Saxophonist Art Themen may be on the verge of his eighth decade, but he’s as sprightly and alert to new directions as ever. Hence the moniker of his current quintet, which reads like a who’s who of British jazz talent. On piano, Gareth Williams, a picture of concentration and attentive to every last detail. On drums, Winston Clifford, the epitome of cool, and confidence personified. Alongside Art is trumpeter Neil Yates, a tad self-effacing, but the perfect foil for Themen’s sax perorations, and providing a strong front line for the band. On bass, the dependable and rock solid Andy Cleyndert, this evening depping for regular bassist Arnie Somogyi. And then there’s Art himself, schooled in so many styles of jazz but who wears his learning lightly, and someone who clearly appreciates the gifted players around about him.
The quintet opened with Dexter Gordon’s ‘For Regulars Only’ – unsurprising, perhaps, as DG was one of Art’s premier influences. It gave the entire band a good work out, as well as giving Themen a chance to show off his chops with a blistering tenor solo.
‘Dizzy Moves’ was another full-on blowout against a background of tricky cross-rhythms, Themen’s smeared sax notes eliding into Yates’ evocative trumpet calls, and culminating in a masterful hand drum solo from Winston Clifford. As an example of top-class musicians egging each other on in every department, it couldn’t have been bettered.
Earl Zindar’s ‘How My Heart Sings’ was something of a showcase for pianist Gareth Williams – the tune itself is a curious Janus-faced waltz with Themen on soprano. Williams gets to the heart of Zindar’s composition by digging beneath its rugged surface and finds an introspective core.
Neil Yates chocolate-smooth trumpet tones are all over the ballad ‘I Fall in Love Too Easy’, made all the more exquisite with Williams’ sparkling keys, Cleyndert’s earthy bass and Clifford’s delicious brushwork.
Dexter Gordon’s ‘Hanky Panky’ closed the first set, and once again it was hard and direct, with a bluesy feel and in-your-face solos, not least from Winston Clifford who caned his kit using bamboo rods.
Art is also a great admirer of Sonny Rollins, and the quintet took off after the break with his exuberant ‘Wide Open’. Then Gareth Williams paid tribute to the late, great John Taylor with his own composition, ‘Mr JT’. Williams crafted an arch piano solo that wouldn’t have been out of place in the dedicatee’s catalogue, before developing into a series of alternating tenor and piano duologues with bass and brushed drums.
Andy Cleyndert set about the absent Arnie’s ‘Joe’s Blow’, trading extemporised slaps with Winston Clifford before launching into the tune’s main riff – a frenetic quasi-blues that capitalises on the soprano and trumpet trills that round off each melodic phrase.
By contrast, Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Prelude to a Kiss’ was a much more sedate affair, being a ballad led out by tenor and piano.
The carnivalesque atmosphere of Horace Silver’s ‘Nutville’ brought forth some brilliant solos from trumpeter Neil Yates and Gareth Williams, all powered by rollicking drums from Winston Clifford. There followed a heated ‘conversation’ between him and Themen as they traded licks with glorious abandon. A truly joyous conclusion to this series of gigs.
©2019 Julia Price