Live review

“Paul Dunmall Invites”… with Liam Noble, John Edwards, Mark Sanders at Eastside Jazz Club in Birmingham)

Paul Dunmall Invites… with Liam Noble, John Edwards, Mark Sanders
(Eastside Jazz Club, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. 6 February 2020. Review by AJ Dehany)

Saxophonist Paul Dunmall is one of the most complete musicians you can imagine, known for his powerful free playing and fluid approach to composition, with a massive discography ranging from larger groups to beautifully finessed solo playing. His strong love of Coltrane spiritually and technically is best represented by his Sun Ship Quartet that performs the compositions on that posthumously released avant-garde classic recording. Invited to devise a series of concerts at the East Side Jazz Club in Birmingham, for the second edition of “Paul Dunmall Invites” the saxophonist brought together a particular quartet with pianist Liam Noble, bassist John Edwards and drummer Mark Sanders. It’s a heavyweight group of four hugely experienced and versatile free players described by Birmingham composer Andrew Woodhead as “absolutely stupendous”.

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Paul Dunmall in 2016. Photo: Melody McLaren

Situated within the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire buildings, the Eastside Jazz Club has a bull pit surrounded on two sides by tables and then long black bars with stools. With the lights down it can feel quite atmospheric, one of the benefits of the unnoticeable effects of having invisible professional theatre lighting. There was certainly a strong visual, visceral appeal. I’m struck by the image of John Edwards with his legs apart in the “attack position” familiar to fans of Status Quo, Mark Sanders with his eyes wide shut, Liam Noble’s cogs visibly whirring, and “Dun” at the centre, the pole around which the restless seasons of the band revolved.

The music the group played ranged from moments of strident unity recalling the later direction of the classic Coltrane quartet and his subsequent groups, to episodes of that jerky quirky atonality one associates with free players trying to avoid anything cliché, which may result in avoiding anything musical, which is something you either love or hate. This group retains an abiding musicality throughout even these episodes of abstraction, with Dunmall’s beautifully articulated lines upheld by Liam Noble’s versatile, thoughtful and responsive piano playing enriched with classical colour. Paul Dunmall’s language often has a tang of hard bop and Liam Noble often has a whirl of the Viennese. Like Dunmall, Noble is also one of the most complete musicians you can imagine.

The group’s two concisely developed sets of 33 and 38 minutes felt more like spontaneously composed suites than free improv as one knows it from the Cafe Oto or post-classical paradigms. Their playing felt naggingly allusive and at times mysteriously familiar. Free-form music tends to fire our pattern-forming impulses. I found myself hearing phrases from Love For Sale and countless echoes of late Coltrane. Hearing the “Once again as in olden days” bit of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas was maybe when I realised I was audio-hallucinating again. As Liam Noble explained after the gig, “There’s nothing written.” In response to my saying I could hear a lot of Sun Ship Coltrane coming through, he downplayed it as elements of musical language that might be identifiable but don’t necessarily mean anyone is quoting as such, certainly not playing ‘licks’.

In over fifteen years of watching John Edwards I swear I’ve never heard him playing a ‘lick’. John Edwards being such a physically assertive player can distract from his versatility and range within the non-idiomatic idiom of free improvisation. I overheard Liam Noble say “I can whistle John’s basslines” but maybe I don’t hear what he does, and besides I can’t whistle. Please don’t call the Jazz Police! I don’t think I ever saw him better or with such a surprising degree of lyricism and delicacy than at the Jazz Cafe in November with Klaus Kugel and free jazz legend Joe McPhee. In Birmingham he seemed happy to inhabit more of an ensemble role, not as memorable as with that trio but not as violent as he can be when paired with Steve Noble, for example.

In his playing with Mark Sanders there’s an obvious and highly developed rapport with Sanders’s textural approach to the kit bringing out different more ruminative shades of Edwards’s personality. If he is reminiscent of a boxer, he nonetheless floats like a butterfly. Mark Sanders himself plays like a painter, combining colours from the elements of the drum kit with an ear for vital detail, creating texture with firm but never heavy strokes. He played a solo later on with some teasing backwards rhythms but kept it short, a little disappointingly, seeming, not at all unreasonably, to prefer to explore the group format.

Liam Noble led into the second set with lush suspended post-Romantic chords. He was exquisite in a later moment of lovely stillness which felt like an emotional crux or core. Sadly this seems quite rare in this music. Why when people play free music do they not want to break someone’s heart while they do it? Serious free improvisers tend to rebel against the maudlin and mawkish, keen to avoid any sentimental, heart-tugging impulse in pursuit of a vivifying mixture of intellectual rigours and sheer white knuckle joie de vivre.

The co-organiser of the concert series, Tony Dudley-Evans, made a pitch referring to the relative locations of the merch stands that “If anyone’s interested in buying CDs, Paul’s are outside; the rest of them are inside.” This got a big laugh; a bona fide jazz joke playing on Dunmall’s command of playing notes ‘outside’ of the scale; but the other guys are outside players too, especially Noble. I’m not sure whether to call the Jazz Police or the Humour Corps.

AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff.


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