(Lauderdale House. 4th July 2013. Review by Peter Vacher)
Lauderdale House, Highgate’s historic arts centre is due a face-lift and fund-raising is underway. Not sure if Art Themen’s decision to badge his quartet’s recent concert as ‘New Directions’ arose out of sympathy for this endeavour or whether it reflected his desire for a fresh examination of the music he so evidently loves to play. Either way, the occasion was a triumph, fully appreciated by a packed audience, the interplay between Themen and his pianist John Donaldson of a very high order indeed. Add to their machinations the support of the always impressive bassist Dave Green and the propulsive energy of drummer Winston Clifford and you have a collective that might stand comparison with any in the wider world of jazz.
On a number like Dexter Gordon’s For Regulars Only, Themen’s fervent phrasing recalled earlier styles, old-time swing coated with a contemporary gloss before he moved into bellicose, edgier interjections, with Clifford offering a fusillade of percussive effects. It was on this piece that Donaldson unleashed the first of many compelling improvisations, with Tyner-like riffs and heavily chorded figures balanced by a flood of single-note explorations. For Charles Lloyd’s ballad Forest Fire the prevailing mood was calmer, more reflective perhaps, before Clifford produced his solo of the night, every part of the kit deployed in a subtle barrage of effects.
Monk’s Trinkle-Tinkle is awkwardly shaped and sets its own challenges, these easily surmounted by Donaldson and company, Themen bull-dozing the theme into submission. This was followed by a ballad reading of Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most marked by a game of catch-as-catch- can between bassist and saxophonist that had the audience enthralled. Me, too. Later joys included a duet between Themen and Donaldson on You Must Believe In Spring and another Monk-ian test-piece Played Twice which foxed most of us but inspired more fascinating interplay, notably between Green and Clifford. When organiser Brian Blain suggested an encore he like us may have been surprised to see Clifford emerge from behind the drum-kit to vocalise engagingly on Bye Bye Blackbird, scatting excitably with his band companions. Quite a high-note on which to end this latest Lauderdale season.