Hans Koller Quartet, 23 October 2020

Hans Koller, piano

Martin Speake, alto sax

Calum Gourlay, bass

Shane Forbes, drums

An evening of music-making of this calibre is at once both a fitting high note on which to end a truncated season and a good measure of the cultural riches we’ll miss under the cloud of the Covid pandemic. Still, there was nothing solemn in the proceedings; and although our socially-distanced seating reduced the audience size, it also imparted a warm, chamber-like atmosphere.

One would be hard placed to describe Hans Koller’s playing as being firmly of one style, or school.  A Lenny Tristano influence? Probably.  Monk? Inescapably.

But he has a voice all his own—and a fine combination of responsive musical imagination and technical prowess, which meant that even once he started a fresh tune, you couldn’t be certain which way he would go. The improvisatory shifts weren’t just chord inversions and melodic flights. There were also subtle rhythmic shifts between left and right hands; oblique and at times near-abstract bursts; and truly creative deployment of dissonances. But for all of his stand-out moments, he was as supportive of alto player Martin Speake as he was responsive. And for all that he could zoom out past an opening melodic statement, he never departed entirely from the song. It’s a rare thing to hear a sweet melody made so elastic. And although at a few points I found myself wondering whether he had ever played Bartok (not out of the question for a man with a Master’s degree in Ethnomusicology), his accompaniment on sax-led ballads was the soul of sensitivity and lightness of touch.

The word ‘sweet’ doesn’t begin to cover the qualities of Martin Speake’s alto, but it’s certainly apt. His playing has a rapt, devoted quality which finds expression in the precision and clarity of the notes, whether soulful or rapid-fire. There can’t be many alto players who haven’t absorbed something from Charlie Parker—and he certainly has, but Bebop surfaced largely as an echo; after all, the entire evening was devoted to Martin’s own compositions. Those who despair of modern jazz composition would have found their rebuke well before the end of these two sets—and his songs enabled the full range of improvisatory expression, not only for himself but for the rest of the band as well. His playing had an un-emphatic intensity—in other words, passion, not noise and bluster; it was an utter delight from the first number to the last.

Most of the two sets were gentle in tone, even when the pace was quick—but the band could swing, too—and drummer Shane Forbes really cut loose on the longest number of the second set, with Calum Gourlay also to the fore. Both ensured that the ensemble sound was maintained, even through the spotlighted solos.

The applause at every turn was richly deserved. And somehow, by the end, we all felt less like we were departing into the dark uncertainties of the coming winter than into the brighter times beyond it.


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