Concert review: Neon Quartet

mac, Birmingham UK

You can’t beat a good tune, and there was one good one last night. Should anyone in the audience have chosen to sing or whistle one on the way home that tune would undoubtedly have been Thelonious Monk’s Bye Ya.

The Neon Quartet’s version of it, both on their recent CD Subjekt (Edition Records) and in live performance, is memorable. Pianist/organist Kit Downes leads into it in freeish manner with just drummer Tim Giles for company. Early on the Monkisms make themselves felt but it is a while before he inserts enough of Bye Ya to identify it clearly in the listener’s ears.

Saxophonist Stan Sulzmann and vibes player Jim Hart join in to state the theme, with Hart taking the lead on the second part, before Sulzmann takes the first solo. He has a lovely way of rolling through the scales and patterns, the transitions from note to note beautifully smooth and the overall effect one of tumbling and building piles of marbles, deeply hued and perfectly round.

Hart and Giles fall into throwing Monk’s tune back and forth between them, Giles just as melodic on his kit as Hart is with his mallets. Then the whole band throws the tune around, getting looser and more cryptic on the outro. This is a tune so strong that the merest suggestion of the shape of a few notes from it is enough.

Now I’m not suggesting that tunes are the be-all and end-all of music – of course they aren’t. But, with the exception of Sulzmann’s gentle and pretty Ruskins Retreat, the compelling six note figure that worms its way through Hart’s Maison Musique and the folksong feel of some of Hart’s Last Of The Leaves, there isn’t much else I can really get to lodge in my ears. And I have the benefit of having spent some time with Subjekt before the gig.

So if it’s not tunes we get to enjoy, what is it? Well, there is a lot of skill on show. And an awful lot of notes. Hart is the chief note-sprayer, never relying on one half-time run up or down the bars when two double-time ones will do. The similarly youthful Downes and Giles are busy players, too, and – in an effort to match them? or just because he feels like it in this context? – the elder of the band, Sulzmann, often piles the notes up as well.

And then there is the interesting instrumental line-up of the quartet. With no bass and with Downes having a Hammond keyboard atop the mac’s Bösendorfer, he is able to add a Hammond bass line while playing piano with his right. This is fine when the sound balance is right, but if the Hammond booms, as it did in the mac, there is a disconcerting set of low harmonics swirling about and distracting from the treble area of the band. And when he is on piano, and he and Hart and Sulzmann are all saying a lot over Giles’s snare and cymbals, then there really is an awful lot of treble going on. And only treble.

With all this activity and, let me stress, superb instrumental expertise, there is always going to be something moderately interesting to listen to. But there is also the increasing awareness that the band is not going to break through into that area where a gig really takes flight and soars. There is just too much busyness – too much virtuoso flapping – for the thing to get off the ground. And no good tunes to keep it up there.

It’s music I can admire for its sophistication and the expertise needed to play it, but not music that I can feel any affection for. Even the Monk, in the end, is more clever than profound. I’m sure it’s there for some people, that magic mix of connection to head, heart and feet when the music is really happening, and I’m sure the musos – of which there were many in the audience for this Jazzlines concert – are full of awe for those on stage. But I hold my hands up – I just don’t get it.

Categories: Live review

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1 reply

  1. Reminds me of something one of the characters says in Michael Chabon’s new book Telegraph Avenue.
    “Because you know, truth is, I don’t give a shit about some scratched-up vinyl Rahsaan Kirk, Ornette Coleman sound-like-a-goose-trying-to-f***-a-bicycle bootleg pressing from the rare Paris concert of 1967. I spend five minutes listening to that, I’m like to want to slap somebody. I don’t really like any jazz to be honest. The kind of style Mr Jones played, mostly have a steady groove to it, that was all right, but when I get home at the end of the working day, Miller time, put some music on, you know what I like? I like Peabo Bryson.”

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