Fred Thomas’ Polyphonic Jazz Band @ The Red Lion UAB

Fred Thomas’ Polyphonic Jazz Band
The Red Lion UAB
Warstone Lane, Jewellery Quarter, Birmingham
30th June 2017

Words: Alan Musson
Photo: Courtesy of Brian Homer

Multi-instrumentalist Fred Thomas is a new name to me. A Birmingham lad, he cut his jazz teeth by attending Birmingham Jazz gigs and it seemed particularly fitting that for his first gig back in Birmingham for some time, Birmingham Jazz were his hosts. Also unknown to me were his companions in the band, guitarist Phil Stevenson and drummer Phelan Burgoyne. More familiar to Birmingham Jazz audiences were baritone saxophonist Mick Foster and alto saxophonist Martin Speake.

The first thing that one notices is the unusual instrumentation. The second, as the band start to play is the repertoire, its traditional mainstream jazz, Jim, but not as we know it. To quote Fred, the band “explores improvised counterpoint in an uncompromising way through the medium of jazz standards.” The band seeks inspiration from Baroque Polyphony. The contrapuntal schemes are applied to some very familiar jazz standards to quite startling effect. The soundworld is “cool” and yet “complex”. Each band member intent on weaving together a tapestry of “simultaneous independent melodies”, with Fred on double bass tonight.

Initially, there was much fun to be had in identifying the familiar melodies underlying the improvised melodic lines. Some were merely slightly disguised, others more mystifying in their origin. Everything was played expertly, at times almost clinically perfect.

Whilst Thomas was at pains to say that this music was unique, I was immediately reminded of the music of Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh and Gerry Mulligan. Listen to Tristano’s ‘C Minor Complex’ from the album The New Tristano for example. The Konitz and Mulligan references were perhaps prompted by the alto and baritone pairing and the fact that Speake’s playing bears more than a passing resemblance to Konitz’ cerebral approach to jazz, perhaps mixed with a little of Paul Desmond’s sophistication. Tristano, a leader of the ‘cool school’ of jazz playing, was not averse to creating completely new melody lines on these old standards, such as were on offer tonight. The set list included ‘Body and Soul’, ‘It Might As Well Be Spring’, ‘All the Things You Are’ all re-cast in striking new renditions.

I was also reminded of the wonderful work that the late drummer Paul Motian did on his series of albums devoted to the Broadway show tunes with Bill Frisell, Charlie Haden, Joe Lovano and, yes again, Lee Konitz. Certainly not poor role models.

The group performed to a large, enthusiastic and attentive audience, who clearly wanted more. This is a worthy project which I hope will stand the test of time.