Kevin Figes, soprano and alto sax.
Pete Judge, trumpet.
Raph Clarkson, trombone.
Jim Blomfield, piano.
Riaan Vosloo, bass.
Tony Orrell, drums.
You could say that it was ‘the shock of the old’ as the Kevin Figes Sextet played the music of Keith Tippett and his contemporaries. Aside from the pleasures of the evening, the performance was a reminder that British jazz in the 1970s became a distinct voice—a questing, sometimes radical reinvigoration of the genre at a time when it most needed it. Remarkably, those compositions are still fresh—and still challenging. As always, the innovations get absorbed over time, but the originals can still surprise.
This was robust, complex music played with conviction by a band clearly at ease with each other and with the material—and given the unusual harmonies and cross-rhythms, they needed to be. The music was largely played at brisk tempos and was unfailingly powerful. On that observation, it might be best to start by highlighting Raph Clarkson’s trombone playing. In any vote to pick an instrument that qualifies as the ‘wild man of jazz’, the trombone would be a strong contender. In fact, if you wanted a musical herald for imminent anarchy, the trombone would surely be your instrument of choice—and for all his superb control and clear phrasing, Raph showed us why. His combination of power and precision was a particular pleasure.
Kevin Figes played soprano as well as alto—the former with enviable clarity, at times easing that instrument’s rather nasal quality into something warmer; and always with beautifully crafted improvisations, with none of the freak-out explosions that soprano players sometimes indulge in. On both instruments, Kevin led, but didn’t dominate; and the numbers were sufficiently long to allow everyone a chance to shine, both individually and collectively. It needs to be said that Kevin would shine no less brightly in trio settings, so his dedication to the memory of Keith Tippett and his cohort is all the more impressive.
Pete Judge on trumpet was both physically and musically between the other two front-line players, providing a good deal of the music’s propulsion—less often in unison than in counter-melodies and rapid, upper-register trills. It must have been as exhausting as it was effective. In combination with sax and trombone, the melodic and harmonic possibilities that British jazz of the period exploited so well was on full show.
Jim Blomfield was poised between front and back lines, even when he was not soloing; and his own playing was suitably powerful, often bewilderingly rapid across the full span of the keyboard, with both chordal and melodic inventiveness on continual show. Unusually, he didn’t save his best for the solos; he was always ‘on’.
Riaan Vosloo was the subtle, necessary, beating heart of the music. But it wasn’t until the second set that he took a solo—a composition dedicated to Mingus—that he revealed the extent of his skill, playing beautiful, bowed lines. There was a near-reverential silence throughout. And in Tony Orrell the band had a drummer who could propel such powerful music. And together with Riaan, they were able to steer the band round some sharp curves into tempo changes that would have false-footed lesser souls.