A short while ago, Gearbox released a critically acclaimed album by saxophonist Alan Wakeman’s Octet, a reissue of two BBC Jazz Club recordings from 1969 and 1979. (See the Jazz Journal review.) As part of the Birmingham Jazz Festival, the octet appeared at 1000 Trades, playing compositions from that album.
In a challenging repertoire, the music swung between composed themes and abstraction, and although arranged, it preserved collective improvisation to a certain degree, the emphasis on unity. In this respect, and in the rich textures of the ensemble passages, it was reminiscent of Charles Mingus’s freer expression of Ellingtonia – at times ragged and edgy, then tightly brought together with the horns giving a big-band sound, Asaf Sirkis assuredly maintaining momentum.
Everyone was given the opportunity to solo. Paul Nieman’s muted trombone slid in fittingly; trumpeter Miguel Gorodi impressed with clarity of tone and soaring flights, notably on Manhattan Variations and on the ballad Just One More Time, with its warm, lush backdrop; John Horler played lyrical piano and was particularly impressive on Forever, his thoughtful inventions moving in and out of Heyman and Young’s When I Fall In Love.
Bassist Arnie Somogyi took the lead in introducing Caro Kann Defence, becoming the pivot around which the musicians revolved. This was also the case on Chaturanga, with its Indian melodic framework, the sopranos of Wakeman and Art Themen, the clarinet of Peter Whyman and Sirkis’s percussive infills emphasising its eastern feel.
At times it was difficult to follow where one composition ended and the next started – but it hardly mattered, given Wakeman’s willingness to mix tempos, cut sections and introduce denser passages, whilst retaining symmetry in the arrangement. A rich tapestry.
Art Themen was also an integral part of the next event: Locomotive is a band named after a Thelonious Monk composition and playing all Monk material, driven by drummer Stu Butterfield, bassist Dave Green and pianist Alcyona Mick.
The features of Monk’s music – time, space and accent – were followed, all essentials pared down then built up, solos developing from a single line. Chris Biscoe took this further with his incisive, hard-biting alto; prompting, making his presence felt with asides, then exploding with blistering pace and expression, especially on Evidence, Well You Needn’t and Bye-ya, which had a noticeably Latin slant.
Perhaps inevitably in such strong and personal material it must be difficult for a pianist not to sound like the great man. However, although Alcyona Mick showed some Monkish touches she put her own imaginative spin on it, as well as shadowing, thoughtfully giving room for other soloists.
Henry Lowther soloed strongly, particularly on Locomotive (Ray Copeland to Art Themen’s Rollins!), whilst Ruby My Dear had passages of great beauty and tenderness from both trumpeter and pianist. Monk’s Dream was an indication of how masterful Themen is with Monk, as was his unaccompanied rendition of Ask Me Now. Appropriately Friday The 13th was played.
A great evening’s music and a credit to organiser Phil Rose and his team.
Alan Wakeman Octet: Wakeman (ts, ss, f); Art Themen (ts, ss); Peter Whyman (ts, as, cl); Miguel Gorodi (t); Paul Nieman (tb); John Horler (p); Arnie Somogyi (b); Asaf Sirkis (d, pc).
Locomotive: Art Themen (ts); Chris Biscoe (as); Henry Lowther (t); Alcyona Mick (p); Dave Green (b); Stu Butterfield (d).
1000 Trades, Birmingham, 13 May 2022.