REVIEW: Steve Swallow / Carla Bley Quintet at Ronnie Scott’s

Carla Bley, Steve Swallow. Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2014. All Rights Reserved

Steve Swallow / Carla Bley Quintet
(Ronnie Scott’s, 17th November 2014. EFG London Jazz Festival. Review and drawings by Geoff Winston)

Steve Swallow and Carla Bley are a very special musical combination, with a history, both musical and personal, that stretches back to the late ’60s, so it was with particular delight that Simon Cooke, Ronnie’s MD, announced that after many years the club had finally managed to secure the first booking of the couple, united as part of Swallow’s high-calibre quintet with Chris Cheek (tenor sax), Steve Cardenas (guitar) and Jorge Rossy (drums), as featured on their recent album, Into The Woodwork .

The beginnings of Swallow’s jazz career coincided with the opening of the original Ronnie Scott’s Club in 1959 , where he and Pete La Roca (with Jim Hall and Art Farmer) would play ‘until 6am … 7 – OK!’ and he fondly and movingly recalled Ronnie, as an ‘especially gracious and generous person’. Swallow, who recorded at Ronnie’s fifteen years ago, was very much at home in the club’s intimate surroundings and also reflected that ‘finally the stars have aligned’.

By way of introducing their opening number, Bite Your Grandmother, he recounted J P Sousa’s priceless response to jazz – “It makes me want to bite my grandmother!” Its jumpy, oddball structure, as if to further annoy Sousa, had something of the feel of an Ornette composition which immediately allowed Bley to impose her own inimitable poise and sense of style on the B3 Hammond, bringing a mixture of nuanced blues-gospel and the merest hint of quirky toy piano to the group’s sound.

With Swallow in the driving seat, rhythmically and melodically, he facilitated various rounds, solos and spells of counterpoint and opened up interplay between Cheek’s gutsy, flowing sax, Cardenas’s rippling guitar and Rossy’s light percussive interventions. On the langorous, melancholic Ever After Bley held down the chords and played on sustains, knowingly reflecting the B3’s heritage whilst maintaining her own unique voice, which prompted Swallow to allow himself to declare, perhaps on behalf of all in the house, “I can hardly believe it! It’s Carla Bley on organ!”

Jorge Rossy. Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2014. All Rights Reserved

A medley of three pieces inspired by Swallow’s love of murder mysteries – Grisly Business, Unnatural Causes, and Bend Over Backwards – embraced spooky passages with Bley sneaking in bluesy organ discords, and Rossy padding, thumping, and generally mistreating the drum kit at one point in a way that suggested that ‘it was the drummer wot dun it’! With space for a beautifully understated duet from Swallow and Bley, that saw Swallow soloing on the high notes and Bley bending her head so low it almost touched the keyboard, the triptych was rounded off with a theme that took its bounce, in the only way it could – from the Pink Panther.

Closing the set with powerful sax and guitar interaction, held firmly on course by the rhythm section, they encored with a number inspired by another mild obsession of Swallow’s, an imaginary TV sitcom – ‘the worst kind!’ – that had Bley vamping the Hammond and Cheek taking off for a final burst to leave the audience with the warm glow of having been in the close company of two of the left-field heros and playmakers of the era.

Opening the evening was the assured Phil Robson Quartet, with Julian Siegel, Dave Whitford and Chris Higginbottom who skimmed between the standards and their own compositions with tight precision and an accomplished edge.

Steve Swallow / Carla Bley Quintet
Steve Swallow – bass
Carla Bley – B3 Hammond organ
Chris Cheek – tenor sax
Steve Cardenas – guitar
Jorge Rossy – drums

Phil Robson quartet

Phil Robson – guitar
Julian Siegel – sax
Dave Whitford – bass
Chris Higginbottom – drums

Categories: miscellaneous

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