Tori Freestone Trio, 11th November 2022.

Tori Freestone, tenor sax.

Dave Mannington, bass.

Tim Giles, drums.

Pic by Pete Woodman

A pianoless saxophone trio is a high-wire act. The mere fact of it is an assertion of confident musicianship and group coherence. But what kind of approach might it take? What repertoire? How to provide dynamism and variety over two full sets?

Many would opt to begin with something full-on and fiery—but that’s precisely how the Tori Freestone Trio finished the night. Instead, the first set opened with Tim Giles’ gentle brushwork and Dave Mannington’s carefully deliberated bass line. Tori entered gently, like a cautious driver on a long slip road. We knew immediately that we were in for something quite intriguing and individual.

Nearly all the songs they played were Tori Freestone originals; and for all their variety (including Cuba by way of the Canary Islands), most could fairly be described as arabesques—lines that curl and spin. Her professed fascination with inversions, swirls and criss-crosses, together with a strongly visual imagination find musical expression in lovely melodies that threaten to meander but always retain a narrative logic. A powerful trio that eschewed the kinds of classic jazz numbers that invite virtuosic blasts instead delivered something as authoritative and compelling as it was unusual.

There were solos, of course, but less the familiar set-piece, extended turns than shared exchanges. Of the two folk numbers given jazz treatment, ‘Shenandoah’ opened with exquisite interplay between Tori and Dave’s bowed bass, giving a familiar melody added sonority. And throughout, Dave’s un-showy, deeply musical bass lines combined with Tori’s tenor in ways that brought to mind Debussy’s observation about a Palestrina Mass: ‘…interweaving so as to produce something that seems unique: melodic harmonies.’ Their take on Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’ deftly brought out that song’s undertow of wistful sadness. On the Cuba/Canary Islands number, Tim’s polyrhythmic ability would surely have given a clutch of percussionists a run for their money; and his ability to shift modes, to combine energy and precision and to grace even the most sudden of endings with fine touches was a delight. On that final, whirlwind number, he seemed to be shaping the music as much as propelling it.

Toni’s playing was lyrical, imaginative and expressive without being forceful—as befitted her compositions. But then she finished the evening with a barnstormer—and the trio together delivered something that was considerably more than the sum of their parts—obvious in that moment, but true throughout both wonderful sets.

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