Review: Steve Williamson/Steve Coleman

Steve Williamson and Pat Thomas, London Jazz Festival 2011
Photo credit: Mick Destino

Steve Williamson/Steve Coleman
(Queen Elizabeth Hall, Nov 11th, London Jazz Festival. Review by Jon Turney)

Steve Williamson opened this two-Steves-for-the-price-of-one evening with an improvised duo set alongside Pat Thomas, some spiky tenor saxophone improvisation complemented byquick fingers, and occasionally palms and elbows, on the piano keys. Then a spontaneous ballad evoked some more rolling sounds from the piano, and so they went on:there were a few boppish lines, some neat endings, and a lyrical finish with Williamson on soprano. The duo at its best raised echoes of Stan Tracey and Mike Osborne’s old live set Tandem ,though they were more interested in tunes, or fragments of tunes than this pair. Then Williamson, who the audience seemed pleased to see back in action after some years when sightings have been rare, made way for the man he called his friend and mentor, Steve Coleman.

Steve Coleman is an articulate commentator on his own work. A gentle but effective interrogation by Kevin LeGendre before this, the alto man’s first London gig for seven years,gave him plenty of time to remind us that anyone writing about his music should choose words with care. M-Base –the label attached to the collective he and other young notables like Greg Osby, Graham Haynes and Cassandra Wilson, worked out of in the 1980s – was never a style, more of an idea, a way of working. And, yeah, maybe rhythm is the first thing he wants to deal with musically, but “when I say rhythm, I mean the way you do something.”That something could just as well be shooting baskets as playing jazz. Style, now, was the right word.

The style of his (very)occasional trio, Reflex, is, he says, spontaneous, mercurial. To these ears, the band he brought over for a brief European tour seemed a stripped down version of the glories of the current version of his Five Elements Band – check their Newport festival set this Summer, still on NPR  for a compelling sample.

The trio shares a keyboard player, the young Cuban David Virelles, with the current Five Elements,and has the remarkable Marcus Gilmore on drums. It is pretty interactive, but there is never any doubt about the leader. Coleman plays almost throughout. A typical number features an odd-numbered figure, stated on the alto, picked upon the piano. Virelles’ role is then to repeat it for some minutes, with great concentration and apparent enjoyment, while it is embroidered exuberantly by Gilmore, and Coleman improvises over the top.

The effect, even though much is going on, can be a little static. But the alto lines are never less than absorbing. Coleman retains his attractive, dry, up tempo tone, and a softer, more ruminative sound on the slower, more lyrical items which provide contrast. The faster passages seem most characteristic, though. The alto man still has that splendid off-kilter urgency which sounded so fresh when he joined Dave Holland’s first great quintet back in the ‘80s. And in Gilmore he has a superb foil, whose unflagging percussive invention and all round musicality is a marvel. Good to know, somehow, that he is Roy Haynes’ grandson.He isn’t channelling the great man, or only to the extent that anyone who plays drums on a jazz stage must have absorbed some of his sound. His touch, in fact, seemed more reminiscent of Jack DeJohnette. But if he matches Roy’s longevity we can look forward to hearing how he develops for most of the rest of the century.

I’ve always enjoyed Coleman’s line, with its “sculpted astringency” as the Penguin jazz guide once put it, and the 80 minute set allowed plenty of time to appreciate it. The little we heard of Virelles unleashing his technique suggested that more would have been good, but we got more Steve instead. He said almost nothing, though did crack a smile when someone nose-blew on an adjacent pitch just as he delivered the first note of the third number unaccompanied. We felt a little more included at the end, when, after a few pieces which seemed as freewheeling as those at the start but had cutely pre-rehearsed endings, he switched towordless, rhythmic vocalising, and almost edged toward a good-time sound. The voice reappeared for an encore where the combination of ever so simple piano vamp, semi-chanting, and the simplest percussion dipped into Don Cherry’s soundworld for a couple of minutes. Then a simple “good night”, and the trio hot-footed it to Ronnie’s for a quick set up for Jazz on3. I doubt if that deprived us of another encore, though it seemed a slightly odd arrangement as Jon3 will airing the whole concert later on. But altogether a very welcome return to the UK. Don’t leave it so long next time, Steve. Or Steve.


Categories: miscellaneous

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