Tom Harrison Quintet @ Spice of Life

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Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

The 2015 London Jazz Festival provided as expected a truly diverse and eclectic selection of live music for the discerning Jazz lover to imbibe. Friday 20th November, the penultimate day of the festival was most certainly a day that all those who witnessed the Tom Harrison Quintet at ‘Spice of Life’, London will remember very fondly indeed. Alto saxophonist Tom Harrison is definitely the modern day Jazz musician; successfully marrying the day-to-day demands of a ‘music artist booking agent’ with his recording and gig comittments. Mr Harrison is no stranger to the ‘Spice of Life’, having played a major supporting role in Irish drummer, David Lyttle’s ‘Faces’ album launch back in March 2015. Fast forward seven months and Tom Harrison returned to Paul Pace’s intimate Jazz venue as frontman of his own powerhouse Quintet, to pay homage to the music of seasoned alto saxophonist and one time Miles Davis band member Sonny Fortune. Infact, ninety-five percent of the evenings set was dedicated to Sonny’s classic 1996 album release ‘From Now On’.

So it was that the aforementioned powerhouse quintet took to the stage, consisting of Tom Harrison (sax), Robert Mitchell (piano), Connor Chaplin (bass), Dave Hamblett (drums), Jon Ormston (congas) and featured guest Quentin Collins (trumpet). Club owner and overt Jazz Lover Paul Pace initiated proceedings, “I would like you to welcome a young alto saxophonist and bandleader with his quintet; please put your hands together and welcome the Tom Harrison Quintet!” Shortly after that simple and succinct introduction the quintet launched into their opening number, the jaunty ‘This Side of Infinity’, which is actually track two on Sonny’s ‘From Now On’ set.

One minute and thirty seconds in the graduate from the Trinity College of Music took the helm and proceeded to lay down his first saxophone solo of the evening best described as the musical equivalent of a Shakespeare soliloquy. Harrison’s effortlessly fluid and controlled playing style doing full justice to Sonny Fortune’s exquisite composition. After approximately four and a half minutes our protagonist exited stage left to well deserved plaudits and handed the baton over to fellow horn player and featured guest for the evening trumpeter Quentin Collins. The Ubuntu Music recording artist took over the reins seamlessly, blowing in the manner that we’ve become accustomed to as founder member of his own cutting edge Jazz quartet QCBA.

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Quentin Collins (trumpet)
Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

The game of musical tag continued as Quentin’s two-minute solo stint gave way to another internationally renowned artist, pianist Robert Mitchell. Mitchell, fresh from his outstanding role as Theolonius Monk in Filomena Campus’ ‘Mysterioso’ presentation in Pizza Express Jazz Bar, Soho the week before, maintained the intensity of that performance at Spice of Life, his fingers traversing the keys slickly with a feather-light touch, and his head bobbing up and down and side to side as if in a boxing sparring session. As the deserved applause for Robert’s electrifying three-minute solo faded, a sharply attired and be-spectacled bassist Connor Chaplin took his cue to impress the attendees with his robust and rhythmical double bass twangs; at times hunching over his instrument to gain maximum purchase whist plucking the bass strings.

Underpinning all these solos was the measured and metronomic drumming cadence of Mr Dave Hamblett. Hamblett like his very proficient cohorts is an extremely respected band leader in his own right, and his loose and easy swing style complimented Tom’s quintet perfectly, not only on the opening tune, but throughout the set. Prior to the beginning of the second tune selection, Harrison made a point of individually name-checking and edifying his immensely talented band mates before enlightening us further as to how he was introduced to the music of Sonny Fortune. “Most of the music tonight has been composed by the fantastic alto sax player Sonny Fortune, who I had not discovered until relevantly recently…I was just blown away by the breath and energy which the recorded music had; and also that album had some of my favourite Jazz saxophone players on there, as well as Sonny himself. So I just figured it would be great to get the opportunity to play this music in public a bit more. So we’re gonna play a whole bunch of tunes from his CD ‘From Now On’, and we’ re gonna continue with a track called ‘Suspension’.”

Soon the mellow, warm, inviting, trance-like strains of the aforementioned ‘Suspension’ softly vibrated the air particles within ‘Spice of Life’. It was clearly evident that the quintet were already fully up to speed after just one song. Once again Harrison lead the way with a sax solo consisting of equal parts subtlety and intricacy; his stoic posture believing the passion, feeling and grace with which he caresses the notes from his horn – sublime indeed! This only served to spur on his fellow cohorts to raise their game also. Featured guest, Quentin Collins, now clutching an eye-catchingly shiny flugelhorn proved why he is and has been regarded as one of the UK’s premier trumpet player’s for over ten years.

As collective audience member heads gently nodded back and forth to the hypnotic groove, Harrison, dressed in a tailored smart charcoal grey suit returned for another short but powerfully punchy saxophone solo, then bowing gently in acknowledgement of the applause. The gesture also doubled as the signal for Steinway recording artist and Panacea band leader Robert Mitchell to bring some fire and brimstone to the piano keys, hopping up and down on the piano stool as if seated on hot coals, his hands seemingly blurring into one as he skilfully tinkled the ebonies and ivories at blinding speed. A calm and composed Connor Chaplin cooly rounded off this particular set of solos with an exquisitely paced double bass offering.

