Album review

Tony Coe & John Horler – ‘Dancing In The Dark’

Tony Coe & John Horler – Dancing In The Dark
(Gearbox GB1567 CD and vinyl. Review by Mark McKergow)

Two of our most distinguished jazz musicians intertwine their musical journeys for an hour in this rediscovered live recording from 2007. The results are bewitching – chamber jazz of the highest order, which can now be enjoyed and savoured again and again.

Reedman Tony Coe’s long career led him from Humphrey Lyttelton in the 1950s through R&B with Georgie Fame all the way to free jazz with Peter Brötzmann. He was the first non-American to be awarded the Jazzpar Prize (sometimes called the ‘jazz Nobel’), in 1995, spent many years as part of the Kenny Clarke/Francy Boland Big Band and yet remains perhaps the jazzer’s jazzer, the connoisseur’s choice. I wrote about him recently as part of Stan Tracey’s Big Brass on a super date from 1968 (link below), a featured soloist alongside Don Rendell, Ian Carr and Acker Bilk (where he apparently laid down Acker’s part in the arrangements, leaving Bilk to drop in the solos!). He has also explored contemporary music with classical clarinettist Alan Hacker’s ensemble Matrix.  

This recording is from some 40 years later, a duo in a church during the Appleby Jazz Festival of 2007. The Appleby scene was always focused around Stan Tracey and chums with a great supporting cast, and on this occasion pianist John Horler was engaged to perform alongside Coe. They were well acquainted with each other’s playing, having shared bandstands since the 1970s – Horler being perhaps best known for his work with John Dankworth and Cleo Laine, with similarly wide-ranging musical horizons. On the day, Coe decided to take only his clarinet over to the church (the saxophone case being too heavy, apparently) and the pair had a quick chat about what to play before going onstage.

The results are a magical hour of interplay, counterpoint and musical invention. Coe’s style is perhaps best described as ‘elliptical’, sliding around the theme in an off-centre yet thoroughly musical fashion, with fine technique supporting his imagination so that everything is ‘played for’ rather than flurried or gestured. Horler has a similarly broad palette and listens like a demon, giving space, interjecting and supporting in equal measure. Six of the eight tunes are standards, with the Bill Evans’ Re: Person I Knew opening the show with rippling lines that sound like the musicians saying hello again after a time apart. Night And Day raises the stakes, uptempo and now with clarinet and piano thoroughly conjoined rather than politely making space for each other; a contrapuntal moment leaves the listener agape and in awe. Coe leads into Body And Soul with a cadenza-like opening into the unmistakeable melody, and even here there are twists and turns with both Coe and Horler walking the tightrope between their own inventiveness and allowing the tune to speak. 

Some Other Autumn is a Coe contrafact on Autumn Leaves, which – as with many of these performances – sees a wonderful fluidity from both musicians, Horler continuously shifting the pulse between wistful reflection and urgent action. Horler’s own Piece For Poppy (dedicated to his wife) sees him taking the introduction with deep bass notes before Coe leads confidently into the tune, as if he’d known it for a thousand years. Dancing In The Dark is a worthy title track, an effortlessly implied swing take with Coe fully into his stride, sliding and leaping around the changes as Horler morphs from feel to feel, picking up tiny cues and conjuring new contexts out of thin air. Around In Three is a Horler original, an atmospheric ballad which brings the house down. Even on the well-trodden closer Blue Monk there is imagination, pace and momentum in a masterclass of how to reinvent the blues while, as always, helping the tune itself to be the third star on the stage. 

In summary, this is a very special album from two very special musicians. Andy Cleyndert’s production has helped the music off the original tape with clarity and sensitivity, and Gearbox Records have put it in their wide-ranging collection of bang-up-to-date releases and archive classics. The 2007 event proved to be the swansong for the Appleby Jazz Festival. It is to be hoped that this isn’t also Tony Coe’s swansong (he’s 87, living near Canterbury in semi-retirement), but if it is, it’s a very fine one. 

LINKS: Dancing In The Dark on Gearbox Records

John Fordham previews the album and interviews both Tony Coe and John Horler

Review: Stan Tracey’s Big Brass We Love You Madly CD ft Tony Coe

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