Impossible Gentlemen, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester 17 June 2011

It is seldom that musical formations gel quickly and instead close, intimate units are normally formed over a considerably longer period of time. The Impossible Gentlemen are the exception to the rule in sofar as they have only been in existence for just over a year, first performing a UK tour in 2010. This included a prime spot as part of the Manchester Jazz Festival at the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM). They then went on directly to record their debut self title album which has met with considerable plaudits, not least from this writer. Manchester connections are all too obvious with pianist Gwilym Simcock a former alumni of both Chetham’s School of Music and more recently of the RNCM. Guitarist Mike Walker is the Salford-born musician who has frequently performed in the cities jazz venues. Completing the quartet are the veteran American pairing of bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Adam Nussbaum. The former has played with many of the all-time greats including Joe Henderson and Pat Metheny while Nussbaum is simply one of the most respected and versatile drummers and has played on countless recordings, including the prestigious ECM label.

For this collective return to Manchester, they performed a Band on the Wall presentation that took place at the Bridgewater Hall, as part of a series of musical collaborations between the two venues during the summer months. A fine start to the evening commenced with Mike Walker undertaking an extended introductory solo, backed by some delicate ensemble playing. Once the piece had ended, Gwilym Simcock then stood up, on the first of several occasions, to enter into some friendly banter with the appreciative audience, explaining how a given composition came about. Clearly he is an active and enthusiastic educationalist as well as being an outstanding musician. First up was a variation on the standard, ‘Early as in a morning sunrise’, humourously re-titled ‘You won’t be around to see it’. What the quartet immediately conveyed here was the constant quest for musical exploration while at the same time operating as a collective whole. This requires no little virtuosity and teamwork, but it was self-evident how comfortable each of the musicians were in the other’s presence. Mike Walker was in more reflective territory here, echoing the blues-inflected hues of one of his guitar heroes, John Scofield. As would be the case throughout the evening, Simcock would then take over soloing in imaginative bursts as a piece developed in intensity. In general the quartet constantly switched the order of soloists and this added great variety to the performance, and kept proceedings free of needlessly repetitive clichés. Indeed once drummer Nusbaum was in full flow, the numbers became more jazz-inspired and Swallow was always there behind everyone else both maintaining and propelling the band to ever greater heights.

Travelling the globe as a creative musician can in fact serve as a major inspiration to write and while touring western Australia, Simcock developed a new riff which was aired here with the pianist revealing his most lyrical side. This was further illustrated on the piece ‘Wallanda’s last stand’ where the pianist deployed the use of the little known (in jazz circles at least) melodica, a keyboard instrument that is blown via the mouth, thus creating at once a haunting and sensitive sound. The instrument’s major practitioner was the late roots reggae instrumentalist Augustus Pablo and it was an inspired choice by Simcock to opt for this instrument and made for a lovely contrast with acoustic piano.

For the second part of the concert, Mike Walker introduced the opening number to the album and one of his own compositions ‘Laughlines’, a familiar piece to those who have heard the quartet previously, and one during which both Simock and Walker set off on an exhilarating duo. Blues and jazz have long enjoyed a fruitful relationship over the decades and Adam Nusbaum explained that for the following piece, the down home blues themed ‘Sure would baby’, the band would be paying homage to some of his personal blues heroes such as Leadbelly and Muddy Waters. At times the quartet would effortlessly shift the mood within a number and this was perfectly illustrated on a tune such as ‘When you hold her’ which at the outest started as the most delicate and refined of pieces, but, over several minutes, developed and morphed into a mid-tempo groove with electric guitar featuring delightful blues licks from Walker before the quartet returned to the quiet contemplation of the introduction.

What new directions for this formation? One posiitve direction was hinted at towards the end by a Latin-flavoured composition penned by Swallow while driving in his car in Boston, Massachusetts. Here and on the well deserved encore, Steve Swallow demonstrated what a fine soloist he is with subtle accompaniment from Nussbaum. In short, this was a small-scale demonstration in musical master craftsmanship.

Warming up the evening’s musical was local guitarist Stuart McCallum who performed solo and was showcasing numbers from his later in the year to be released debut album. Simply accompanied by amplified guitar and pre-recorded keyboards, McCallum demonstrated how imaginative one musician can be and he delighted the audience with a quirky reworking of some old, familiar themes including a lovely take on ‘Wonderwall’ from local rock heroes Oasis. Possibly the tour de force was the sparse interpretation of ‘Amazing Grace’ while at various points during a piece, a light Latin-style vamp would be introduced seamlessly. Stuart McCallum will be performing at this year’s Manchester Jazz Festival on 27 July with extended band and this promises to be a definite festival highlight. One looks forward with some relish to hearing the debut CD.

Tim Stenhouse