Live review

Arun Ghosh Quartet + Archipelago at Sunday Jazz in the Crypt, Middlesbrough

Arun Ghosh Quartet + Archipelago
(Middlesbrough Sunday Jazz in the Crypt February 2020 edition. Review by AJ Dehany)

Arun Ghosh’s music has a kaleidoscopic melodicism that sounds naturally exotic without contriving to Exoticism. The clarinettist, composer and educator has developed a distinctive multicultural Brit-jazz style over the course of four eclectic albums. The playing is top notch, the arrangements are delightfully rich and the improvisation abundantly creative, but it’s always the writing that truly amazes. Tunes that are crafted and complex without being fussy, light and memorable without being commonplace, that are sweet to the ear and make you move your feet and hips.

The albums typically employ a large cast of terrific players, so it was interesting to hear the music performed in a reduced quartet format for a one-off performance at the Middlesbrough Crypt. Playing without other reed players meant Arun Ghosh had to work harder, adding and reworking elements to keep it vital, at times intensively conducting the other players. His energy was visually engaging as well as musically involving. In Come Closer (”a little late for Valentine’s Day but,” he quipped tongue-in-cheek, “it’s for all you lovers out there”) a whisper in bassist Gavin Barris’s ear led to stormy passages that deepened the mood, salting the sweet melodic recipe into a bittersweet grandeur. 

The Arun Ghosh Quartet joined by Archipelago at Middlesbrough. Phone pic by AJ Dehany

The Doors’ atmospheric Riders On The Storm with its Dorian and Aeolian modal interchanges was a great selection to bring out pianist John Ellis’s richly Tyneresque style and Ghosh’s deliciously ornamented melodic style on the clarinet. And that simple bluesy bassline and drum groove let Barris and drummer Dave Walsh drive the music forward with a loose but authoritative feel. This format was similarly effective on Ghosh originals including the driving dance numbers Aurora, River Song and Sufi Stomp, as well as the sweetly balladic confections of Come Closer and Punjabi Girls.

In some ways the quartet format harked back to the band-in-a-room quintet setting of 2011’s Primal Odyssey (which included Shabaka Hutchings on bass clarinet). Usually there’s a large cast including percussionists and other reed players. Led Bib alto saxophonist Chris Williams has developed a partnership with the tenor Idris Rahman accurately described by Ghosh as “beautiful and full of love.” We had a strong flavour of these partnerships when Faye MacCalman from Archipelago came on stage for first album cut Bondhu, “about how clarinet and sax work together, all about friendship” with the two blending together into one voice beautifully, in precisely the way that characterises the blended parts of his top-line arrangements for larger formats.

Newcastle-based trio Archipelago had played a set just before that reflected their own mixture of Northumbrian melodicism and short intense riffs with intense odd-rock rhythms. All three came on for an encore of Ghosh’s Dagger Dance, which is built around the sickest and filthiest of two-note basslines, with the seven of them smashing it as a supergroup as well as building a truly exciting series of partnerships between the two drummers and two bass players (making excellent use of Archipelago bassist John Pope’s effects units to add some rinsing noise to the predominantly acoustic configuration). This extended workout whipped the full house crowd up into a standing ovation, the first I recall seeing at this series. The concert was the penultimate edition of the current season of Middlesbrough Town Hall’s excellent Sunday afternoon Jazz in the Crypt concerts (which we’re crossing fingers and toes will continue later in the year).

It was also a rare and welcome performance from Arun Ghosh who has recently stepped back from gigging his own music, focusing more on theatre and work with schools. He told me he is putting together a new album and playing most of the instruments himself. As well as clarinet he’s always played piano, harmonium, guitar and synths, so while he jokes about it being a bit of a ‘White Album’ style bricolage, that shouldn’t be unfamiliar from his prior albums. He emphasises an element of musical autobiography: “It’s very personal, esoteric… bringing together a lot of the styles and approaches I’m into, it’s totally varied: Ellington to dub… quite indie in places, also taking in more of the electronic soundscapes I make for theatre.” It will no doubt be not only beautifully played and sonically rich but distinguished by his characteristic and charismatic melodic gift.

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

NEXT SUNDAY JAZZ IN THE CRYPT: Sunday 29 March: Nishla Smith, Tees Valley Youth Jazz Collective & Nikki Iles Jazz Orchestra

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