Malija @ The Everyman Studio Theatre

Ever since music stands started to appear on stage there has been a fierce debate as to whether, as an improvised art form, there is a place for the written score in jazz. Purists argue that there isn’t; others take a more laissez-faire attitude. Whichever side you come down on must surely depend upon the results, i.e. whether the music as a whole makes sense to the listener.

Malija – Mark Lockheart, Liam Noble and Jasper Hoiby – test that theory to the max. Playing entirely original compositions, the trio negotiate their way through a series of complex arrangements involving curious chord progressions and tricksy technique. That’s not to say that the music is devoid of charm – some of Lockheart’s melodies are shot through with a wistful melancholy that would melt even the hardest heart. Noble’s keyboard touch is exquisite at times, and Hoiby’s rich bass tones put one in mind of Charlie Haden at his best.

The opener, ‘Kindred Spirit’, seemed a little tentative as the musicians settled into their environment. However, the intimacy of the Studio Theatre was ideally suited to their drumless instrumentation. Sax, bass and piano balanced perfectly, at times offering up an almost chamber-music like quality. Yet here is where the detractors might protest: “can we please take away the dots…” For the manuscript sometimes seemed to constrain rather than liberate, even though (as I was able to observe from my vantage point) ad lib passages were frequently written on the stave.

Most of the music tonight was taken from the trio’s latest album, ‘Instinct’, together with a couple of songs from Malija’s initial offering, ‘The Day I Had Everything’. There is a distinct Nordic flavour to cuts like ‘TV Shoes’, ‘Sanctuary’ and ‘Elegantly Posh’ – hardly surprising, given Jasper Hoiby’s Scandanavian heritage. Along the way, there are nods to Keith Jarrett, oblique hommages to the late Esbjorn Svensson and even sonic diversions into Horace Silver territory.

Jasper Hoiby’s habit of settling into a groove gives us a much-needed handle on tunes that might otherwise be baffling and impenetrable at first encounter, ‘Mila’ being just such an example. Occasionally, it all felt a little too cerebral. Yet if the first set was aimed at the head, the second most definitely struck at the heart. ‘Wheels’, ‘Moon Stairs’ and ‘Squared’ seemed to rely more on soul and muscle memory than what was written down, and felt more convincing as a result. And when Liam Noble dispensed with the lead sheet for ‘Wing and a Prayer’ it couldn’t have been more appropriate as he produced his most outlandish piano solo of the night.

Throughout, Lockheart switched seamlessly between soprano and tenor, but saved his best for the penultimate ‘Panda Feathers’ – a sparky upbeat number that exercised his and Noble’s agility whilst Hoiby kept everyone grounded. The unannounced encore had the atmosphere of a plaintive Scottish pibroch and sent us into the night air still arguing amongst ourselves as to the merits/demerits of music manuscripts in jazz. I guess the jury will be out for a long time on that. Meanwhile, all power to Malija for ploughing their own furrow.

©2017 Julia Price