Once in a while the stars align and the universe decrees that magic will happen. That is certainly the case with Art Themen’s New Directions quintet. The veteran saxophonist has surrounded himself with the crème de la crème of British jazz musicians for this project, and the results are incredible.
Things began in the manner they meant to go on: a classic melody in a polished and punchy arrangement built upon and elaborated with style and substance with each passing solo. So it was with Dexter Gordon’s ‘For Regulars Only’ which saw Themen leading out with lines that could only have come from the catalogue of the great tenorist’s repertoire. Swift individual solos and early trades with drummer Winston Clifford ensured everyone received a fair and generous introduction.
Themen switched up to soprano for Earl Zindar’s ‘How My Heart Sings’ – a tune that walked a tightrope between a wily waltz and a mid-tempo saunter, but still managed to give rise to an agile trumpet solo from Steve Fishwick. Meanwhile, Arnie Somogyi kept everyone on an even keel, even when Art was at the bassist’s shoulder, devilishly giving him the evil eye.
Pianist Gareth Williams came to the fore on Horace Silver’s ‘Ecaroh’, a crackling number that once again tested everybody’s mettle. Vernon Duke’s ballad ‘Autumn in New York’ was not at all unseasonal, given the recent cold snap that could have put this whole gig in jeopardy. No matter – the swish of Winston Clifford’s brushes and the to and fro of Themen’s tenor and Williams’ piano gently echoing each other’s phrases provided warm and welcome reassurance that it was never in any doubt.
Then it was back up to full speed for Bob Berg’s ‘Friday Night at the Cadillac Club’ in another firecracker of an arrangement. But even then we weren’t done for the first half: Sonny Rollins’ ‘Why Don’t I’ ratcheted up the tension a further few notches with its blistering pace and refusal to be bound by be-bop conventions. Hence Gareth Williams’ casual quotations from ‘Jeepers Creepers’, the heavy bass and drum trades between Somogyi and Clifford, and the drummer’s cheeky vocalising on the side.
No let up after the break either, as we were straight into a nifty trot through John Coltrane’s ‘Twenty Six Two’ at the start of the second set. Then came the only non-standard of the night – Arnie Somogyi’s ‘Joe’s Blow’. The bassman’s clever composition offered plenty of room for the rest of the band to explore, as well as giving him an opportunity to step into the spotlight. That Somogyi was content to dig deep into the groove of his tune rather than go all out for a showy solo spoke volumes about his musicianship.
Tad Dameron’s spritely ‘Hothouse’ once again displayed the band’s togetherness as a unit, locked in to every twist and turn of the composer’s devious pen. Winston Clifford’s explosive drum solo seemed to unleash the demons in Dameron’s head.
Art stepped aside for Steve Fishwick to display a more reflective mood in ‘What’s New’. His extended trumpet solo was given ample air by Somogyi, Williams and Clifford whilst Themen gazed on in admiration from the sidelines. It moved him so profoundly that he declared “this is the best band I have ever played with.” And witnessing Art Themen at his freewheeling best in this company, few in the audience would disagree with that.
The five reconvened for Horace Silver’s ‘Nutville’ with its distinctive harmonies and Latin-American feel, stressed when Themen broke out the clavés to emphasise the offbeat rhythms. Another brilliant succession of solos culminated in Winston Clifford clattering round his kit with purpose but minimal effort. And that, in many ways, was a summation of the night – everyone playing their part, taking their turn and supporting each other. A genuine collaborative effort.
Art was reluctant to leave, and we were loath to let him go. So he/we settled for an encore – Thelonius Monk’s ‘Four and One’ – a typically kooky jaunt to send us on our merry way.
©2018 Julia Price