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Connor Chaplin (bass)
Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

The evening deviated from the featured album when Tom Harrison referred to a brief conversation he had with Sonny Fortune pertaining to the lack of any real ballads on his 1996 ‘From Now On’ recording. When asked as to his favourite composers, Sonny confessed to a penchant towards the music of Billy Strayhorn. We were subsequently rewarded with the first of two compositions by Mr Strayhorn – ‘A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing’, which threw the spotlight onto featured artist Quentin Collins. Quentin’s instrument of choice on this tune was the more melancholic sounding flugelhorn from which over the next four minutes plus he delivered the most emotive horn of solos. Connor Chaplin, Robert Mitchell and Dave Hamblett continued the musical narrative before Mr Collins brought the tune home.

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Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

The tempo was increased considerably on the intriguingly titled, ‘Glue Fingers’, with Mr Harrison confessing beforehand that no explanation for the title was forth-coming from Sonny Fortune when he enquired. The lack of details re: track composition dissipated quickly into the ether as Tom delivered the most blistering of sax solos. The intense ferocity, purposefulness and attack of his sumptuous solo was a joy to behold; it was as if some of Sonny Fortune’s essence had transmuted to the younger saxophonist during their brief encounter. The now fully in-sync audience were chomping at the bit to show their appreciation. With the bar now raised Robert Mitchell took up the gauntlet and let rip an even more outlandish piano solo than what had come before. There are not enough adjectives in the dictionary to describe how phenomenal the hand speed is of Robert Mitchell when he zero’s in on the keys and lets loose with wild abandon, like a Whirling Dervish. If seeing is believing, then one would definitely need to witness a Robert Mitchell piano masterclass up close and personal and in full Technicolor. A high-octane way to conclude Part one.

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Robert Mitchell (piano)
Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

There was no let up in the quality musicianship after the interval, with the band launching into the title track of Sonny’s superlative but under acknowledged ‘From Now On’ album. In fact, the powerful arsenal of musicians on stage was added to when Tom Harrison introduced a percussionist into the mix – “I’d like to welcome to the stage another guest for this evening on percussion. He’s a good friend of mine and brings a fantastic energy to everything he does, be it opening a beer bottle or playing congas. So please welcome Jon Ormston!” The frenetic energy and drive of the musicians, who were all wholly engrossed in the tune emanated throughout the audience. The initially sultry then tumultuous sax of Tom Harrison, the muted trumpet of Quentin Collins, the dancing digits of Robert Mitchell, the feverish interplay between Dave Hamblett (drums), Jon Ormston (congas) and Connor Chaplin (bass) all combined to eighteen minutes of sheer bliss.

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Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

‘On 2nd and Fifth’ saw the two horns men go toe to toe on another high-powered composition courtesy of Sonny Fortune, with controlled musical mayhem carrying on around them. As the performance moved towards its conclusion we were treated to the second of Billy Strayhorn’s ballads entitled ‘Chelsea Bridge’, which enabled Harrison to showcase his impressive embouchure, reed and breath control. Impressive because given his relatively tender years young Mr Harrison will only get better with time. His obvious intellect married with his understanding and interpretation of a tune will serve him in good stead as he matures and develops his own voice on the saxophone.

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Jon Ormston (congas)
Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

Intent on making it a memorable evening for all who attended at ‘Spice of Life’ The Tom Harrison Quintet rounded out their tribute to Sonny Fortune with a mammoth version of ‘Thoughts’. The jazz heads present were whipped into a frenzy primarily by Jon Ormston’s tribal conga solo and his subsequent participation in an extensive musical sparring session with drummer Dave Hamblett at the back-end of the tune. What is more, given the length of the tune each musician was given ample space with which to express themselves to the fullest, and that they did to maximum effect. Harrison relished the opportunity to weave his complex and colourful sax riffs and runs throughout the piece, looking every bit like a modern-day snake charmer as he swayed side to side whilst teasing the notes from his finely tuned horn.

After such a fulfilling evening of pure Jazz, the quintet, with their endorphin levels surging, still had enough in the tank to pump out a foot-tapping, hand-clapping version of McKoy Tyner’s ‘Blues On The Corner’ by way of an encore. The Tom Harrison Quintet didn’t just bring ‘a little spice’ to the ‘Spice of Life’, they brought the entire spice rack, with a few red-hot scotch bonnet chilli peppers added for good measure. It may have been the penultimate day of the London Jazz Festival, but it felt as if the Tom Harrison Quintet were just getting the party started. I eagerly await their return visit, and am one hundred percent positive that Mr Paul Pace will have the doors swung wide open in anticipation of another delightful night of great Jazz music entertainment.

Michael J Edwards

Essential Websites
http://www.tomharrisonsax.com
http://www.turacomusic.com
https://soundcloud.com/tomharrisonsax

Essential Albums
Danga Quartet (Lyte Records)
Sonny Fortune ‘From Now On’ (Blue Note Records)

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