Art Themen / Dave Barry Quartet: Hanky Panky

Doctor jazz plays Ellington, Monk, Joe Henderson, Bronisław Kaper and more in a 2019 session with Gareth Williams, Dave Green and Dave Barry

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Tenor and soprano saxophonist Art Themen (born in 1939) has been a major figure on the British jazz scene for over 50 years. He attended Manchester Grammar School and then studied medicine at Cambridge and at St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School, Paddington, but jazz was his first love and he has said “I decided that I could continue to practise [orthopaedic] medicine and play saxophone.”

His early influences were Sonny Rollins and Dexter Gordon, but he also imbibed the styles and musical vocabulary of Coleman Hawkins, Parker and Coltrane. He has played with such major figures as Stan Tracey (for over 20 years), George Coleman, Al Haig, Bud Shank, Charlie Rouse and Nat Adderley. His most recent musical relationship has been with the talented drummer Dave Barry, who arranged this excellent session at short notice when another session planned at the Red Gables Studio in London fell through.

Themen was fortunate to also secure the services of the accomplished pianist Gareth Williams and of bassist Dave Green, who moved from skiffle to jazz in the exalted company of Humphrey Lyttelton and later became resident bassist at Ronnie Scott’s). As Barry relates in a brief introductory note: “It says a lot about these musicians that we recorded everything in a day. Just a quick run through and away we went.” Every track on this album confirms his assessment.

The quartet spring into telepathic action on The Night Has A Thousand Eyes, with Themen (on tenor) wringing every nuance out of the melody. Barry, Williams (who has an extended quick-silver solo) and Green obviously enjoyed the outing. Dexter Gordon’s composition Hanky Panky rolls along in 4/4 time with Williams again demonstrating his pianistic prowess. Art delivers a semi-boppish treatment of the theme, before Green and Barry offer their distinctive contributions.

Joe Henderson’s haunting Black Narcissus features Themen on soprano sax, with sympathetic backing from his colleagues. Duke Ellington’s stunning Prelude To A Kiss has Themen playing a long and tender tenor solo followed by introspective contributions from Williams and Green. An uptempo rendition of Monk’s I Mean You has him playfully exploring the lower registers of the tenor, while Vincent Youmans’ Without A Song receives a more “mainstream” interpretation. Williams again shines, before Themen and Barry combine to play the tune to everyone’s obvious satisfaction.

Invitation (the longest cut at 8.16) has a ruminative solo from Art and a well-sprung solo from Green. Solid, the last track, a Sonny Rollins composition, is deftly remoulded to Themen’s specifications, without losing the spirit of the original. Green, Williams and Barry add to the rich mixture, with the latter providing a gently percussive solo before Art closes the proceedings.

As the above comments are meant to convey, this is a superb session that repays repeated listening. I had the good fortune to hear (and talk to) Themen, who was appearing “live” at a pub in Lewes four years ago. He sounded amazingly good then and there’s no reduction in quality here.

Discography
The Night Has A Thousand Eyes; Hanky Panky; Black Narcissus; Prelude To A Kiss; I Mean You; Without A Song; Invitation; Solid (52.19)
Themen (ts, ss); Gareth Williams (p); Dave Green (b); Barry (d). London, 23 April 2019.
Trio Records tr606