Nat Birchall Quintet ‘Live in Larissa. Divine Harmony in Duende Jazz Bar’ 2LP/Digital (Sound, Soul and Spirit) 4/5

Nat-Birchall-Quintet-Live-in-LarissaMancunian reed multi-instrumentalist Nat Birchall has made it his personal quest to explore the spiritual dimensions of the progressive jazz tradition and has come up with another gargantuan slice of musical intensity on this latest recording, the first that he has recorded in a live setting in Greece. His second on his own label, but sixth overall, Birchall has now surrounded himself with a trusted set of musicians including vibraphonist Corey Mwamba and this begs comparisons with the 1960s work of Archie Shepp and Jackie McLean, both of whom collaborated with vibist Bobby Hutcherson. Three pieces from the previous studio album, ‘World Without From’ from 2012, are revisited in elongated versions here, while two bona fide spiritual classics, one composed by Alice Coltrane, and the other by bassist Bill Lee make up a sumptuous selections of pieces. Opening proceedings is the longest cut, ‘John Coltrane’, which originally saw the light of day on Clifford Jordan’s Strata East album ‘Glass Bead Games’. The seventeen minute plus homage to the late great tenorist is a meandering and sprawling interpretation that states the main theme in melodic fashion before becoming a deeply absorbing number. Birchall alternates between tenor and soprano and on ‘Journey In Satchidananda’ reverts to soprano saxophone that mirrors the intensity of the original. Eastern influences bound on these live performances and this writer’s personal favourite is the irresistible take on ‘Return to Ithaca’ which was aired on the saxophonist’s previous album and here takes on a dervish-like quality with lovely accompaniment from Mwamba. For some delicate balladry, ‘Sacred Dimension’ offers a gentler vision of what Birchall and the quartet are fully capable of. Avant-garde compositions such as ‘Divine Harmony’ and ‘World Without Form’ both begin as relatively straightforward pieces, but then develop their own head of steam and become quite abstract in form. On what by all accounts was a compact stage (shades of Coltrane and Monk at the legendary Half Note in New York), the sound quality is intimate which suits the approach and style of the group to perfection. Tim Stenhouse