REVIEW: Barford/Stoneman Organ Quintet at Hot Numbers, Cambridge (2017 Cambridge Jazz Festival)

Barford Stoneman Organ Quintet
Photo credit: Matt Pannell

Barford/Stoneman Organ Quintet 
(Hot Numbers, Cambridge, 25 November. Review by by Matt Pannell)

It was the penultimate night of the Cambridge Jazz Festival and the city was throbbing with musical temptations. There were vibraphones in a dance hall, a big band in a theatre, some wild synthesizers in the cellars of Clare College and lots more besides. It’s said that you can test the quality of a festival programme by starting near the bottom of the page, so we ducked into Hot Numbers Coffee Shop, for the little-known Barford/Stoneman Organ Quintet. It’s not a snappy name for a band, and they don’t claim to be ‘pushing boundaries’. They’re into the hard-bop music of the late 1950s. Hank Mobley’s This I Dig of You explains what being ‘into the music’ really means to these players. They very obviously love it. Harry Greene’s tenor saxophone framed the song; warm, deliberate and confident, it marked out a playground for Alex Ridout’s frisky trumpet.

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Vincent Herring’s Eddie Harris stepped things up. Bandleaders Joel Barford (drums) and Noah Stoneman (organ) made a restless and fizzy pair, meshing rhythm and melody without ‘propelling’ or ‘driving’ anyone. It’s Miles Mindlin’s guitar that made a mark, here. Without fuss – there’s barely any physical movement, even – intricate, elegant solos were built up in layers. There’s blurring pace but no frantic shredding and no dead ends. Instead, the ideas unfolded with pin-sharp resolution. Heads turned, chatter dried up, and the three who’ve been standing at the bar quickly glanced at one another and took the last seats.

We moved through some Lee Morgan and more Hank Mobley. The players’ fondness for this era makes sense. If an instrumentalist wants to stretch out a little, these charts offer pace and space, wrapped in friendly tunes. The front line, shoulder to shoulder, were dividing out the solos as they went, with little shrugs and nods. Christian McBride’s Tangerine was a rocket launch platform for the trumpet: explosive acceleration followed by crisp and agile flying along a perfect trajectory.

The players are young, but this felt like a normal and natural use of their Saturday evening, rather than some forced academic exercise. Their skills were being shared, rather than ‘showcased’. Noah Stoneman, in particular, wasn’t making heavy-handed statements. Those quiet organ gestures that comfort the bleak and lonely saxophone in Dexter Gordon’s Laura were tender, gentle, private. He had also written one of the two originals played tonight, outstanding by not standing out in a set-list featuring so many masters.

They romped into I’ll Remember April. Even through some ferocious trades with the organ, Joel Barford’s loose-limbed rhythmic flow remained detailed and precise. This goes a little beyond ‘fluid, sensitive and agile’.  This is music’s answer to the laminar-flow aircraft wing. It’s free of drag, pretty much. It simply flies. Is it reasonable to say that Elvin Jones can be heard in the playing of a British 20-year-old? Yes.

When a festival programme’s this strong, it doesn’t matter how far down the page you are. The night was also a reminder that this music was born in small rooms. It’s at home in this packed and cosy place with no tickets or seat numbers, cheered along by an audience clapping like they mean it. The band’s sound was huge, their commitment is total and the windows were steamed up. This is social music at its purest and most exhilarating. We all know someone who likes to talk about the ‘death of jazz music’. Not here, not on this night.

Barford/Stoneman Organ Quintet:
Joel Barford – drums
Noah Stoneman – organ
Harry Greene – tenor saxophone
Miles Mindlin – guitar
Alex Ridout – trumpet

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