Review: Ben Thomas & Jim Blomfield

Trumpeter Ben Thomas echoed the quiet minimalism of Miles Davis, Kenny Wheeler and Chet Baker in his set at Black Mountain Jazz in Abergavenny, says Nigel Jarrett

Were it not for the dangers of self-fulfilling prophecy, one might reasonably consider that what trumpeter Ben Thomas calls his "dark side" is the inspiration and accompaniment to a state of being that might be illustrated by additional means elsewhere – graphics and visuals, for example.

On the showing at this, the last gig in Black Mountain Jazz's 2017 programme, and with a band to whom division of labour came naturally, Thomas seemed to delight in opening a door on to something that was not fully explained but was intriguing nonetheless. "Dark" can mean several things, from French "noir" and its psychological undertones presaging misdeeds of some kind, to "blue", the jazz musician's lingua franca for a melancholic or perturbed spirit, the latter not so much a "side" as an abiding mood. And, true to suspicion, Thomas does work with video, pictures and music, often in collaboration with the visual artist Robyn Hobbs and in close proximity on the same stage. Not here though.

We are talking extra dimensions to music that always hit the right register, albeit largely subdued, and when not subdued then with a smooth internal mechanism. The other members of the quartet were Jim Blomfield (piano), Pasquale Votino (bass), and Paolo Adamo (drums). Its trick, successfully performed in a set of original compositions with a standard thrown in (It Could Happen To You) and a take on David Bowie's Bring Me The Disco King, was to construct varying compositional patterns – Achilles Heel, Mother Earth, Snowmaiden - and by that token always to create an air of expectancy. Thomas's introduction to that Jimmy Van Heusen tune was, and I paraphrase, "As this is a jazz club, we'll play a standard". Speaking, as it were, from the shadows (the dark side), it might have been said with no little irony, jazz having moved on from what jazz club members used to demand and expect, sometimes boorishly.

Thomas's trumpet was now and then attached to an AGR pick-up for extra unison depth, giving him a device in keeping with the tone and temperament of the particular charts. That said, it was Miles, Chet, Kenny Wheeler (in the odd roulade-like flourish) and maybe a few other quiet minimalists who echoed in his work, though these were filtered into a style that owed nothing specific to any of them. It was certainly cool.

Another of the band's achievements was to allow the drumming of Adamo to boil and swirl like a presence beneath the surface, capable of breaking out but knowing its compositional place and controlling events in no small measure; Votino, too, showed how leveraging himself into as much of the foreground as the instrument could realistically occupy in quieter tunes – e.g., Longest Night, Sea Song – could maintain the quartet's equivalence. Blomfield's solos and interpolations were classic examples of a musician adapting to the environment, with hints now and then of a more capacious grasp of keyboard capabilities. In other settings, maybe, and with an imagination not tied to Thomas's explorations of the sombre, however eloquent they turned out to be, he's doubtless a different prospect.

The only drawback for jazz musicians in exploring their moody sides is the danger that the playing might lapse into the laconic. That's OK if the surroundings are relatively more upbeat – as in Billie Holiday's late slurred vocals in the company of Edison, Webster et al – but Thomas had enough about him to make sure he was taking the others along and introducing them to a side that wasn't really dark at all but tunefully introspective. Or introspectively tuneful.

The band attracted one of the biggest BMJ turnouts of the season. Many in the audience had seen these musicians before, a sure indication of fans wanting a reprise.

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