Gig review: John Fleming Quartet

The Ort Cafe, Balsall Heath, Birmingham UK

“I’m so sorry – late for my own gig!” were the tenor saxophonist’s opening words to the small audience in this marvellously rough and ready little cafe. But Fleming and pianist Andy Bunting had a perfectly valid excuse – they were rehearsing The Notebenders, the community big band begun by the late Andy Hamilton – Birmingham’s young jazz players are anything but slackers.

The quartet – double bassist Nick Jurd and drummer Jonathan Silk had already set up – were on the money from the first note of an untitled Fleming composition. The saxophonist favours patterns made up of quick partial scales, collected into cascades and waterfalls of notes, and he uses these not only in his improvisations but in his compositions too. He even builds them into his arrangements of other people’s tunes – John Coltrane’s Giant Steps or Thelonious Monk’s ‘Round Midnight, for example.

This gives his playing and the band’s sound an identifiable character and highly adaptable building blocks for all kinds of melodic excitement. Bunting, on particularly good form, took full advantage with some searing solos, his sense of improvisational architecture never compromised by the speed of his playing.

And then there is the rhythmic sophistication of the band. Take an original like Homestead – the band explored all kinds of grooves in the course of its generous length, giving it an almost suite-like nature. Sometimes it seemed like Jurd was determining a new accent to the beat, sometimes Bunting or Silk gave it a fresh propulsive direction, and all the while Fleming blew hard over them, adapting to each new vista in the sonic landscape. Superb stuff.

The band dug even deeper in the second set, though some balladic relief was provided with Darn That Dream, which featured a beautifully articulated statement of the melody from Fleming, and a solo which subtly blended in his particular improvisational style while never leaving the melody very far away.

It’s on nights like this that I am reminded how very lucky I am – and how very lucky Birmingham is – to have such creative, hard-working and bloody talented musicians living and playing here. These men – both Fleming and Silk are Scottish – were drawn here by Birmingham Conservatoire’s jazz course and the fact that they have chosen to stay after graduation and contribute to the artistic wealth of this city is something we should all give thanks for.

A richly rewarding evening which, earlier, had also included a good chunk of the Chris Gumbley Quintet doing their Cannonball Adderley thing in the Symphony Hall foyer bar. Fine playing from all, particularly alto player Chris and his son, Dan Nicholls, another Conservatoire grad, whose solo on Bobby Timmons’ Dat Dere was a highlight of the session.

Categories: Live review

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