Review: Nigel Thomas Quartet
The Nigel Thomas Quartet's performance at the South Coast Jazz Festival set the Brighton audience on fire with its life-affirming music, according to Michael Tucker
Now in its third year, the South Coast Jazz Festival is bigger and better than ever. The two-week programme (16 to 29 January) ranged from Ray Gelato's Giants and Claire Martin to Dennis Rollins's FUNKY–FUNK! and Zoe Rahman, and from Alec Dankworth's Spanish Accents and J-Sonics to Terry Seabrook's Triversion and the Jim Mullen Organ Trio. For all its diversity and expanded size, both the programming and the venues of the festival retain the distinctive character and scale that have already marked out this event as one of the most refreshing things to happen on the south coast for quite some while.
A significant development this year is that the organisers decided to expand the festival from its home base at the excellent Ropetackle Arts Centre in Shoreham to embrace also The Verdict club in Brighton. Since opening a few years ago, this intimate space at 159 Edward St, not far from the seafront, has become a key venue for top quality contemporary jazz of various stripes. And it was at a sold-out Verdict that I caught what is surely one of the best bands in Britain just now, the Nigel Thomas Quartet (pictured right), this South Coast Jazz Festival appearance serving as a launch for their new album Hidden. It's worth noting that one of the reasons the evening was so enjoyable was the quality of the sound system, set up and supervised by that fine saxophonist Julian Nicholas and pitched at just the right volume (i.e., not too loud: other venues, please note!).
A most accomplished bassist and composer, the Brighton-based Thomas has long been a staple member of the city's popular Blues Corporation. Over the years he has led an impressive variety of freshly conceived modern-mainstream groups, featuring quality musicians such as the aforementioned Nicholas, Joe Robinson and Byron Wallen. The Hidden album showcases Thomas's most arresting group to date, featuring Paul Booth (ts, ss, bcl, f), Mark Edwards (p) and Winston Clifford (d). Thomas, Edwards and Clifford have worked together, on and off, for many years: enjoy the spot-on empathy they display on Thomas's fine late-1990s album Yoichi, where the music (all composed by Thomas) embraces driving hard-bop, medium cookers, questing ballads and modal moods, as well as the floating, Eastern-touched tenderness of the title track.
Excellent as Yoichi remains, the music of Hidden represents a major step-up in Thomas's career. Mixed with a couple of numbers from Yoichi, it formed the core of two sets of top-quality fare at The Verdict, with Thomas (pictured left) mainly pizzicato but also offering some affecting passages of atmospheric arco. Framed by an opening, elegant reading of the blues-rinsed Oliver Nelson classic Stolen Moments and a concluding, joyously stomping take on Coleman Hawkins's Bird Of Prey Blues, the music consistently had the packed and knowledgeable house at The Verdict on fire.
The beauty of Thomas's current band is that it is just that: a genuine band with four strong individuals blending brilliantly to offer music as soaked in mellow, archetypal jazz values as it is fresh and invigorating. At times, some of the codas to the various pieces had the sort of measured depth of spread sound and focused spiritual conviction one associates with the great Coltrane quartet of the early 1960s - and yet the music was as fresh as the proverbial tomorrow. Winston Clifford, the engine room of the group, studied with Bill Eyden and Trevor Tomkins and has a CV as long as my arm, including work with Courtney Pine, Andy Sheppard, Iain Ballamy and Gary Bartz. Never mind Britain: is there a better drummer anywhere in the world today? Clifford's rock-solid yet ever-flowing time, combined with the utmost dynamic imagination and subtlety, was a joy throughout. Whether using stick, brush or hand, his simultaneous precision and flexibility of touch and tone, rhythmic accent and colouristic filigree recalled (but never imitated) the snap-crackle of Roy Haynes, the story-telling clarity of Ed Blackwell and the all-round imagination of Brian Blades.
As noted above Clifford, Thomas and Edwards go back a long way. Whether negotiating a quirky, Wellins-like line such as What The Butler Saw, working out on the rolling grooves of Hidden and the ostinato-pumped Dark Light or caressing the reflective Another World and Seeker Of The Way (all Thomas originals) they drew many a captivating line from Booth. The saxophonist was, simply, superb throughout. With associations which range from Michael Janisch to Steve Winwood and Ernesto Simpson, his technical quality and refreshing breadth of imagination were quickly apparent. He cooked hard on tenor with a full and authoritative sound, but also told some deep stories; cut up rough and tough, a touch like mid-to-late Coltrane, but also delivered the most tender of soprano figures, as on the achingly lovely Yoichi. As on the late-1990s recording this drew a special, spaciously cast solo from Edwards who elsewhere was in typically coruscating, rhythmically invigorating form, his diversely conceived, ever-attentive support and variegated solos richly appreciated by all.
For my money (and yes, I did pay to get in) you can't get much better, life-affirming music than this. The Nigel Thomas Quartet deserves to go far: certainly, I hope they can build on this terrific appearance at the South Coast Jazz Festival and come to delight many a club and festival audience, both here and abroad.
Photos by Lisa Wormsley
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