Iain Ballamy and Huw Warren
(Cardiff University Concert Hall. 11 November 2020. Review by Sam Norris)
Few names in British jazz guarantee quality quite like those of pianist Huw Warren and tenor saxophonist Iain Ballamy. The two have a rich history of performing together, notably with folk singer June Tabor as part of Quercus (a group recorded twice on ECM), as well as their own prestigious recording careers, with performance credits from Hermeto Pascoal and Bill Bruford, for example, to Kenny Wheeler and Loose Tubes. The concert was livestreamed as part of musicians’ collective Bamzu’s ‘Lockdown Jazz Sessions’ from the concert hall in Cardiff university.
Before Ballamy and Warren’s concert, viewers were treated to a support set from tenor saxophonist Alex Merritt with up-and-coming bass virtuoso Freddie Jensen. This short gig took place in Alex’s shed and featured tunes by composers as varied as Sam Rivers, Charlie Parker and Olivier Messiaen; the standout piece, though, was ‘Two Black Holes Circling Each Other’, a stunning rubato lament which showcased a beautiful blend of Merritt’s airy sax and Jensen’s deep, resonant bass. The more straight-ahead numbers, particularly Frederick Loewe’s ‘Almost Like Being In Love’, put the listener in mind of Warne Marsh’s duo album with Red Mitchell, The Big Two. Jensen provided deeply swinging counterpoint to Merritt’s winding, chromatic lines. The sparse duo setting gave both improvisers ample space to explore the form of each composition, resulting in a highly enjoyable set which was at once intimate and challenging.
The main event took place after a short break which was filled with entertaining commentary from Bamzu’s Robyn Herfellow, who informed us that over fifty viewers had joined the stream; there was certainly an ‘audience’ of some kind for the second half, then, even if not in the conventional sense. Ballamy and Warren’s set began with Hermeto Pascoal’s O Farol que Nos Guia, literally ‘The Lighthouse That Guides Us’. Introduced by Warren as his favourite Pascoal tune, the duo’s rendition established their strong musical chemistry from the outset, both players tumbling through complex rubato phrases in perfect sync. Ballamy’s playing was typically light on its feet, his crisp articulation and soft, dark sound projecting beautifully despite the stream’s variable audio quality. This was followed by another Pascoal tune (whose title was unfortunately obscured due to more audio interference), a bright Latin with a dramatic, notey melody. The altissimo range of Ballamy’s horn sounded almost Coltrane-ish here, his intensity matched exactly by the density of Warren’s voicings.
Monk’s ‘Round Midnight’ came next, headed up by a brooding piano intro from Warren. The entry of Ballamy’s fluttering tenor marked a change in mood, hammering home the ability of this pair to conjure up a vast range of musical colours and textures even over material as well-trodden as this. The saxophonist’s solo was as harmonically dextrous as ever, Warren’s more sombre, moody reading of the changes acting as an effective foil. By contrast, the penultimate tune was the tenorist’s ‘Strawberries’, a keening, pastoral number featuring some rhythmic and harmonic ideas from Warren that recalled the late great John Taylor, and then transitioning into a lengthy classical etude-like closing cadenza from Ballamy of wonderful breadth and originality.
For all Ballamy’s prominence in the first few tunes, though, it was Warren who shone through on the final encore, a refreshingly old school version of Raymon Hubbell’s Poor Butterfly. The pianist’s solo was impeccably phrased, punctuated by shuffling triplet-led passages, his well-honed left hand giving the illusion of a full band at points. In fact, one never missed the presence of either bass or drums: the whole concert, short at just over 45 minutes, was a masterclass in listening and responding in a duo setting, in balancing the written and the improvised, and most of all in allowing the other’s musical personality to come across unencumbered. Of course, it would have been more special in person, but it is testament to Ballamy and Warren’s brilliant musicianship and ever-present empathy that…even through my bottom-of-the-range Bluetooth speaker…they sounded utterly world-class.