CD review

John Etheridge – TWENTY: the best of Sweet Chorus

John Etheridge – TWENTY: the best of Sweet Chorus
(DY30 – CD review by Mark McKergow)

This delightfully swinging collection of tracks is a fitting celebration of 20 years of Sweet Chorus, led as always by guitarist John Etheridge and featuring Christian Garrick’s versatile violin. Compiled from the group’s three CDs over the years, the music is chosen with great variety and exemplary musical style.

Some of us are old enough to remember John Etheridge making one of the great career turns in British jazz. The young tyro tearing it up with Soft Machine, composing tracks like The Camden Tandem which seemed to require at least 14 fingers to perform, joined the Diz Disley Trio and went on the road backing violin legend Stephane Grappelli.  Etheridge, who almost unbelievably celebrated his 70th birthday last year, is one of our most versatile musicians and continues to perform in all kinds of settings including with young vocalist Vimala Rowe, his own groups including the Zappatistas and the revived Soft Machine as well as Sweet Chorus, his vehicle to continue exploring and expanding the violin/guitar field.

This CD feature 20 tracks taken from Sweet Chorus’ output over the past two decades. The line-up has stayed constant in instrumental terms, with Garrick’s violin backed in Diz Disley-ish style by two guitars (Ethridge and Dave Kelbie) and a double bass (Malcolm Creese, followed by Andy Crowdy). The echoes of the Quintet of the Hot Club of France are inevitably present (as they should be) and pieces by Grappelli and Django Reinhardt are to be found, particularly on the earlier tracks. Grappelli’s Chanson De Rue makes for a reflective opener with lovely duet work between Etheridge and Garrick, while Swing Guitars, dating back to 1936, is as jumping as you could wish with the solos joyously flowing over the traditional gyspy-jazz inflections behind.

However, this is not simply a Reinhardt/Grappelli tribute. Etheridge makes clear in the sleeve notes that Sweet Chorus is not a Hot Club act and seeks to be eclectic and imaginative. They certainly succeed, perhaps most notably by tackling the mountainous terrain of John Coltrane’s hard bop classic Moment’s Notice. By dialling back the gypsy off-beat backing and presenting the theme precisely in unison, the stage is set for some electrifying soloing with Etheridge showing that he still has 14 fingers when he needs them. Luiz Bonfá’s bossa nova Manha De Carnaval lilts along with a sparse backing and a beautiful bass solo from Andy Crowdy, with another dextrous Etheridge solo to follow.

There’s A Small Hotel is another standout performance; from a quiet opening the tempo doubles about halfway through, giving Garrick in particular the chance to shine with a fast-fingered double-stopping violin solo. There are Etheridge originals to enjoy as well, with the short pieces Porte and Lacuna showing some beautiful solo guitar work.

With 20 tracks to enjoy there is a great deal of splendid music here.  If you don’t have Sweet Chorus’ output already, it’s well worth investigating for some sheer old-fashioned musicality with four musicians really listening to each other and creating magic together.

LINK: Preview the music on John Ethridge’s website 

Podcast interviews with John Etheridge:

1 Soft Machine 2 The Grappelli Years

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