounding fresh and interesting.

Both have been around for a while, so no particular reason why neither had been sampled – beyond the fact that living when there are 7 billion people means a permanent cultural surplus of everything. Basquiat, like Oriole, feature Ben Davis’ cello and Seb Rochford’s drum, so quality was guaranteed. But what would they actually do?

The sound was a bit different from their (excellent) CD, which came home after the gig, and records a group with 2 violins and viola alongside the cello – a proper string ensemble. The Basquiat who came to Bristol had lost them and added Graeme Stephen on acoustic guitar, who has a metallic sound and made the whole thing a little crunchier, and freer. There were a few catchy moments, but the music was mostly more austere – involving, but needing some concentration from a sympathetic listener. Henry Threadgill’s ensembles came to mind more than once, and some of Bill Frisell’s more adventurous stuff with his viola trio. Rochford was unobtrusively essential throughout, as only he can be, and bass player Fred Thomas filled out the sound engagingly. The closer, an Afro-beat leaning piece, wasn’t exactly a compulsive groover, but made a nice end to an absorbing set.

Oriole also presented a different line-up, with Gili Lopez coming in for Ruth Goller on electric bass, and sax duties falling on Idris Rahman alone now Ingrid Laubrock is based elsewhere. Johnny Phillips still presides on acoustic guitar, and his rhythmic finger-picking gives the whole thing a lighter,  airier feel, stirring Rochford a little more and offsetting some great playing from Davis and Rahman. Hearing sax and cello blend for the second time in as many weeks, echoing one of the signature timbres of Kit Downes’ sextet, was just as enjoyable this time round. The tunes and arrangements, redolent of Brazil one minute, Carla Bley the next, were consistently inventive and enjoyable, Rahman’s sinuous, snake-charmer’s manner on sax was suitably seductive, and Nick Ramm sparkled on piano. Glad to have made their acquaintance. The CD, if anything, is even better.

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