Live review

Ivo Neame Quartet with special guest Byron Wallen at Ronnie Scott’s

Ivo Neame Quartet with special guest Byron Wallen
(Ronnie Scott’s. 23 September 2021. Review by Izzy Blankfield)

In a set that brought together some of the best musicians on the UK jazz scene, pianist Ivo Neame was joined by George Crowley on tenor sax, Tom Farmer on bass, James Maddren on drums and special guest Byron Wallen on trumpet.

This was a set full of energy. In the opening number The Rise of the Lizard People, the first of Neame’s eclectic compositions, the ensemble stated their arrival to the audience with confidence and flair as Maddren led seamless transitions into new tempo spaces. Unconscious Collective, the second piece of the set, began with an intricate chordal improvisation by Neame. As each player meandered into the music, the group created a piece that seemed to unravel slowly before putting itself back together.

In an evening of excited movement, the slower numbers really showed off the versatility of this ensemble. The Divide gave the players space to move around each other and saw Crowley’s tone open up to a warmer, fuller wash of sound. A particularly special moment of the number was Farmer’s bass solo, a pausing of time that was somehow both strong and wistful. This space returned in the final piece, Laika, which interspersed moments of calm – Farmer sliding up the harmonic series created an almost magical foundation – with flashes of frenetic sound.

Undoubtedly the highlight of the evening was the mesmerising Strega, the centrepiece of the set, which began with Wallen playing conch shells of different sizes and tones. Gradually joined by Neame, playing the piano like a percussion instrument, the piece built into a multi-layered euphoria of sound – one of those special Ronnie’s moments that left the room buzzing. To watch Wallen on stage was a privilege, his expressive, skilful playing a real masterclass in improvisation.

Neame’s ensemble was perfectly matched, both in terms of sound and personality: every bit of phrasing was shared and enjoyed, and every solo was met with appreciation from the other players (and with a touch of awe when it was Wallen’s turn in the spotlight).

Crowley and Wallen ebbed and flowed around one another, often blending their tones into a single instrument that floated lyrically above the ensemble. Below them, Farmer drove the music forward with a genuine sense of pleasure, while Maddren’s virtuosity on the drums did not interfere with his absolute accuracy.

At the heart of the group, Neame’s performance was masterful, combining intricately rhythmic accompaniments with impressive solos. Although his quietly charming, thoughtful spoken interludes perhaps entertained the other members of his ensemble more than the audience, this further attested to the reason the ensemble worked so well: it was a real pleasure to watch a set by a group of musicians who clearly enjoyed every minute of each other’s company.

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