In jazz circles, there are few things more emphatic than opening a number with a bass line delivered by a baritone saxophone. Whatever follows has to be robust and compelling—and as often as not, a complement to its surprisingly fleet, dance-like rhythms. The line-up of Brass Jaw—three saxophones and a trombone—might have puzzled anyone who had never heard a brass quartet as a free-standing jazz outfit, but any puzzlement will have been dispelled within minutes. This was wonderful music-making: intricate, lyrical, occasionally raucous and hugely entertaining.
Allon Beauvoisin on baritone was not restricted to the bass line, but his sheer stamina and focus on maintaining an often rapid-fire bottom line to the music was breath-taking for the audience, too. In the second set, he played a lengthy cadenza which was as good a display of the baritone’s expressive range as you’ll hear anywhere.
Paul Towndrow (alto) and Konrad Wiszniewski (tenor) were remarkably well matched, well beyond the obvious necessity that they be able to navigate around one another at high speed in improvisatory as well as chorus playing. Although each had a voice of his own, they had one important feature in common: zero reliance on familiar saxophone tropes and showy but uninteresting runs up and down the instrument. Even at the fastest tempos, each had an abundance of ideas and both their solos and duets were well structured—not that it was always obvious: the sheer verve of their playing was a continuous delight. In the last number of the first set, they started with a duet that combined high speed, intricacy, precision and passion. It scarcely seemed plausible that two saxophones on their own could make that music.
Michael Owewrs’ trombone brought something special to the proceedings, giving the group sound a tonal and harmonic depth which is sometimes absent in saxophone quartets. His big, rounded sound was particularly effective in long, arcing notes that seemed to come from over the horizon. He was equally compelling in the punchy asides and carrying or doubling melody lines.
One would have supposed that the prospect of a brass quartet maintaining the level of excitement that they generated at the start would be a challenge, but they carried off the evening triumphantly. Clever arrangements, truly engaged playing and charming stagecraft underpinned everything, but they combined in a way that gave us something truly more than the sum of the parts. Or to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke, any sufficiently advanced music is indistinguishable from magic.
© J.Whitman 22nd October 2016