By John Watson
The Red Lion, Jewellery Quarter, Birmingham UK
What a delight it is when an already accomplished musician reaches a whole new level of musical achievement. It’s been two years since I last heard Bristol-based saxophonist and composer Kevin Figes. His work was thoroughly enjoyable at that time, but he demonstrated that he has taken “giant steps” forward as an imaginative composer when his Septet appeared at the Red Lion as part of the JQ Jazz Legends Festival.
The group was originally billed as a sextet, with singer Emily Wright, tenor saxophonist Nick Dover, bass guitarist Jeff Spencer, pianist Jim Blomfield and drummer Mark Whitlam. However, the addition of singer Cathy Jones to the group was a welcome surprise, for the combined voices of Cathy and Emily added a delightful sheen to the front-line sounds of Figes’ alto and Dover’s tenor.
This was immediately evident in the opening number Time Being, the title track of Figes’ octet album on Pig Records, which he announced as a salute to the style of the late Kenny Wheeler, whose blend of trumpet in unison with the voice of Norma Winstone graced countless ensemble performances.
Figes’ own ensemble was powered by a superb rhythm section, with Whitlam’s drums chattering devilishly away as Spencer firmly held the bass roots and Blomfield – always a delight to hear – shuffled the harmonies with expertise on electric keyboard.
Another excellent tribute from the septet was to the later quintet work of Miles Davis, with Figes’ composition Petit Plats, which opened with a gently funky section (invoking the Miles Filles de Kilimanjaro album) pivoted around Spencer’s bass guitar, before developing the harder edge we associate with Davis’s Live Evil band.
Figes’ composition Bird Song, based on the tones of an unknown bird he once heard, provided the opportunity for some free playing, with the voices of Jones and Wright fluttering and twittering effectively. The voices were also strong in the final two pieces, Voices And Reeds (which is self-explanatory) and the driving Loft Space, the latter influenced by the work of Soft Machine.
Earlier, saxophonist Mark Hamilton fronted a tribute to the work of the late Joe Harriott with From Scratch, featuring guitarist Ralph DeCambre, bassist Stuart Barker and the superb Miles Levin on drums. Harriott’s pieces, including Hum Dono and Akki were enjoyable and played with spirit, with DeCambre demonstrating that (as in Joe’s recordings with Amancio D’Silva) improvising on the guitar can sometimes be as effective with extensive used of chord movements as with long single lines based on scales.
But would it have been a more enjoyable gig with a more focused presentation? Would it have been valuable to remind the audience about Harriott’s astonishing pioneering work – in its many phases – and how the saxophonist became disgracefully neglected in his lifetime?
Categories: Live review