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The magic of music in small rooms

February 2, 2017

There’s a special pleasure in hearing live jazz in small spaces. This blog hasn’t offered many reviews lately. But the last two gigs I’ve caught will probably go unnoticed elswehere, and both struck me as exemplars of this often-found delight.

First was Julien Alenda‘s trio at the BeBop club last week. Tenor sax, bass and drums, so already signing an important territory for the jazz aficianado. And if I tell you the first set (as I recall) featured a Joshua Redman blues, Take the ‘A’ Train, Body and Soul, and St Thomas, you’ll know what kind of gig it was. An evening of standards, explored by that exposed, tenor-with-rhythm-section formation that sounds classic steered by a Sonny Rollins or, indeed, a Joshua Redman. It calls for strong resources and a combination of empathy and fast reflexes if it isn’t to suffer by comparison when other people do it, though. This trio didn’t. The fact that it featured three young Italians who have all fetched up in Bristol somehow added to its charm. They didn’t do anything unexpected. It was simply three players devoted to a particular strand in the jazz tradition who have studied it deeply enough to make it their own. Much more enjoyable to hear the music unfurl in real time than to play recordings. And up close and personal in the back room of the Bear, with a decent audience, the sound (no amplification), the atmosphere, and the music, were just right. I’ve said uncomplimentary things about that room now and then. But, credit where it’s due, for this kind of thing it works really well. I even got a glass of wine that was drinkable. Wasn’t expecting that.

Then a venue with a little more formality – Lights! Stage! Sound system! But still The Fringe in Clifton feels tightly packed if more than 40 punters show. That’s enough to create another of those delightful bubbles where people with a shared interest in this art really concentrate on musicians doing it, right there, in front of them. And concentrate we did on Wednesday 1st, when the superb US alto player John O’Gallagher played with Percy Pursglove – whose bass and trumpet seem to be heard regularly in Bristol these days – along with Dan Moore on keys and the wonderfully flexible drumming of Tony Orrell. I missed a chunk of the opening set, but if I tell you that the second featured Parker’s Invitation, Coleman’s Blues Connotation, a Tom Harrell tune and one by the Beach boys – announced at the start, then all played segue – you’ll know what kind of gig it was. Standards with a twist, shall we say, and a general outlook shaped by allegiance to some later models of jazz than Alenda and co. But recognisably a slice through the braids of the same tradition, picking out different threads.

O’Gallagher can do pretty much anything he likes with an alto saxophone, and was visibly enjoying the interaction with players who don’t normally figure in a New York hot shot’s diary. He had an especially impressive instant rapport with Orrell that seemed to grow stronger through the evening. And if Rollins-inflected sax trios are risky, so is soloing in Ornette Coleman’s style on one of his own most hummable tunes. But O’Gallagher managed to bring that off in a manner so close to the master he might have been in the room – the same motivic invention, even some of the same abrupt swoops and blares that somehow turn into new melody. A rare thing. And all enjoyed in a packed small room that makes it all feel more intense, more real, somehow.

Of course I wish all jazz musicians bigger gigs, and larger audiences, but until the great day dawns it’s great to see music being made with such love and skill at such close quarters. And thanks to the folks who work hard to keep the places that happens open in Bristol.

P.S Some people need loftier spaces, too. There are a handful of tickets left for June Tabor and Quercus at St George‘s next week. Grab one if you can. She sounds incredible in there.


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