Calum Gourlay – bass
Helena Kay – tenor sax
Kieran McLeod – trombone
James Maddren – drums
Before the quartet began their first set, Calum Gourlay praised the performance of the Wakefield Youth Jazz Orchestra, which had performed as support in the previous hour. He reminded everyone that even the most seasoned professionals
had tender beginnings; and that all four members of the band had had invaluable training in various youth jazz bands. And WYJO wasn’t merely aspiring to have the coherence and power of a big band: they delivered, at times sounding rather Basie-like: high praise. Our musical future seems secure. And thank you!
We knew from the opening notes that this was a bass-led band—that is, Calum led without predominating: the clarity and power of his lines underpinned the songs. In terms of musical command, bassist Michael Formanek came quickly to mind, but stylistically, his playing was more reminiscent of Charlie Haden’s work with Ornette Coleman: not changes off the chords, but an approach that was more linear than circular.
Indeed, an Ornette-like approach to melody and improvisation also characterised the playing of Helena Kay and Kieran McLeod—one could say, oblique, but not remote; and still—after all these years!—unconventional but not abstract. In many ways, the character of the evening’s music was set not by Calum’s opening bass statement but by Kieran’s extraordinary first solo. Aside from being a minor marvel of stamina, it was fascinating to follow his line of creative thought as his solo seemed to reach ever further from the starting point, yet without becoming untethered from it.
Helena’s tenor started out in a rather soft-voiced manner, but as the set progressed, she opened out into some powerful playing, with a strong emphasis on quality of expression rather than blow-them-away outbursts. Solos notwithstanding, the artistic aim shared by all four was clearly a dedication to the group sound and an aesthetic that at times had a chamber-like precision and delicacy, particularly when trombone and tenor wove around each other.
Without piano or guitar, it can be tricky to keep the music from faltering, so precision, musical empathy and alertness were much to the fore. And so was the ever-reliable James Maddren on drums. He provided the kind of musical underpinning that would be as difficult to imagine as it is easy to appreciate. Throughout, he seemed cool, but there was no mistaking that this was non-stop creativity.
This was adventurous music, played with panache, superb coordination and great skill. In an ensemble like this, it’s fly or die. Clearly, the wild blue yonder beckoned all four of them.