Live at The Jam House, Birmingham 19 May 2015
Chris Bowden shot to prominence with his critically acclaimed Soul Jazz Records debut “Time Capsule”. At the heart of the 90’s acid jazz boom he recorded with The K-Creative and worked with the likes of Gilles Peterson, 4 Hero and Simon “Palmskin” Richmond. Bowden’s ensuing career appears to have been somewhat stop-start. The early promise well and truly delivered on the Ninja Tune release “Slightly Askew”, an album of daunting scope that earned five star reviews from the UK National Press. Throughout this time, and to date, Bowden would occasionally be seen performing with regular cohorts “The Herbaliser” and a few other acts, (most notably with his trio supporting EST on their UK tour a few years back) along with a striking, yet largely unknown Birmingham Jazz commission “The Untimely Death of Cash Bodean”, a large ensemble piece, but his own original jazz output seemed, for whatever the reason, to have been kept well under the radar… Until now that is. Bowden has gone back to his roots and with long time musical partners Neil Bullock (drums) and Ben Markland (bass), stepping into the limelight once again with a whole set of brand new material. And about time too.
A very appreciative Jam House audience welcomed local favourites Bowden, Bullock and Markland onto the stage with healthy, expectant applause. Word had gotten round that Birmingham’s own alto sax anti-hero was on a roll with his new compositions and recent guest appearances in the city. Try-outs of the new material had received rave reviews from audiences. Stepping onto the stage, Bowden looked nervous and apprehensive. He needn’t have been. His new tunes, currently being recorded for an album set for release later this year, are stunning. In essence, I would say these tunes are more melodic, brighter and more accessible than some of his previous outings. Oh, and sharper, more focussed.. But that doesn’t inhibit the quality one iota, in fact I would even be as bold as stating that some of the tunes are the best I have heard from Bowden in a long, long time.
The first set opened with “The Sands”, an up-front jazz standard-type piece that soon had everyone warmed up. Despite appearing slightly ill at ease Bowden coneys a genuine warmth. This was particularly noticable as he spoke to the audience between tunes. Often funny, with some wonderful self-effacing humour, this brought an intimate warmth to the gig. The second tune “Pollack Painting” was more of a throwback to Bowden’s angular, hard groove material with Bullock’s drums and Markland’s bass driving the music, allowing for some wicked sax soloing throughout the number. Bowden’s playing tonight is so strong and inventive, a joy to watch. After a brief foray into standards territory with a very tightly-knit take on Cole Porter’s “What is this thing called love”, Bowden announces: “I’d now like to introduce a piano player who not only is a fabulous musician but is also astonishingly good looking…” As we (audience) look around quizzically to see who the guest is, Bowden walks away from the mic and goes and sits down at the piano. Que laughter. Bowden then starts performing, on piano, one of the tunes of the night. “The Gates of Heaven” is a beautifully melodic and moving piece of music. Thoughtful accompaniment from the stylish Bullock and a classy electric bass solo from Markland provide even more substance to this wonderful Bowden composition. I did get to speak with Bowden, briefly after the gig and I asked him how this tune would be recorded for the album. I couldn’t pin him down to a precise answer, but he did tell me that the album would be the core trio as seen tonight, but with added special guests… A kind of “Trio Plus” as he put it. The first half finished with another new piece, “Early In”, a tuneful, fluent sax driven track with catchy hooks and riffs to die for.
Part two of the show kicked off with Ron Carter’s “81”. The trio have been performing this for some years now, but here it had a raw energy to it I hadn’t witnessed before. Bullock’s drum solo, always a key feature, was awesome. The trio were great in the first half, but now they seemed to have stepped up several gears and were performing with an intensity and vigour that was spellbinding. The next piece, Bowden’s “We Are Alive” was for me, one of the highlights of the night. A much longer tune which saw Bowden begin on sax, then move onto the piano and back again several times, was a tour de force. I hadn’t heard Bowden play his sax like this in years… on the edge but always in control. Thunderous and exquisite in equal measure. During Markland’s bass solo when Bowden shifted onto piano it really lifted the tune, bringing out the melody in a pleasing way. This was a noticable feature throughout the gig, taking the trio to an even greater sum of its parts. The next tune “We Talked” saw a major change of pace. A ballad of such composed beauty it had the hairs on the back of my neck standing up and quivering throughout the whole piece. Sparse, subtle and performed with such deep-felt heart and soul, I can’t wait to hear this one on the new album. Melancholic loveliness. The night was rounded off with another new composition, “Brother”. More reminiscent of some previous Bowden outings, this features a strong groove laid down by drum and bass, with the sax parts rising in prominence through to the final crescendo of sound. This is a big sound for a trio, with the cohesive threesome revelling in some progressive interplay and obviously enjoying the thrill of the ride.
Over-all, a thrilling performance from the trio. High energy, yet controlled power from all three musicians, with moments of mesmerising beauty thrown in for good measure.
On this evidence I can’t wait to hear the new recording, Bowden is back to his best.