CBSO Centre, Birmingham UK
This was a Jazzlines project bringing together an established big band of young British musicians, most of them Birmingham Conservatoire graduates, and two powerful New York-based musicians. East Coast meets West Midlands in other words.
And what was striking was not only the way in which the two came together so well, but also how strongly a contrast in character was shown.
Of course it is exaggerated because of the specific individuals involved.
Mike Fletcher, saxophonist and prime mover on the Birmingham scene, gives the impression, like many of his band mates, of a diffident matter-of-factness. He blends in to a conservatively dressed band, especially since he cut his dreads a few years back, accepts the limelight only when he has to, and looks far more at ease with a saxophone to his lips and solos to form. Solos which build from cool beginnings to a considered but contained intensity. I realise I’ve heard him play many times but I know very little about the man. You could say he is a typical Brummie.
Andrew D’Angelo, saxophonist and live-wire on the New York scene, wears his heart on his sleeve, and not only his heart. His brain, too. Especially the fact that he was diagnosed with brain cancer a few years back, has had surgery twice and now, having rejected any further treatment conventional medicine can offer, is dedicated to other forms of healing, both for himself and for others. His music is a crucial part of this. In person he is brightly coloured, flamboyant of language and gesture, and as exciting, intense and visceral in his playing as he is in his between tune announcements. He is not so much a typical New Yorker, but a certain type of New Yorker writ large.
Which is why, in this case, all this talk of personalities before going on to the music is appropriate. For D’Angelo they are inseparable, and that seemed like one of the most valuable lessons the older American brought to the young Brits.
D’Angelo was hugely complimentary about this band. And so he should be. We knew we had have some terrific young jazz musicians in Birmingham, no small thanks to the Conservatoire jazz course, but there has never been quite such a clear example of how far they have come.
Tackling D’Angelo’s richly harmonic, tumbling melodies, structures threatening at any moment to fall into chaos, and ramped-up intensity and drive, they gave it their all and came through smiling.
Everyone got a solo, all were exemplary, some were even better, and the ensemble energy, even when things were probably quite tricky, was inspiring. It’s unfair to single out particular players, but the ones that really caught my ear both in the ensemble and as soloists were pianist Andy Bunting and bassist Nick Jurd. Among the horns, the stand-out solos for me came from Chris Morgan on tenor, Sam Wooster on trumpet and trombonist Kieran Mcleod who, I understand, was called in at short notice as a replacement.
The music ranged from the film noir of D’Angelo’s Egna Ot Waog to the rich beauty of Fletcher’s Where Are You? The first set ended in the crazy jubilation of D’Angelo’s Gay Disco, while the second culminated in the American’s stare into the full darkness of cancer with a gut-wrenching, ear-shredding piece fuelled by Simon King’s searing electric guitar solo, only to be out-raged by D’Angelo’s sustained alto outburst. He had talked about living each day as if it were his last; here was living proof of that philosophy.
Finally, a word for the man on the drums. Dan Weiss was superb throughout, acting as something of a lightning conductor for the crackling sky-brightener at the front of the stage, ensuring the band back on earth could be vitalised by the power without getting electrocuted.
More from this band, please, and more collaborations like this.