Review: Axis Saxophone Quartet at Wigmore Hall

Left to Right: Chris Cheek, Joshua Redman, Mark Turner, Chris Potter
Photo Credit: Roger Thomas

Review: Axis Saxophone Quartet
(Wigmore Hall, 2nd November 2012. Review by Don Mendelsohn)

Given his new role as curator of Wigmore Hall’s jazz series, it was fitting that Joshua Redman chose this occasion to present “one of the first ever performances” by the Axis Saxophone Quartet, in which he is joined by three similarly lauded reedsmen: Chris Potter, Mark Turnerand Chris Cheek. (Between the four of them they wielded no fewer than ten saxophones courtesy of Yanagisawa).

Despite being a new group, the all-star cast on the bill was evidently enough to fill the Wigmore Hall, (one suspects the names alone could just as easily have filled even larger venues). And while the single 75-minute set didn’t quite fulfil the programme’s promise of “unusual styles and harmonies” or of the four musicians “challenging their skills at performance and composition”, there were plenty of moments to enjoy.

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Not least among these were several pithy solos from Potter, equally masterful on soprano (as in Redman’s composition AA), alto (in Cheek’s arrangement of Steve Swallow’s plaintive waltz As Is) and tenor (on his own Number Two). His heated improvisations are worth hearing in any context.

Redman too produced some impassioned solos, but for all the potential of such a supergroup many of the pieces sounded like straightforward arrangements of existing compositions, never fully exploring the range of sounds that makes the sax quartet such an attractive medium. The performances were polished and assured, and felt at home in the hall’s pin-drop acoustics, but I couldn’t help thinking that I’d rather hear any one of these musicians in their own bands.

A notable exception was Turner’s sole contribution, the compositional highlight of the set with its alternating ensemble passages and pass-the-parcel solo melodic statements. The writing brought out some of the evening’s most thoughtful playing and here the composer’s introspective tone came into its own, his labyrinthine arabesques in marked contrast to the more robust approach favoured by his colleagues.

The final selection – Potter’s Number Two – closed the set memorably, with interlocking riffs creating a sense of excitement lacking in some of the earlier pieces. But by then I was ready for the end of the set (judging by the rapturous appluase that followed, I suspect I was in the minority here). As Redman joked, the rest of the audience apparently had “not had enough saxophone”, and so all four musicians switched to tenor for a rather inevitable (but still enjoyable) encore of Sonny Rollins’ Tenor Madness. This looser repertoire actually suited the quartet well, with each of its members turning out fine solos.

Given the conditions that the NYC-based musicians have presumably endured of late (the concert had actually been under threat due to travel disruptions following hurricane Sandy), it would only be fair to add that they showed no signs of the trauma facing many of the city’s residents.

International stars are always welcome on the London jazz scene, and Wigmore Hall’s jazz series certainly is a positive contribution to it, but when Redman’s two-year stint is up, it would be encouraging to see such a prestigious venue get behind the wealth of homegrown jazz talent its city has to offer.

In the meantime, the Apollo Saxophone Quartet‘s concert in the London Jazz Festival (Sat 17th at the Forge) promises to deliver a wide-ranging programme featuring pieces composed especially for them. If like tonight’s audience you “haven’t had enough sax”, that should hit the spot.

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