Emotionally and Intellectually Rewarding Jazz in Cardiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  JT Four: Jean Toussaint (tenor and soprano saxophones), Jonathan Gee (piano), Larry Bartley (bass), Troy Miller (drums), Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, 30.1.2015. (GP)

For the jazz-lover who lives in the provinces, at a considerable distance from London, the chance to hear top-class international soloists most often comes (other than in trips to festivals) when they tour alone and play gigs with local rhythm sections. Some of these rhythm sections are very able (and some are not!). But for the touring soloist (and to some extent for the members of rhythm section, although they, at least, can listen to recordings of the soloist they are to accompany) the problem of unfamiliarity remains. The first half of such a gig often seems preoccupied with the attempt to build trust and confidence. Often the solution (of sorts) is found in a degree of caution exercised by all concerned – in choice of repertoire, in the avoidance of that very “sound of surprise” Whitney Balliett saw as the very essence of jazz. The chance, therefore, to hear a major soloist with his own band was a very attractive and valuable one.

Actually things didn’t quite work out like that! Toussaint’s regular pianist Andrew McCormack was absent (for reasons left unexplained) and was replaced by the excellent Jonathan Gee, himself a significant figure on the British jazz scene.

Toussaint was born in the Caribbean in 1960 and was originally brought up in St. Thomas in the US Virgin Isles. He displayed an obvious musical ability from an early age, ability which later led him to study at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in the late 1970s, where his fellow students included other future luminaries such as Branford Marsalis, Donald Harrison and Greg Osby. For a spell beginning in 1979 Toussaint worked in a band with trumpeter Wallace Roney, before joining Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1982, staying there for four years – when his fellow ‘messengers’ included Harrison, Terence Blanchard and Mulgrew Miller. On leaving Blakey, Toussaint moved to London, which has remained his main base ever since. He has taught privately, as well as at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Laban Trinity and Birmingham Conservatoire, while maintaining a high-profile role as a performer. As well as working as a soloist and with his own quartet, he has joined American musicians such as Cedar Walton, Donald Brown, Jeff Watts and Eddie Henderson at festivals and tours across Europe and beyond. Toussaint’s playing, when I have previously heard him live and on record, has not seemed to me startling in its inventiveness, but has impressed by its consistent intensity and passion, by its emotional power. In the most general terms his work descends (without being merely derivative, he seems as much a synthesist as an originator) from such influences as middle-period John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson.

Mood Mode with which the group began its programme, appears on the latest CD by the JT Four, Tate Song. Toussaint’s playing was immediately full of authority and rich presence, his tenor sound large and his lines fluent, with some passages reminiscent of Coltrane’s famous “sheets of sound”. Jonathan Gee, not having been part of the quartet which recorded the album, understandably seemed a little tentative initially, perhaps finding his place in the dynamic of the quartet, establishing a relationship with Bartley and Miller. The attentive listening of drummer Miller, and Bartley’s authoritative assumption of the role of rhythmic fulcrum which he was to sustain throughout the evening, surely made the process easier than it might have been.

A gentler note was struck with Toussaint’s piece written for his 18 year old daughter My dear Ruby. The title’s allusion to Thelonious Monk’s famous composition (Ruby, My Dear) was picked up musically, though not in any crude or superficial fashion. The way in which Toussaint’s opening solo paraphrased and, as it were anagrammatized the tune, was reminiscent of Monk’s way with a standard. Gee’s solo used silence in a quasi-Monish manner and his use of relatively simple reiterated patterns built to a very effective climax. Larry Bartley’s powerful bass solo was one of the highlights of the first half of the concert.

A well-established standard followed – These Foolish Things. Toussaint’s opening statement of the theme was inventive and, without being disrespectful to Jack Strachey’s melody gave it a personal transformation. Gee contributed an attractively percussive solo and Toussaint’s extended solo invoked echoes of a whole host of great tenor players, including Johnny Griffin and Sonny Rollins, the whole evidence of how well Toussaint is schooled in the tradition of his instrument while being able to achieve his own voice and articulate his own ideas and feelings. Toussaint closed the number with a lengthy and virtuosic unaccompanied arabesque, creating a structure which, for all its complexities, was audibly and clearly grounded in the original melody.

The quartet’s first half closed with a reading of Milton Nascimento’s Vera Cruz, in which Toussaint’s affinities with Wayne Shorter were at their most pronounced. Jonathan Gee’s solo contribution – and his work behind Toussaint – were equally impressive, the solo witty and graceful. The work of Bartley and Miller was infectiously rhythmic – what a tremendous foundation both provide, Bartley’s statement of harmonic and rhythmic structures so strong and clear that Miller is freed up to be inventive and crisply decorative as well as prompting and responding to the soloists.

The second half began with a reading of Stella by Starlight (by Victor Young) which Toussaint introduced as a kind of homage to the great Miles Davis Quintet (“a group we all learned – and are still learning from”). Toussaint’s own solo was lengthy and wide-ranging and, if it remembered some of the versions by Davis, such as that recorded in 1958 with Coltrane on tenor sax and Bill Evans at the piano, was not in any way confined by it. Toussaint’s solo realised a number of striking ideas and hinted at further possibilities which had, necessarily, to be left unrealised. Gee’s solo here seemed closer to the work of the young Herbie Hancock than to the playing of, say, Evans. In the closing re-statement of the theme, there were some very effective double-time passages (of precisely the kind difficult – if not impossible – for the touring soloist and a local rhythm section to bring off so successfully). Toussaint’s own composition Mulgrew followed – written in tribute to his erstwhile colleague, the pianist Mulgrew Miller who died in May of 2013. Toussaint’s well-structured and impassioned piece (and the same adjectives might just as well be applied to his solo) benefitted from some alert and supportive work from Gee, Bartley and Miller. The whole was emotionally intense, but also beautifully controlled, passion disciplined by a profound sense of form. It was very definitely one of the highlights of the evening.

Toussaint dropped out for the next number, leaving the rest of the quartet to play a trio version of Jonathan Gee’s tune Cicada (which he recorded on his album Dragonfly). After an unaccompanied piano introduction, Gee developed some complex, yet lucid, patterns, working splendidly with Bartley and Miller, any earlier tentativeness long since forgotten. Toussaint returned, picking up his soprano sax for the first time, for the concert’s lengthy closing number (to which I couldn’t put a name, though I had the feeling that I ought to have been able to do so). Toussaint’s work on soprano was perhaps more unpredictable than his playing of the tenor, as if there were moments when even he was slightly (and pleasantly) surprised by where he found himself, musically speaking. Miller’s work at the drums, good all evening, was outstanding here, assertive, but always with a clear sense of the larger needs of the group and the material, never merely egotistically so. His long polyrthymic solo was memorable and seemed to stimulate Toussaint to a fascinating closing statement, full of dancing motifs and circling energy.

A programme which referenced – in title or idiom – Monk, Miles Davis, Milton Nascimento, the Great American Songbook, Wayne Shorter, hard bop and Mulgrew Miller – but which never felt merely academic – made for a musically, intellectually and emotionally rewarding evening of top-class jazz.

Glyn Pursglove

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