Nat Birchall @ Jazz In The Round

Monday 24th November 2014

Nat Birchall live at Jazz In The Round, Cockpit Theatre, Gateforth Street London NW8 8EH

The evening’s introduction by host and curator Jez Nelson launched the final ‘Jazz In The Round’ for 2014 with the remarkable Andreas Schaerer under the humorous guise of the ‘Christmas Special’ – with not a spread of tinsel to be found anywhere!

Andreas could be described as a singer, instrumentalist or improviser, though on witnessing his stage presence for the first time, no single word would suffice. From the get-go, the listener is drawn into a myriad of vocal sounds, far more than beat-box or vocalize; more orchestral and showmanship mixed with a dash of playfulness.

Consider, if you will, the likes of Al Jarreau and Bobby McFerrin, the latter of whom Andreas has worked with, and after a quick visit to YouTube to see for yourself how wonderful he sounds, maybe then spend a little time investigating Anna-Maria Hefele, and you should be pretty much up-to-speed on Polyphonic singing.

Andreas Schaerer performs at Jazz in the Round - 24/11/14
Photo: Courtesy of Andy Sheppard

Our second artist to be surrounded on four sides by enthusiasts was Leafcutter John (John Burton), known for working with Polar Bear – twice winners of the Mercury Music Prize, and revered amongst fellow musicians for his skill with Max/MSP – described by vibraphonist Orphy Robinson on the night as “a software programme that can take a lifetime to learn”.

To describe the performance is liken to compacting the work of Sun Ra in a single day – challenging. There was increased laughter when John explained the need for a small plastic bowl of water and the impending use of a live flame (candle) in a “wooden theatre”, as he sets up is MacBook and acrylic ‘box’ for what can NOT be clearly described as a series of musical sounds reacting to his light-sensitive creation with front and rear bicycle lights, candle, mobile phone APP and torch all part of his accompaniment.

Theatre lights off and away he went – bending sounds as though he were waving a conductor’s baton before an orchestra, demanding more from each pass of light across his man-made creation with seated onlookers watched on in ore at the spectacle. Leafcutter John is a forward thinking musician and a serious must-see for all.

Leafcutter John performs at Jazz in the Round - 24/11/14
Photo: Courtesy of Andy Sheppard

Whilst pondering over the supposed Christmas theme to the night and formatting brain cells in order to understand better the first half, we were given twenty or so minutes before the main act of the night; Nat Birchall. Music was provided in the bar area though time was better spent in conversation with resident artist Gina Southgate who had somehow created art in total darkness during Leafcutter John’s euphoria. It was great to see her create live during the night.

With December marking the 50th Anniversary of John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’ what better musician to end this year’s series than Nat Birchall on tenor/soprano saxophones? Accompanied on the night by Adam Fairhall – piano; Corey Mwamba – vibraphone/percussion; Michael Bardon – bass and Johnny Hunter – drums. With now six albums under his wing, the impending performance was certain to be a special one.

Nat Birchall Quartet perform at Jazz in the Round - 24/11/14
Photo: Courtesy of Andy Sheppard

A composition destined for a 2015 release; ‘Song To The Devine Mother’ opened the set with all members of the band diving straight in to complimenting Nat’s tenor lead. Michael Bardon and Johnny Hunter were new faces to me and yet the flow with longer standing band members Adam and Corey was beautiful – we are talking modal jazz for a new generation here. Adam’s skill on the piano is always delightful and his ability to push the in-house upright to its limits proved his outstanding capability. The music had warmth and the room gave it the dynamics it deserved as Corey’s vibraphone resonated during his solo, held up by Michael’s infectious upright bass rhythms. My first observation of the evening was the ‘basic’ drum set-up ahead of Johnny Hunter’s appearance. On this introduction to a never-before-heard piece and new drummer, I was overwhelmed at how well his technique molded into the band and then to experience his solo towards the end of the number just set the stage for an exciting night. Fabulous work, and well integrated by all.

Listen to Nat Birchall’s “Song To The Devine Mother” live from Jazz In The Round here:

The title piece to Nat’s 2012 album ‘World Without Form’ is offered up to the joyous audience next, with subtle variants thrown our way by Cory’s use of bow against the vibraphone bars, Michael Bardon also on bow and Nat’s use of percussion, showing the passion for improvisation within the group and gracious need to push the envelope. As one would expect, this number sounds very different to the recorded material and ever more the reason to see jazz live.

After introducing the band we were treated to the unreleased ‘The Seeker’. This infectious head-nod of a groove now had Nat with soprano in hand providing the onlooker with just a beginning of understanding into the wonderful sounds that emanated from the current quintet…

So what could possibly be more apt for this evening than to perform ‘John Coltrane’ – Nat Birchall’s take on the Bill Lee/Clifton Lee penned Strata-East standard? Corey was given maximum space to perform, Nat, now back on tenor, soaking up the music between playing and rolling drum work from Johnny made for a terrific interpretation of an all-time classic. Little can be said by this writer to expand on this tune – better still, be sure to check out Nat at the very next availability. Jazz music is alive in this band!

And, on this otherwise cold November night, the band’s finale came in the guise of ‘Sacred Dimension’, Nat’s 2011 delight, with both Corey and Adam executing skilful delivery (as with ‘World Without Form’); having both worked with Nat from the song’s conception. A masterful harmony between classic jazz structure and free-thinking young musicians proving that there is no room in the world for mediocre in this dynamic field of jazz music we surround ourselves.

Nat Birchall Quartet perform at Jazz in the Round - 24/11/14
Photo: Courtesy of Andy Sheppard

26th January 2015 will mark Jazz In The Round’s third anniversary, for what surely will be a series of musical amazement under the direction of Jez Nelson (founder and CEO of Somethin’ Else / presenter of BBC Radio 3’s Jazz On 3 / original pirate geezer). Held every last Monday of the month at The Cockpit, just a nine-minute walk from Edgware Road tube station or via M40/A40 in from the north with street parking available. With outstanding acts like Partisans and Finn Peters of late, we can but adorn ourselves with musical mistletoe during this festive period with salivation in our mouths in anticipation!

Steve Williams

Astral Travelling Since 1993