Karen Sharp Quartet at 1000 Trades, Birmingham

The Karen Sharp Quartet, Birmingham, February 2020: Nikki Iles, Dave Green, Karen Sharp and Steve Brown. Photo by Matthew Wright

If you’re looking for a more evocative sound of saxophone playing you’d have to go a long way to find someone better than Karen Sharp for a blend of subtlety, force and sheer beauty of tone. At the Birmingham Jazz venue, 1000 Trades, she had the advantage of first rate collaboration in the form of pianist Nikki Iles, bassist Dave Green and Steve Brown on drums.

This quartet has been playing together, off and on, for 10 years and their ease of communication and rapport was apparent, both in the way they supported each other’s solos and in their interaction during ensemble passages.

The material was a good mixture of familiar and less well-known numbers, but showed their leaning towards certain styles. A feature of Karen Sharp’s playing is the way she handles a ballad – thoughtful, expressive, with clarity and great technique. This was particularly evident on Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most and on the Bill Evans composition, Interplay, on which she played baritone. Elements of Evans’ influence were in Nikki Iles’ solo on this – softly bubbling underneath the rhythm at the start, then gradually developing from impressionistic minimalism towards greater assertion through extended lines and a brief passage of blocked chords. As near a perfect rendition as you could get.

The piano introduced another Evans composition, Show-Type Tune, which was notable for Brown’s chattering brushwork and a solid bass line from Green, who has long been the UK’s foremost bass player. The two have formed a close association over the years. This empathy also extends to the others and as a group they show real connection and enjoyment in playing. None more so than on Monk’s Pannonica, on which both Sharp and Iles used trills, dissonance and deconstruction of the theme, reflecting the composer’s humour and sensitivity, the full-sounded tenor particularly suited to this interpretation of Monk.

Sharp and Iles were also featured on Luiz Eca’s The Dolphin, made famous by Stan Getz, and the saxophonist switched from tenor to baritone for Lee Konitz’s Thinging and for Bobby Wellins’ tribute to Clifford Brown, CUCB, a blues march led by some agile and proficient work from Steve Brown.

It’s a shame that this quartet doesn’t have more gigs, but it is playing the Vortex in London on 21 May, so take the opportunity to go. Meanwhile, the Nikki Iles Orchestra (including Sharp) tours this spring. It’s also worth investigating the Birmingham Jazz listing for their interesting and adventurous programme.

Karen Sharp Quartet at 1000 Trades, Birmingham. 28 February 2020