Byron Wallen and The Four Corners @ Pizza Express, Holborn

“Trumpet players love each other; because they appreciate the difficulty involved; and not only the difficulty, the tenacity that you need to keep those chops happening.” – Byron Wallen

Words: Michael J Edwards
Photos: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

Not even a last-minute change of venue to Holborn due to a ‘bomb scare’ nearby to the Pizza Express, Jazz Club, Soho could stop this much-anticipated album launch of Byron Wallen’s ‘Portrait’ from going ahead. Byron and his fellow Four Corners band showed true professionalism in coping with this logistics curveball and offering up a stellar set of Jazz which was a bonus for a very appreciative audience, having already witnessed a dynamic German Jazz outfit ‘Web Web’ – the original Holborn headline act bring forward their set to accommodate Byron and Co.

Once the dust had settled, our host continued with his introduction “…It’s a win-win situation for you tonight;” and welcomed Byron and the Four Corners to the stage, they proceeded into their opening tune of Set 1, “Each For All and All For Each” which is track 2 from the new album ‘Portrait’. The Afro-Cuban, jaunty, feel good, energetic intro had the electricity flowing through the intimate jazz club from the get-go. The tight groove of the Four Corners was overlaid by Byron’s feverish tapping on the cowbells.

Two minutes in Mr Wallen then picked up his trusty horn and began his first musical soliloquy of the evening. The soothing sound and controlled note cadence of his matt brass trumpet perfectly complemented the musical output from the rest of the band. Byron’s resting of his trumpet on its stand and taking up residence behind the keyboard was the cue for Rob Luft to engage in his own first solo of the night. The dexterity of his fingers as they flew up and down the frets on the guitar neck was bewildering. Like all top tier guitarist / musicians, Rob seemed completely oblivious to the on looking audience as he contorted bodily and concentrated intently on twanging out the abstract notes from his instrument.

This had the effect of raising the musical intensity of his cohorts, Byron, Paul and Rod to the next level, as the tune escalated to its zenith. On conclusion, Byron addressed the crowd and explained that ‘Each for All and All Effect Each’ is the motto of the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society (RACS) established in 1868; a society which supported the campaign for working-class political representation. Departing briefly from the new album release, Byron then dropped the tempo announcing, “We’re now going to go back in time to 2002 and we’re going to do a nice meditative chilled out number… And this one is entitled ‘Silent Praise’, and it’s from the album ‘Indigo’.” Rod Youngs’ metronomic and quick tempo rim shots got this highly infectious tune underway, closely followed by bass player Paul Michael and guitarist Rob Luft, with Mr Wallen initially preferring the percussive handheld wood block as his instrument of choice, as all four band members nodded in synchronicity to the rhythmic loop they created.

Two minutes in and Byron reverted back to his trusted horn to continue the catchy calypso / Brazilian samba musical narrative. The hypnotic rhythmic loop intensified with Rob Luft’s repetitive high pitched ethereal guitar notes lingering long in the air before gently dispersing into the ether. Byron Wallen then slowly raised his trumpet to the microphone and proceeded to bring forth his own snake charmer-esque instrumental offering, keeping the audience under his mystic spell as the mellow, soothing vibes emanated from his horn and swirled around our heads. What impressed most during his second solo was Byron’s circular breathing technique, popularised by the late Rashan Roland Kirk. The tempo then simmered temporarily to allow bassist Paul Michael his moment in the spotlight as he dropped some extra heavy bass guitar tones which one could feel resonating through the soles of one’s feet. Sixty-seconds later the original intoxicating tempo was resumed as we were treated to a few more rhythmic cycles before the tune gradually petered out and the applause gradually increased.

“We’re going to continue now with probably my favourite tune on the album. This one’s called the ‘Fundamental’… This tune is basically about the fundamentals of being human… We’re all fundamentally the same, and when you look at it like that, things suddenly become so simple. So here’s ‘Fundamental’.” The lazy, languid, contemplative intro was in stark contrast to the previous two tracks. As the tune progressed so did its cadence and three-quarters of the way in Byron was blowing for all he was worth with his cheeks puffed out to their fullest extent ala Dizzy Gillespie and arching his back in classic John Coltrane style.

‘Fundamental’ is definitely a slow-burning tune which gathers momentum as it progresses and finishes with a colourful flourish. With the band and the audience now fully up to room temperature Byron dutifully introduced his fellow band members before uttering, “I guess it’s that time!” With that, he swiftly segued into the illuminating and quirky ‘Alert’, which is track 3 on his ‘Portrait’ album. This is where those present got a privileged close-up view of the master conch player in full effect mode. Picking up a relatively large shell from the selection of conch’s nested on the nearby keyboard, he proceeded to blow through it with the same ease he plays his horn. The unique sound it emitted had the audience captivated from the initial note.

