Tuesday, April 01, 2003


There were no April Fools at Ronnie Scott's in London last night. Instead we were presented with an intriguing and contrasting double-bill featuring Bill Bruford's Earthworks (as previously touted in NFE) and the Sheena Davis Group.

Earthworks have definitely found a new trajectory with the addition of sax polymath and composer Tim Garland to the line-up, replacing the more-than-respectable Patrick Clahar. Garland is one of the leading new lights of European jazz and continues to dep for Chick Corea from time to time, having been in a recent line-up of Origin. His writing skills were in evidence last night with 'Basso del Sol' (showing the rich mellifluousness of the bass clarinet, a less than usual instrument in jazz) and 'White Knuckle Wedding'. The latter pulses along in eleven and features a slit drum. Bruford, the co-writer, continues to enjoy elastic beats that expand the harmonic possibilities for other intruments. The tune also has, as he noted, both Balkan and Latin influences. At times, like much of Earthworks' output, it dangles precariously on the precipice of rupture, while paradoxically retaining a highly formulated sense of cohesion. More generally, the band often sound like they're letting it all hang out, but there is cool calculation at the heart of what they do.

Other highlights of the first, hour-long set included 'The Sound of Surprise' (the title track of the band's last-but-one album on Discipline Global Mobile) and 'The Wooden Man Sings And The Stone Woman Dances'. The set ended with 'Beelzebub', re-arranged from 'Bruford's 'Feels Good To Me' to incorporate soprano sax in place of electric guitar. If you haven't heard them, Earthworks are as elliptical in musical form as they are in choice of title, but they also combine experimentation with melodic freshness. Steve Hamilton (piano) and Mark Hodgson (bass) are more than proficient in their own roles. Bruford seems to be enjoying himself more than ever. And Garland has made the inherited pieces his own while constantly moving the repertoire forward. The overall combination is sparky and organic. This is the acoustic jazz quartet re-inventing itself for the twenty first century. I wish I'd been able to stay for the second set (1.15 - 2.15 am!).

Sheena Davis, meanwhile, is a versatile and expressive singer who is building a solid reputation in and beyond the London circuit (tour details here). Her songbook includes standards from the early years of jazz, popular melodies re-worked, and new material -- about which she seems less than entirely confident, though it is well crafted. When the pace picked up the tightness and agility of Steve Holness (piano), Robert Rickenberg (bass) and Pete Cater (drums) shone through. In more reflective mood they made 'A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square' sound as if it had been written yesterday -- and ended up with a glorious take on 'In A Sentimental Mood'. Some of the material is at home in the lounge, but the performance has feeling, texture and subtlety. The new album, 'Young At Heart' (Jazzit, 2003) is just out, and the previous one was understandably (on this showing) called 'Smile' (2001). The fact that Davis can attract the involvement of stalwart musicians such as Jim Mullen and Guy Barker speaks volumes.

All in all a wonderful evening. Bill and Sheena continue to double up through to Saturday 5 April at Ronnie's: well worth a visit if you are in the vicinity.

No comments: