REVIEW: Mark Crooks Quartet Plays Johnny Mandel at The Bull’s Head

Mark Crooks and band at The Bull’s Head
Photo credit: Amanda Annandale

Mark Crooks Quartet Plays Johnny Mandel
(The Bull’s Head, 2 September 2017. Review by Andrew Cartmel)

Still with us in his 90s, Johnny Mandel is a genuine jazz great. Starting out as a trombonist with the big bands, Mandel rapidly moved into composing and arranging. He became a force to be reckoned with in the film and TV industry on the American West Coast and composed a string of modern standards — Emily, The Shadow of Your Smile, Theme from M.A.S.H., Close Enough for Love — all of which were present and correct in Mark Crooks’ superb tribute to him at the Bull’s Head.

Mark says: “I suppose I got into Mandel through his composition El Cajon — it’s on the Stan Getz album Anniversary, and I just love Getz. And then I guess I heard Emily. I got hold of the Johnny Mandel song book and studied it. His voicings are extraordinary. You should hear musicians discuss his arrangements on Shirley Horn’s Here’s to Life.”

It’s quite likely musicians are going to be talking about the work of Mark Crooks’s quartet, too. Tonight’s Mandel gig gets off to a ripping start thanks to Low Life. Mark’s tenor opens with a big, warm, engaging tone. The instant foot-tapping factor reminds us that it was written for Count Basie, and kudos to this small outfit for projecting the requisite irresistible swing. It’s a taut, jolly, rolling R&B excursion with the playing of the quartet seamlessly integrated in a single, syncopated voice. Simon Thorpe swings boldly on the bass and Gabriel Latchin plays a joyfully tumbling piano solo while Matt Home provides steady highlights on cymbals, moving to brushes to support the hep plucking of Thorpe’s bass solo. Crooks comes booming back, preaching and testifying with boisterous, boastful tenor.

Quietly There is a sophisticated, refined bossa nova, as smooth as an ocean-washed pebble. Mark’s expressive tenor rises over the tight rhythmic chord pattern of the piano, which loosens and opens up into a thoughtfully lovely solo for Latchin, glittering like the incoming surge of the tide. And when the tenor testifies this time it’s like the preacher’s on the beach.

Emily — originally a song with lyrics by Johnny Mercer — is an exquisite waltz. Just the opening figure on Mark Crooks’s unaccompanied tenor raises the hairs on the back of the neck, and causes mundane worries to drop from the mind. Thorpe plays strikingly melodic bass, Latchin’s solo is a searching excursion which explores every niche of the melody. Ravishingly romantic and deceptively complex, this sweetly unfurling little jazz masterpiece shows the quartet at its best — tight and beautifully balanced, expressing the music with a light touch, yet also considerable power and absolute clarity. The waltz develops into what may be the hippest lullaby ever.

The M.A.S.H. theme, also known as Suicide is Painless, triggers a melodic line on Mark Crooks’ tenor which is fantastically detailed and ever changing — virtually avant-garde — evoking compact bebop, refined and smoothed by West Coast cool. It’s deceptively complex, daringly ornate, seemingly simple. “We’ve added some modulations to it,” says Mark modestly.

The Shadow of Your Smile, Mandel’s Oscar and Grammy winning song from The Sandpiper, begins with Crooks on clarinet, making a vivid charcoal sketch of the verse. When the familiar melody kicks in, propelled by Home’s hypnotically perfect brushes, it’s a wonderful moment. The lonely monologue of Latchin’s piano is quietly piercing. Thorpe’s bass is profoundly deft and tasteful — while Homes makes some of the best use of brushes since Picasso. This number is a low key masterpiece, so laidback its stellar statement slips quietly by.

How wonderful to be able to venture out into the London night on a summer Saturday and hear music like this. The only fault with this evening of Mandel’s music is that Mark Crooks hasn’t released an album to replicate it. Yet.

Categories: miscellaneous

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