Theo Travis Double Talk @ The Red Lion

Live at The Red Lion, Hockley, Birmingham. 6th May 2016

The cosy, intimate surroundings of The Red Lion in Hockley, Birmingham, was the place to be on Friday, 6th May as Birmingham Jazz hosted Theo Travis’ Double Talk. This was something of a homecoming for the well-travelled saxophonist; this being his first gig in Birmingham for over 15 years. I really hope he wasn’t disappointed. One thing I can say for sure is that the audience certainly wasn’t left disappointed, this being a spellbinding performance from Travis and his band; Mike Outram on guitar, Pete Whittaker on organ, and Nic France on drums.
It never ceases to amaze me the quality of musicianship that can be seen and heard at some of the smaller venues across the city. I suppose it’s a double edged sword; the audience get to see some of the world’s greatest musicians up close and personal, but for jazz musicians, (and this is by no means restricted to jazz), is it not slightly dismaying when they see the crowd numbers only 30-40 punters? I guess they’re used to it, and for someone like Theo Travis it might make a welcome change playing in such intimate surroundings, but it is somewhat depressing that so few people turn up to see such incredible music. Maybe it’s the norm these days. Perhaps I just need to get out more. Whatever your thoughts are on this subject, it doesn’t alter the fact that this was one of the best gigs I’ve been to in recent years. It’s great that Birmingham Jazz continue with their long history of bringing superb acts to the city.

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Photos: Courtesy of Garry Corbett

Theo Travis needs little introduction, his varied mix of jazz fusion, experimental, ambient and prog rock allowing him to successfully cross bridges from jazz into more alternative music, seeing him perform and record alongside Robert Fripp, Steven Wilson, Harold Budd and David Sylvian, as well as working with Soft Machine Legacy whilst continuing with solo projects and fronting his band Double Talk. The first Double Talk album came out in 2007, but it wasn’t until last year that a follow-up was released. It was well worth the wait, “Transgression” being a wonderful album and receiving well-earned critical acclaim. The line-up tonight is the same as that on the album; with Travis playing tenor and soprano saxes, and flute, Mike Outram on electric guitar, Pete Whittaker on organ, and Nic France on drums.

I arrive at the venue just in the nick of time, taking my seat just as Travis steps up the mic to introduce the first number. In this small room I am barely twelve feet away from the band. The saxophonist introduces the musicians and the first piece of music, “Ascending”. The sound is full of vibrancy, yet with a warmth that soothes any harsher edges, largely due to the incredible sound of Whittaker’s organ. It’s pretty loud in this small room, but not too loud, and even when the band are in full flow, all at high volume, there’s a depth and beauty emanating from the music being performed, the only minor criticism being that when the guitar and drums are at full strength, the sax and organ get a little lost in the mix. (mainly when Travis is on tenor). Travis’ soprano playing is so inventive, and his use of pedals just adds to the ambience of this tune. He’s using (I’m guessing here), a conventional delay mixed with a looper, but it’s the intelligent, subtle use of these effects that adds a new dimension to this opening tune, making for a wonderful sound that cascades and surrounds the listener with its rarified beauty. As the opening number ends, having arrived too late to get a drink, I rush to the bar for refreshment. To my delight I see the Red Lion is serving Bathams Bitter- result! Could this night get much better?! On returning to my seat, the band are into the second number. Psychedelia fills the room as Travis’ soprano expertly infuses jazz-prog-rock into Pink Floyd’s 60’s classic “See Emily Play”. The band are on fire, I just can’t take my eyes off Outram’s skilful, jaw-dropping guitar licks, working so well opposite Whittaker’s intricate organ bass lines- his left hand all feverish activity across the keys, making any need for a bass player totally redundant, with his right hand letting loose those awesome chords in stunning style. Nic France provides an expert drum solo, before Travis introduces the title track from the latest album “Transgression”. A longer piece, it’s on tunes like this that this exceptional quartet really do forge their own identity. The tune begins slowly, with Travis switching to flute, the character of the tune and the brilliant writing brought to life in a live environment. There’s a gradual build-up in pace as the tune develops, the meandering intro eventually morphing into some progressive high octane intricacies, with Outram in sparkling form and Travis blowing his tenor as if his life depended upon it. As the band rise to fever pitch, the tune drops back for a reprise of its gorgeous melody. Stunning music. “Smokin’ at Klooks” is introduced by the band leader as a piece inspired by the music performed at Klooks Kleek Club in the 60’s. And this tune really does characterise that 60’s blues feel, with Outram’s guitar now sounding like he’s bringing that era back to life for us all to witness. Close your eyes and it could be Peter Green on stage. The first half is rounded off with one of the most stirring pieces of music we are to hear this evening, “The Crow Road”, inspired by Iain Banks’ novel of the same name. Everything comes together in a haze of brilliance, this is Double Talk at their best. Quick-fire tenor sax supremacy, wicked organ playing, guitar pyrotechnics and powerhouse drumming all combine to take the audience on a stratospheric thrill-ride. Time to draw breath and get the drinks in.

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Photos: Courtesy of Garry Corbett

The 2nd set begins with “Fire Mountain”, one of my favourite tracks from the new album. If anything, it’s even more powerful live. Reminiscent of Mahavishnu Orchestra, the resplendent melody is passionately played with sax and guitar leading this brilliant piece. An intense tenor solo is matched by some phenomenal guitar work as the organ and drums propel the tune foreword. Is it just my ears or is the organ now turned up a notch? The balance of sound seems much better now. The slower yet equally compelling “Everything I Feared” follows. Once again the organ bass lines lay down a marker for an echoey flute and stunning guitar, with the whole band so tight and “on it”. Travis introduces “Song For Samuel” as a tune dedicated to his son. This is a piece where Whittaker has the time and space to come into his own. Beautiful, articulate chords are met with a wonderful solo by the organist, as the tune twists and turns like an Autumn breeze caressing a late Summer’s day, evocative and memorable. The temperature rises again on the anthemic “A Place In The Queue”, another piece from the “Transgression” album. The band-leader’s soulful tenor and magnificent interplay between all four members of the band, once more gives rise to some propulsive playing as the tune gathers a head of steam. It’s like a boy’s own adventure listening to this foursome at full volume; a journey that is richly rewarding. After more stupendous soloing from guitarist Outram, the tune cleverly reprises the opening melody before eventually winding down. The Robert Wyatt/ Philip Catherine composition “Maryan” is the next tune up. What a lovely vibe the band manage to get on this slower, more wistful tune. This thoughtful, intricate piece of music rolls around my ears, softening my mind, body and spirit as it flows… or maybe that was just the Bathams Bitter working its magic! The gig ends with the rousing “Portabello 67”, a jazz-rock number, sounding like a psychedelia infused “The In Crowd”. Clever hooks and exciting, fiery soling bring the band’s set to a close.

A thoroughly enjoyable night’s entertainment from Theo Travis’ Double Talk. For me, this was the perfect mix of jazz-rock, a lesson in how it should be done. I walked away into the night a happy man, my ears and my brain still buzzing.

Mike Gates

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