Dick Oatts Quartet
(Pizza Express Jazz Club, Dean Street. EFG London Jazz Festival. 20 November 2019. Review by Samuel Norris)
“If there’s anything we need right now, it’s a little bit of this kind of creativity, to solve our issues,” Dick Oatts chimed in a not-so-oblique reference to the political events of the past week both here and across the pond. This rare UK outing from the New York-based alto saxophonist with a band of equal heavyweights – Ross Stanley (UK) on piano, Mark Hodgson (UK) on bass and Stephen Keogh (IRL/ESP) on drums – was certainly not short on creativity and was a welcome break from the madness of the outside world.
Of the seven tunes played, at least five were some sort of dedication to figures from the history of jazz, reflecting Oatts’ encyclopaedic knowledge of the tradition and his ability to expand upon it while keeping a foot firmly planted there.
Among the nods was the deceptively familiar uptempo number One for Benny, which used Benny Golson’s trademark chromatically moving cadential movement as its starting point but had a typically Oattsian pithiness to its melody. What especially struck me about Oatts’ improvising over this tune was how unfazed he seemed by the fast tempo and rapidly shifting harmonies, playing beautifully conceived melodies that followed each other as naturally as if he were speaking. I got the sense that he was playing with the band rather than over them, throwing harmonic bones to Stanley and rhythmic ideas to Hodgson and Keogh, all of whom responded with a level of sonic awareness that only comes from many years of experience playing with ensembles like this.
Oatts’ unmatchable phrasing was also showcased on another original, In Passing, a folksy, waltzing dedication to one of his early musical mentors, Red Rodney. The saxophonist’s solo here was comparatively subdued; he espoused a mellifluous, fragile tone and crafted lines that floated ambiguously over some very sympathetic comping from the rhythm section, finally building towards an emotional climax. The sheer range of timbres that the altoist can coax from his horn was on full display, varying from a dark whisper to a bright cry, but always somehow bursting at the seams. That said, there was never a time where he was overbearingly loud – he generally sat dynamically just underneath Keogh’s ride cymbal – and as a result the audience was able to hear every musical detail, from Stanley’s darkly hip voicings to Hodgson’s deeply grooving bass lines.
A swinging arrangement of Bob Haggart’s What’s New saw Oatts’ most straight-ahead playing of the evening, his language clearly informed by that of Charlie Parker and Cannonball Adderley (although with the occasional modal hint). Again, the phrasing was superlative; I have heard it said that Oatts applies the same precision to playing in a small group setting as he does to playing lead in the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, and that the duration and attack of every note seemed considered is certainly testament to this. Hodgson played an incredibly dextrous solo on this tune too, and Keogh demonstrated some great mallet work.
Oatts’ Brook’s Blues, an homage to Bob Brookmeyer’s serialism-inspired ABC Blues, followed. By the saxophonist’s own description, this tune was an attempt to write something that ‘starts “out” and comes back “in”’, the improvising gradually becoming less abstract and more conventionally bluesy as it progresses. His solo began in a high-powered pianoless trio formation, spurred on by Keogh’s pointillistic interruptions, and gradually morphed into a muscular modal swing with the re-entry of Stanley’s comping. Stanley’s solo was refreshingly diatonic and Jarrett-esque, and the bluesy character of the tune was fully established by the time Oatts and Stanley engaged in some edge-of-the-seat trading with Keogh.
This wasn’t just the Oatts show though; the bandleader gave his sidemen ample space to express themselves across the set. Stanley took a gorgeous solo piano intro into Oatts’ ballad, Meant for You, his nocturnal, ear-bending harmonies and lyrical melodies leaving no question about his stellar form. Hodgson and Keogh were also on top of their game, contributing some stunningly fluent odd-time playing to Oatts’ 5/4 ditty, High Road, and retaining a very high level of rhythmic energy throughout. In particular, the last number, Gumbo G (a tribute to the saxophonist’s earliest influences, such as Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong), was underpinned by a very authentic New Orleans feel by the bassist and drummer, and left the audience dancing into the cold November night.
Dick Oatts on a previous visit to Pizza Express. Photo © Paul Wood/Jazz Images