Live review

“O’Higgins and Luft play Monk and Trane” Album Launch at Pizza Express Dean Street

O’Higgins and Luft play Monk and Trane Album Launch
(Pizza Express Dean Street, 7 October 2019. Review by Sebastian Scotney)

“Technological progress has merely provided us with more effective means of going backwards,” Aldous Huxley once wrote. And the negative news about Pizza Express swirling around in the 24 hours before this gig seems to support that theory. It is essentially a healthy business generating regular cash flow, but is saddled with absurdly high debt levels after a succession of junk bond-funded takeovers. If people once knew sensible ways to construct company balance sheets, the art seems to have been forgotten.

O’Higgins and Luft (Photo © Monika S. Jakubowska)

Pizza Express’s music venues are a precious and wonderful resource built up over decades, and it can only be hoped that in the heartless games of chicken and hardball that are about to played remotely between banks and bond holders, a thought will be spared to leave this remarkable asset intact.

If some valuable crafts have been wantonly and wilfully forgotten, then there are others that are remembered, nurtured and respected, and last night’s gig at Pizza Express Dean Street brought that fact home in the most joyous way possible.

The quartet venture jointly led by saxophonist Dave O’Higgins and guitarist Rob Luft gives a strong message about sustainability, professionalism, and what jaw-dropping talent deployed in the right way can achieve. This gig to launch their new album, O’Higgins and Luft play Monk and Trane (Ubuntu Records) was (drum roll) the 15th date of a 37-date tour. The point is worth making: top-flight musicians with talent, energy and vision know how to defy odds and create things – without wanting to labour the point – rather than to destroy them.

O’Higgins and Luft first got to know each other years ago, when the guitarist was a member of NYJO and the saxophonist was running workshops., and the trust between two musicians born not quite three decades apart that has built up on the bandstand since then is yielding great results. They have taken as linking themes music associated with John Coltrane and compositions by Thelonious Monk and, with a sure touch, constructed a very satisfying programme for last night.

There are moments when the pace of Rob Luft’s inventiveness and imagination just defy belief. In an introduction to Dreamland, he was landing new voicings so thick and fast, the two guitarists sitting at a table in front of me stared at each other in incredulity, and laughed. I had the sense that this exploration has got far more intricate and worked since the version on the record. In his soloing Luft leaves plenty of space, so each new idea, each arabesque can stand on its own and be reflected upon. He has an irresistible combination of, yes, level-headedness, with wanting to challenge himself to new heights, and also wanting to have fun. All these three are all going on at the same time. And then, in Coltrane’s Resolution he went somewhere different again. This was hook-based intensity in the popular “new jazz” direction, delivered in the true and authentic spirit of frenzy and trance that would have earned the approval of, say, Kamasi Washington. But it was a moment, and then it was gone. And Luft’s expression after it was a picture, as if saying “Did I really just do that?” His is playing has the capacity to surprise and always leaves one wanting more.

The O’Higgins Luft Quartet (Photo © Monika S. Jakubowska)

Enjoyment, then, is at the heart of what makes this band tick, and Dave O’Higgins communicates that well through his introductions and explanations, and also through his playing. He gave Trinkle Tinkle which closed the first set, and Giant Steps, which opened the second set, a spirit of adventure but also of serene authority. He thinks in long lines, and the more one tunes in and listens, the more there is to appreciate in his playing.

I thought that Scott Flanigan on organ from Belfast, was at his most effective when providing the group with ethereal textures, and most noticeably on the tune I’ll Wait and Pray. It is tempting to quip that a man from a city with two very grand cathedrals was always going to know how to conjure up the required atmosphere of prayerfulness and churchiness. But, verily I say unto you, he did.

And Rod Youngs at the drums is such a live wire, his commitment is total. He had spend a long day in Abbey Road Studio 1, but there was never a hearbeat missing in his performance. His ability to put in interjections that make musical and emotional sense is unfailing, and for someone to put the seal, to build the band sound and to give just the right sense of finality to the last number Harold Mabern’s, Rakin’ and Scrapin’ we were in the securest hands possible.

And the best news is that there are still 22 gigs of this tour to go. Go.

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