CLARK TRACEY QUINTET
SATURDAY 12th APRIL 2014
Another sell out gig at The Hive with the marvellous Clark Tracey Quintet
See this very generous review by Ian Mann – The Jazz Man
SATURDAY 22nd MARCH 2014
“Ian Mann enjoys a live performance by saxophonist and composer Jean Toussaint and his long running quartet. He also takes a look at their new album "Tate Song".
Jean Toussaint 4, The Hive Music & Media Centre, Shrewsbury, 22/03/2014.
Saxophonist, composer and educator Jean Toussaint was born in St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands in 1957 and took up the tenor saxophone while still at high school. He subsequently studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston and later moved to New York where he worked with many of that city’s leading jazz musicians. Toussaint was famously a member of the late, great Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, staying for four years (1982-86) and playing alongside musicians of the calibre of trumpeters Terence Blanchard and Wallace Roney, alto saxophonists Donald Harrison and Kenny Garrett, pianist Mulgrew Miller and bassists Peter Washington and Lonnie Plaxico. He still maintains close links with members of his “Jazz Messengers family”.
In 1987 Toussaint was invited to teach at the Guildhall School of Music in London and found that he liked the city so much that he decided to make it his base. In the years since Toussaint has become a much loved figure on the UK jazz scene both as a performer and an educator (he also teaches at Birmingham Conservatoire, Trinity Laban and the Royal Academy of Music). His recordings and live performances have featured both British and American musicians and Toussaint has two major projects planned for 2015 which will honour the memory of his former mentor Art Blakey in the year of the 25th anniversary of Blakey’s death.
In the meantime Toussaint has just released a new album on Irish drummer David Lyttle’s Lyte record label. Entitled “Tate Song” it features Toussaint’s long running working quartet, credited here as the Jean Toussaint 4. Besides the leader on tenor and soprano saxes the group includes the brilliant pianist Andrew McCormack, double bassist Larry Bartley and in demand drummer Troy Miller. These four formed the core band on Toussaint’s excellent 2009 live recording “Live in Paris & London” (Space Time Records), a set that amply demonstrates the quality and excitement of Toussaint’s live shows.
Those qualities were very much in evidence tonight in front of a capacity audience at The Hive. I’ve never seen the venue so full and although this caused a certain degree of chaos and congestion in the foyer it was great to see so many people supporting jazz in the town. This was the second sold out event of the week in Shrewsbury following the excellent (but very different) performance by Tcha Limberger’s Budapest Gypsy Orchestra at the Shrewsbury Coffeehouse the previous Monday. It’s probably fair to say that The Hive has been the beneficiary of the axing of the jazz programme at The Edge in nearby Much Wenlock. An upright piano had been brought in for McCormack’s use and although not quite as impressive as the grand hired for a recent show by Liam Noble it still sounded good, a vast improvement over even the best electric models.
“Tate Song” features liner notes by Toussaint’s old musical sparring partner Julian Joseph and the distinctive artwork of Gina Jennings. The programme consists of five Toussaint originals plus two pieces from the pen of McCormack, all of which were heard tonight, plus Milton Nascimento’s “Vera Cruz” and the standard “These Foolish Things” .
Tonight’s performance began with the album opener “Mood Mode”, a Toussaint original that found him paying homage to the modal jazz style pioneered by John Coltrane. Joseph’s liner notes describe it as “a medium tempo groove over a minor pedal into a short seven bar swing release with chord changes”. Whatever the technicalities of the piece this provided the springboard for strong opening solo statements from both Toussaint and McCormack above Miller’s fluid polyrhythmic flow and Bartley’s sturdy underpinning bass. Toussaint sounded authentically Coltrane-esque and the always interesting McCormack maintained a good balance between the hands by including some strong, attention grabbing left hand figures during the course of the first of many hugely imaginative solos. The piece closed with a feature for the excellent Miller, a final focus for the swing and energy he brings to this group. I’ve also seen Miller fairly recently (Brecon Jazz Festival 2013) bringing his rhythmic drive to bear in the very different bands of Soweto Kinch and Roy Ayers.
After the increasingly fiery opener the next item was more reflective in mood. “My Dear Ruby” is Toussaint’s dedication to his now seventeen year old daughter but knowledgeable jazz fans will also note the homage to Thelonious Monk alluded to in the title. The late, great pianist and composer is a particular Toussaint favourite and the saxophonist has recorded several of Monk’s pieces in the past.
Toussaint’s own tune brought out a more lyrical side to both his and McCormack’s playing and there was also a superb feature from Larry Bartley, a musician I hadn’t seen play in a small group context for far too long (Ingrid Laubrock’s “Phorensic” group back in 2006!).
“Mulgrew” was Toussaint’s tribute to the late pianist Mulgrew Miller (1955-2013), his former Jazz Messengers colleague. One might have expected a tender ballad or lament but instead this piece contained some of the spikiest “out” playing of the set, an unexpected nudging of the avant garde that was exploratory and relatively unstructured but not without soul and feeling on a piece that was essentially a feature for the leader’s insistently probing tenor.
An aside – I saw Miller give an excellent performance with his trio featuring bassist Ivan Taylor and drummer Rodney Green at the 2007 Brecon Jazz Festival. I’m glad I got the opportunity to see this top class musician, whose premature death following a stroke represented a tragedy for the entire jazz community.
