Art Themen, tenor sax.
Pete Whittaker, organ.
George Double, Drums.
It is one of the glories of jazz that a trio (at least one of this calibre) can perform with such
expressive range. It’s not just a matter of wide-ranging material, or the particulars of
instrumentation or styles that cover the span of jazz history from Ben Webster to funk, It
was the quality of the musicianship and the close working relationships between the players
that carried the night. It was a delight from start to finish.
Art Themen’s command of the tenor showed in his beautifully crafted tone, whatever the
style or tempo. There was plenty of power, but no bravura blasts, no empty histrionics. His
emphasis was always on bringing out the qualities of a good melody. His soprano sax, which
made an appearance in both sets, also deserves a mention. On the group’s unusual take on
the old Nat King Cole number ‘The Ruby and the Pearl’ he wove around the melody like a
snake-charmer—a perilous thing to do on an instrument as wayward as a soprano—and
with the kind of piercing clarity one might expect from an oboe or cor anglais. And his tenor
sound went from rousingly soulful to the most delicate (and precise) high notes. When he
played the Abdullah Ibrahim song, ‘Water from an Ancient Well,’ he was up against Ricky
Ford in the original recording—and came out shining.
Pete Whittaker played unobtrusively and supportively throughout most of the first set, only
coming to the fore in the second, providing the perfect, almost church-like accompaniment
on the Ibrahim number and thereafter, given plenty of room to display his considerable
talent. As though that wasn’t sufficient, he unexpectedly took to the piano for a beautiful
duet with Art. As with all the best musicians, he has an abundance of talent but nothing to
prove, ensuring that this is a trio by dint of more than just the number three.
Much the same can be said about George Double’s drumming. Serious musicians don’t need
stage-filling drum kits: it’s refined technique, musical sensitivity and responsiveness that
matter. Of course, he had a few welcome turns at tasteful and engaging solos—always
musical and never self-indulgent.
Art Themen himself has a quietly engaging, unassuming stage manner, but the evident
chemistry between him, Pete and George seemed to find extra-musical expression, too. By
the end of the evening, it felt like we had been party to something more relaxed and
intimate than a club gig. They weren’t going to get away without an encore, a delicate
rendering of ‘Willow Weep for Me,’ which sent all of us out into the night, smiling.