Matthew Halsall, St. Clements Church, Chorlton-cum-Hardy Arts Festival, Manchester, 29 May 2010
It was to the stunning backdrop of a multi-coloured stainglass window in St Clements church as part of the annual arts festival that local jazz innovators under the aegis of trumpeter Matthew Halsall and saxophonist Nat Birchall laid down some truly spiritual jazz vibes. This would be the ideal setting in which to hear the sextet. Divided into two parts, the first half of the evening was devoted to a classic reworking and interpretation of some of the seminal pieces of what has now been termed modal jazz as pioneered by Miles Davis and John Coltrane in the late 1950s and early-mid 1960s. Indeed it was the latter’s wife, Alice Coltrane, an accomplished pianist and harpist in her own right, who provided the inspiration for the first number which was the title track to the ‘Journey to Satchidanada’, a seminal album on the Impulse label from 1971. Here Nat Birchall wisely opted for soprano saxophone with Rachel Gladwin providing the melodic component on harp, faithful to the original version. This epic twelve minute number was memorable also for the unexpected entrance of Adam Fairhall on piano with a modal vamp that inevitably conjured up images of the young McCoy Tyner during his tenure with the classic quartet of John Coltrane. Meanwhile while the music unfolded, Halsall remained crouched throughout on the stage, soaking up the spiritual sounds emanating from the rest of the band. This is a formation that has toured extensively throughout the UK, including a prestigious concert at the legendary Ronnie Scott’s, the British mecca for jazz, and equally regular gigs at Matt and Phred’s in their home city of Manchester, a venue that has earned a reputation for capturing some of the key musicians early on in their careers. These experiences have certainly stood Halsall, Birchall et al in good stead and consequently there is a mature, relaxed feel to the playing with ample freedom and space for the musicians individually to explore the sounds on their instruments while at the same time adhering to a collective rigour and discipline. It is this freedom to flourish and performing for the collective whole that made the evening such an enjoyable experience for the audience. If the riff to the first number was familiar, then the second was quite simply a jazz classic with one of the most distinctive riffs of all time, ‘A love supreme’ by John Coltrane. As with the original, drummer Luke Flowers laid down some scintillating polyrhythms on drums, but unlike the classic rendition Matthew Hasall soloed on muted harmon trumpet. The pretext of a piano solo afforded the rhythm section the opportunity to enjoy an extended outing minus the two leaders.
Key to understanding the band’s sound is is the rapport between the two horn players. Whereas in a conventional be-bop setting the reed players might engage in a ‘cutting edge’ contest attempting to outdo one another, here Birchall and Halsall operate at a different level and on a more complimentary playing field, allowing each other the space to go off and explore before eventually returning to the source and repeating the main theme in unison. Among influences the independent labels out of black America in the 1970s such as Strata East, Black Jazz and the legendary Detroit-based Tribe have proven a seminal influence and have helped shape the musical style and trajectory of the band. One of these labels, Strata East, provided the inspiration for an album by Clifford Jordan, ‘Glass Bead Games’, from 1974 that included a devotional tribute to John Coltrane and it was this composition simply entitled, ‘John Coltrane’, that the band really stretched out on from the immaculate bass solo intro from Gavin Barass to the vamps on harp and piano, all carefully managed by Nat Birchall who looked on with serious intent. Another Coltrane composition was a vehicle for harpist Rachel Gladwin. The harp in a jazz setting is quite a rare occurrence and apart from the aforementioned Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby, has largely been ignored. This is a loss to the jazz idiom since it blends in beautifully with the other instruments and enables a seamless transition from drum through to piano. in addition the harp adds layered textures to the overall sound and weaves in between the two horn players. A crescendo of notes enveloped the auditorium as the harp strings were carefully plucked and the harp is that most flexible of instruments where once a theme has been stated, it is then possible to improvise on that same theme. Rachel Gladwin performed this task with aplomb.
After a well deserved interval, the band returned to the compact stage and the repertoire changed to the more recent numbers from the latest Nat Birchall album, the excellent, ‘Guiding Spirit’ (Gondwana) and from Matthew Halsall’s own ‘Coloured Yes’. It was the lengthy opener from the former that re-introduced the band and included a lovely evocation of the theme before Halsall took a restrained solo. At times the tempo and sound descended to a whisper, before gradually building up again in intensity. Always melodic, Halsall’s solos created a plaintive sound emanating from the trumpet with never a note too many. Nat Birchall is an extremely reflective saxophonist, taking in the influences of Joe Henderson and Charles Lloyd as well as more obviously John Coltrane when reverting to the tenor and toying with the audience on some pieces with a false ending that then continues. He has enjoyed a varied career, guesting with the Cinematic Orchestra and played one number inspired by them. Overall this was a deeply contemplative evening of jazz, but one that created accessible riffs and gloriously improvised virtuosity. The audience went away with a far greater appreciation of this somewhat neglected aspect of the jazz world.