Friday, May 21, 2010

Astral Week Days

Alice Zawadski & The Sky Project, Beats and Pieces Big Band, and The Rapley/Chatterton Quartet. West Didsbury Club, Manchester, 20th May 2010

There was a great buzz to be felt last night over in West Didsbury at the local Conservative club for a swiftly organised coalition of wide ranging jazz party members.

The Rapley/Chatterton Quartet opened the debate on this barmy night with a relaxed and well measured take on Wayne Shorter’s ‘Witch hunt’. Some smart and virtuoistic playing exuded from Mathas Picard on the keys, especially evident on the solo intro to Kenny Wheeler’s ‘My Old Man’. Chatterton delivered some thoughtful flugalhorn lines on this track too, with just the right touch of endearing vulnerability. Harrison Wood's double bass came through crisply on the intro to ‘Blue in Green’, Rapley’s tenor sounding especially sweet over this great tune.

The 15 piece Beats and Pieces Big Band kicked up the volume and energy levels straight off with ‘Bake’, a fast driving tune with a distinctly funky flavour. Sam Healey on alto sax matched the pace aplenty with a precise and intense solo, one of many highlights in the set. Whether intended or not, there’s a definite Starsky and Hutch seventies'ness to the band sound, as Ben Cotterill, conductor and arranger of all pieces and composer of most, indicated other reviewers have picked up on. This can only be a good reference for my part. ‘Yaffwa’ opened with an engaging repeating figure, expertly played by the tight and Corea’ish Patrick Hurley on the keys, Fin Panter on drums underpinning things with a tasty latino-funk groove. ‘Toan’ had a stompy Tom Waits/Polar Bear quality ending in a gorgeous cacophonic collective improv. Sam Andreae on tenor was particularly bracing on the following Radiohead triptych. All through, the arrangements were precise and coherent, with just the right amount of complexity, dynamics and space. The band were sounding bang-on tight as well, the overall effect clearly catching the audience’s attention. This was the first date of the band's tour, so make sure you catch 'em while they're hot.

I was intrigued to hear what the Alice Zawadski Big Sky Project would be about, as we don’t get many vocalists coming along on the jazz scene. Top stuff it was, Zawadski having very much a sound and feel of her own on top of all the craft and vocabulary of a classic jazz vocalist. Scat vocal improvising is a definite danger zone as far as I’m concerned, but Zawadaski more than got away with it on the opening ‘Austin Flowers’, accompanied by some punchy wah-wah sax improv from the twitchily intense Phil Meadows. Their take on Mike Walker’s ‘Wallenda’s Last Stand’ was somewhat tentative, and I’m still not sure if the character of the tune suits a big band arrangement. 'Cat’ was the highlight of the set for me, a Zawadski penned track about ‘drug-fuelled sex and spiritual possession’. The sparse bass and unexpectedly twisted vocal intro was really quite disturbing, this being followed by some comfort zone classic swing to let us down, only to be disrupted by a psychedelia-tinged free improvisation. Towards the end of set the band delivered a pensive and genuinely quite moving version of Neil Yates’ ‘Chance Melody’. Zawadski sounded quite beautiful here, conveying the lyrical sentiment in an entirely convincing way, with Graham South’s tender flugalhorn lines matching the moment perfectly. With the Sky Project being a new entity, there are things that need working on, and I’m not sure the set as a whole works just yet, especially when compared to the well-honed Beats and Pieces. There is real promise here though, so I hope Alice and the band keep the thing moving forward. Some more cats please.