Using modern sound repeat technology Byron began to build a very intriguing loop as he selected various sized conch’s and played short sharp sound bursts from each into the microphone overlaying the previous sound bite and becoming a one man band in the process. By the time he was content with the catchy loop he had manifested, the Four Corners had already begun to embellish the tune with intermittent guitar and bass licks and additional bass drum thumps, rim-shots and beanball shaking courtesy of Rod Youngs.

The delight and surprise on the face of Byron at the freestyle loop he had created was evident for all to see. As the tune flowed along and towards its end, Byron picked up his trumpet and began to play some sweet tones which married perfectly with the musical mosaic that was already in motion. The warm, fuzzy, feel-good factor felt so good one didn’t want it to end. It was like being carried along on cloud made of cotton wool. But inevitably the conch loop subsided, as did the bass, rhythm guitar and drums. The silence was broken by a pent up explosion of whoops and ecstatic and unrelenting applause from a very impressed and appreciative audience.

With microphone in hand, Byron turned 180 degrees to his long time friend on drums, Rod Youngs and half chuckled whilst exclaiming, “That was an interesting loop!” Which indeed it was. Set 1 was rounded out by track 4 from the ‘Portrait’ CD, the pulsating ‘No Stars No Moon’, with Rod Youngs maintaining a complex and multi-layered drum pattern throughout, which only seemed to spur on his fellow band members. The paying punters were sent into the twenty-minute interval with some purposeful pep in their step.

Set 2 kicked off with the lively ‘Pink’, a tune dedicated to one of Byron’s trumpet influencers, Mr Harry Beckett. Long story short, Byron was invited to visit Harry Beckett at his home in London and instead of the house number he was just told to look for the house with the pink door. On entering the home, Byron observed that much of the interior was also pink, which subsequently moved him to compose the tune ‘Pink’. What was noticeable in his preamble is what Byron said about why all trumpet players hold each other in such high esteem. “Trumpet players love each other; because they appreciate the difficulty involved; and not only the difficulty, the tenacity that you need to keep those chops happening.” The incredible, otherworldly high-pitched screech Byron managed to tease out of his simple-looking brass instrument at the beginning of the tune set the tone for the remainder of the track as the Four Corners played musical ping-pong between one another, leading to a snappy and abrupt ending.

The pace was slowed down on the following two songs. The first being ‘ Anthem’ which as Byron described…”…is really what the Woolwich project was about. “He went on to confess after thinking about the recent Brexit issue that, “This album is actually about what it is to go to a new place and see how it evolves based on the people who move there. The people from different cultures, who bring different things to the place and it becomes a completely new place. And I’ve really seen that happen in Woolwich, since the 90s when I moved there… The idea of this project was really seeing how things right in front of you can be as beautiful as things far away.” Following his elongated, but heartfelt and enlightening soliloquy, the Four Corners then transitioned into the short melancholy ‘Anthem’ which in turn segued into the gently and haunting ‘From The Womb To The Tomb’, which contained a short poem read sensitively by Byron. Mr Wallen swiftly pointed out that the tune was taken from an upcoming play called ‘Conundrum’ which starts its run at the Young Vic between the 9th and 30th of May 2020.

The tempo changed up again on the next tune ‘Freedom Struggle’ from 2007, which sounded as fresh and lively as it did when it was first released. Rob Luft was given free rein again to showcase his stupendous guitar skills as Byron took up residence behind the keyboard for a brief while and looked on in admiration. The fabulous, unforgettable evening of jazz music was rounded out by the spellbinding ‘Holler’, which is track 10 on the 12 track ‘Portrait’ album. Byron thanked his band who have been with him for five years and are “still learning the tunes,” and without whom the music he writes could not be brought to life. Naturally, big gratitude was extended to everybody for attending and special props were reserved for the band, Web Web, whose gig Byron & Co. had piggybacked onto because of the aforementioned bomb scare at the original album launch venue of Pizza Express Jazz Bar, Dean Street and to the support by Help Musicians and the MOBO Trust.

I highly recommend that you check out the Byron Wallen and The Four Corners live experience whenever they’re passing through or nearby your Town, City or neighbourhood; you will not be disappointed.

Essential Tour Dates:
March 14 ‘One Fest’ at EartH (Hall), Dalston
March 21 Vortex Jazz Club, London
March 24 East Side Jazz Club, Leytonstone
March 25 Chapel Arts, Cheltenham
March 26 Cambridge Modern Jazz, CUC Wine Bar, Cambridge
April 4 Verdict Jazz Club, Brighton
April 5 Maltings Arts Theatre, St Albans
May 1 Calstock Arts, Calstock
May 2 Ashburton Arts Centre, Newton Abbot
May 17 1000 Trades, Birmingham
June 10 The National Centre for Early Music, York
June 11 Bonington Theatre, Nottingham
September 12 The Hive, Shrewsbury

Astral Travelling Since 1993