Dave Holdsworth’s New Brew, Birmingham

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Some years ago Dave Holdsworth was a constant if somewhat underrated presence in jazz, playing and recording with many of the prominent names on the scene – Mike Westbrook, Chris McGregor, Tony Oxley, Mike Osborne, Harry Miller and Lianne Carroll amongst others. He seemed to disappear slightly, having moved to Devon, but our loss was the West Country’s gain and he kept in view with Westbrook’s configurations. Surprising it hasn’t happened before, but his debut album as leader has only recently been released, Wodji on Capton Records, and as a result, he has been promoting it through performances with his band, New Brew.

On March 1st the band appeared at the Birmingham Jazz venue, 1000 Trades, and played many of the titles from album. From the very start a sense of energy and enjoyment pervaded the room. Starting with “Lickety Spliff”, with its African melody and rhythm, each soloist was given space for individual expression, led by Holdsworth’s clear and succinct pocket trumpet. The more laid back “Ten Day Simon” featured Alan Wakeman on soprano, some soulful alto from Roz Harding and a driving momentum from bassist Marcus Vergette and drummer Coach York, who work closely in tandem, seemingly intuitively.

Throughout the evening it was clear that all five musicians were at ease with the material and each other – not surprisingly as all are members of the Westbrook Orchestra – the horns often using single notes in support of others’ solos, not dissimilar to the way Joe Harriott’s “Free Form” group used to, edging in and out of collective playing and relying on group interaction; Holdsworth himself said he likes the idea of surprises and trusts the musicians in varying the tempo, rhythm and harmony, hence the minimal direction given. Like walking on a precipice and teetering; at the final moment, rabbit out of the hat.

It reassuringly crossed that boundary between straight-ahead modern jazz and a freer approach. Not wishing to make too many comparisons, there was a hint of the early Ornette Coleman groups – most obviously by having no piano, which created an openness, and the way opportunities are explored through thematic statements then improvisation, before returning to the theme – yet all the time it retained a firm sense of swing, thanks to York and Vergette. 

Alan Wakeman’s tenor was prominent on “Too Late, Too Late”, with an introductory passage of pure velvet, supported by close harmony horns. A wistful beauty to his playing, reflecting no doubt the title, it could have been a solo from an Ellington era. Holdsworth took delight in mentioning his long-term collaboration with the saxophonist, dating back to his first BBC broadcast under his own name, the Dave Holdsworth Quartet, in 1968.

Westbrook trombonist Joe Carnell sat in for a couple of numbers: “Beefa” (“the nearest that we get to a blues” remarked Holdsworth) that included a suitably tight and muscular tenor solo, and later, “Harambee ll”. But the number that typified the night was “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise” – “we play it like a thunderclap” – and they did; York’s sparklingly energetic lead-in continued with further pyrotechnics and an urgency over which Harding’s dynamic alto soared. 

If the band appears near you, go.