Paul Edis – MD, composer/pianist
Graeme Wilson – tenor sax, bass clarinet, flute
Graham Hardy – trumpet, flugelhorn
Emma Fisk – violin
Richard Brown – percussion
Andy May – Northumbrian pipes
Paul Susans – double bass
The risks of a hybrid jazz ensemble are obvious enough—a possible clash of musical cultures; not entirely compatible improvising traditions; a less-than-the-sum-of-the-parts group sound—but the potential revelations and rewards are more considerable still; and in the Ushaw Ensemble, we had an abundance of musical riches.
Northumbian pipes are certainly a novelty in jazz; less so the violin, but one wouldn’t normally expect either to be integrated into a straight-forward jazz quintet line-up. Perhaps the principle reason why the gig was a musical treat is because the ensemble playing was largely composed, featuring a lengthy suite in each set. This meant that any musical seams that might have appeared were ironed over in advance, and the compositions were written so as to give shape and narrative drive to the proceedings, while allowing plenty of room for improvisation. Another feature of this fascinating concert was that there was no shortage of changes of pace, even within the two suites. But musically, the key charm was in the surprising harmonies. The pipes in drone mode and the violin gave several numbers an unusual sonorousness (and at a few points, Paul Susans’ bowed double bass added still more heft.) There were other striking combinations of trumpet/flugelhorn and tenor/double bass, together with the pipes and violin, producing wonderful harmonies that aren’t a staple of either jazz or chamber music. This music was considerably more than the sum of the parts.
Praise then for Paul Edis’ composing skills and direction. And there was another surprise awaiting the audience: before the end of the first set, the band retired and Paul treated us to two thrilling piano solos—a fleet and breezy rendering of One Note Samba and—difficult to imagine but somehow utterly fitting—a stride piano take on Young at Heart.
The first set suite had a strong chamber music feel, with the jazz drive largely being taken by Graham Hardy on trumpet and flugelhorn. After Paul’s solo turns, the final number of the set was a beautiful rendering of Come Sunday from one of Duke Ellington’s works of sacred music. Emma Fisk’s violin took the vocal line in an exquisite and heart-stopping performance—a fine end to a set. The second set was a commissioned suite dedicated to the life of St Cuthbert, which had great jazz verve and gave every member of the band (Northumbrian pipes included) a chance to stretch out in solo turns.
On paper at least, it’s yet another risk to present two lengthy suites in a single gig – but the Ushaw Ensemble pulled it off in style, the individual and group work responding to the compositions with spark and creativity, delivering to a grateful audience yet another ingenious adaptation of this thing we call jazz.