Toussaint revealed that pianist McCormack is now living in Brooklyn, although Andrew later told me that he’s living a very Trans-Atlantic life, he’s back in the UK next month touring with bassist Kyle Eastwood. It was McCormack’s superb composition “Vista” which closed the first set, a real highlight that opened with a wonderfully absorbing dialogue between the composer at the piano and Bartley on brilliantly bowed bass. Toussaint sat on about the only spare chair in the house and watched his colleagues appreciatively from among the audience. Bartley subsequently put down the bow and soloed pizzicato for a while before the pair were subsequently joined by Miller and eventually by Toussaint who had switched to soprano which he played in keening, Coltrane-esque style, stating the theme before leaving the way clear for McCormack’s solo which developed from the circling two chord vamp around which the tune is based into something far more expansive, lyrical at first but then taking on a percussive, Monkish energy culminating in a series of powerful block chords, these fuelled by Miller’s explosive drumming and Bartley’s muscular underpinning bass. Toussaint’s biting, squiggling soprano solo maintained the energy levels, again recalling Coltrane’s playing on the straight horn, before the quartet gradually wound things down to bring the piece full circle and end with a gently lyrical coda. Despite its simple beginnings this was a piece with a strong narrative arc and a real sense of drama. It’s the final piece on the record and a real live and album highlight.
The second set began with Toussaint’s “Rice (For CR Peppers)”, a dedication to one of his buddies from his Boston days. Essentially hard bop in style it began with a series of quick fire exchanges between tenor, piano and drums before a sparky Toussaint solo incorporating a quote from the Wayne Shorter composition “Water Babies”. On this high energy tune McCormack’s solo was suitably rollicking, full of melodic and harmonic invention. Bartley’s solo bass feature demonstrated both muscularity and musicality and following a somewhat abstract group passage Miller’s drum feature was typically incendiary, triggering in turn a final tenor salvo from the leader.
“Tate Song” itself is Toussaint’s dedication to his twenty four year old singer songwriter son, now resident in Santa Cruz, California. It’s closer to a true ballad than the tune written for his daughter, albeit one with a very contemporary staggered sense of time which gives the piece an air of abstraction. Toussaint emoted soulfully above the scrabble of Miller’s drums and essentially this was his feature, with the exception of an economical solo from McCormack.
The pianist came into his own as the other band members left the stage for McCormack to deliver a stunning solo version of the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn composition “Prelude To A Kiss”. McCormack’s interpretation was exact and thoughtful with a very contemporary use of space and a subtle sense of harmonic adventure. He played with great sensitivity and the results were frequently beautiful. This unexpected bonus (it doesn’t appear on the “Tate Song” album) was rapturously received by an appreciative Shrewsbury audience.
The JT4’s interpretation of Brazilian singer songwriter Milton Nascimento took the composer’s gorgeous melody and added a modal jazz twist to the rhythms of the samba with expansive solos from Toussaint and McCormack, at first reflective but later more more forceful as tension was built and released. At one point Toussaint’s tenor whinnied impatiently as Miller replied with a lively commentary from the drums before everything was resolved with a return to Nascimento’s lilting melody.
The second set concluded, as the first had done, with a composition from the pen of pianist McCormack. “Tunnel Vision” proved to be medium tempo blues that variously recalled the music of Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman and the Blue Note label in general. There was an extended passage of playing in saxophone trio mode with Toussaint’s playing reminiscent of Sonny Rollins, highly appropriate given Toussaint’s birthplace of St. Thomas and with the island also lending its name to one of Rollins’ most famous tunes). With Bartley and Miller providing a restless, relentless rhythmic drive Toussaint really took the opportunity to cut loose as McCormack rose from the piano and paused to admire the work of his colleagues. Eventually the composer returned to the piano for an equally bravura solo of his own , urged on by Miller’s powerful but crisp drumming and Bartley’s muscular bass. Perspiration broke out on Bartley’s brow during an extended passage of solo bass (McCormack wore a woolly hat all evening, he must have been baking) before Miller took over for a drum feature punctuated by sax and bass. Finally it was back to the Rollins style trio as Toussaint took his last solo of the evening, blowing up a storm behind McCormack’s piano vamp and Miller’s propulsive back-beat.
Despite a rapturous reception from the capacity crowd this was it for the evening although the band members spent a long time chatting with members of the audience post gig. Toussaint was careful to thank bassist Chris Levin and drummer Tony Bianco who were both in the audience. Hilary Hannaford of promoters Shropshire Jazz Network pronounced herself delighted with the both the audience turn out and the quality of the music on one of SJN’s most successful nights. It is to be hoped that this will be repeated on April 12th 2014 when drummer and band leader Clark Tracey will visit The Hive with his quintet. There will be a degree of continuity as Clark will be fulfilling his “British Art Blakey” role by leading a band packed with emerging jazz talent including the remarkable young pianist Reuben James. “Another biggie” as Hilary put it.
In the meantime “Tate Song” is well worth a listen. The quartet played virtually all of it tonight, the exception being their version of “These Foolish Things”, on album played at a pace slightly faster than a true ballad but with plenty of feeling and with Miller deploying brushes throughout.
The quartet are still touring the album visit http://www.jeantoussaint.com for details of forthcoming events.