Greg Abate’s Blast of Bebop and Beyond at Stratford-upon-Avon

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Greg Abate, Ben Muirhead and Nathan England-Jones at Stratford-upon-Avon

For some time now, the Birmingham Conservatoire has produced outstanding young jazz musicians, under the tutelage of eminent figures like Clark Tracey, Liam Noble and others. Three in particular have been establishing themselves as a solid working unit – pianist Elliott Sansom, bassist Ben Muirhead and drummer Nathan England-Jones – and this week saw them backing American alto saxophonist Greg Abate, in the UK for one of his now regular tours.

It wasn’t at the usual venue of the Stratford Playhouse, but a last-minute change to the United Reformed Church, next door. This trio has backed Abate for his visits to the Midlands the past two years, so it took them little time to re-establish a rapport and get used once again to Abate’s fast, inventive and direct approach. It did take a while to get used to the acoustics, which tended to be echoey and slightly lost in the large upper expanses of the church. A pity the Playhouse’s house grand that Sansom used last year couldn’t have been purloined, but he seemed to adjust his keyboard after the first number or two, which helped the sound.

‘…it makes you wonder why Greg Abate’s name isn’t more prominent – he’s an exciting player of great skill and passion’

The hard-driving Abate led the trio through a mixed programme of standards, ballads, bebop and selections from his newest release Gratitude (reviewed recently in JJ), stretching, prompting, cajoling and encouraging the young rhythm section into a fine collective performance. Their solos were thoughtful and well constructed. Abate demonstrated his ability as a fine interpreter of ballads; silky smooth on Hazy Moon; extended solo coda on Darn That Dream; introductory cadence on Moonlight In Vermont (which he recorded with Phil Woods on their album Kindred Spirits), and on which his long solo run suitably nudged into Paper Moon and Muirhead’s solo explored the full range of the bass, with skilful accuracy in the higher notes.

Bebop was represented in the form of Charlie Parker’s Steeplechase and Yardbird Suite. England-Jones’s drumming was busy throughout, not afraid to change tempo midstream, often at the leader’s instigation – no mean feat given the speed of delivery at times.

But it was Sansom’s impressive contribution that caught the attention. His solos varied between a bluesy feel (possibly a reflection of his early liking for Ray Charles, coincidentally with whose orchestra Abate was lead alto in the early 70s) and breaking up the melody to venture into abstraction whilst retaining a rhythmic impetus, with the assurance that the others were right there, making entry back into the theme apparently seamless. His solo on Joe Henderson’s Inner Urge had a 60s Herbie Hancock feel, whilst Body & Soul moved from something approaching minimalism to florid embellishments.

Abate’s Farewell Phil Woods was an affectionate tribute to his late friend and collaborator, played with deep personal feeling. An enjoyable evening of straight-ahead modern jazz and it makes you wonder why Greg Abate’s name isn’t more prominent – he’s an exciting player of great skill and passion. Only one more week of this tour but look out for his return next July.

Greg Abate’s Blast of Bebop and Beyond. United Reformed Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, Wednesday 13 November 2019