Alex Western-King Sextet
(606 Club. 2 October 2021. Review by Izzy Blankfield)
“Hold on to your seats!” tenor saxophonist Alex Western-King told the audience of the packed 606 Club before his Sextet played their rip-roaring encore, Dizzy Gillespie’s Dizzy Atmosphere.
With two sets packed with excitement, this advice might have come in handy at the start of the night. The performance was a real odyssey, showcasing the group’s virtuosity with intricate, high-energy solos from the very beginning. Western-King took to the stage with Sam Leak on piano, Jonny Wickham on bass and Jay Davis on drums, with guests Steve Fishwick on trumpet and Alex Garnett on alto saxophone.
In the opening number, Tom Harrell’s Upswing, Garnett, Fishwick and Western-King passed melodies between each other in excited conversation, creating a shared music line that whirled across the ensemble. Two tracks by Peter Bernstein followed, with Fishwick leading the ensemble in the suave, elaborately scored Brain Child.
The second set began with James Moody’s Last Train from Overbrook, a smooth, swinging number full of energy that let each player’s personality emerge. Fishwick’s arrangement of a lesser-known Quincy Jones track, Quintessence, saw the trumpet once again singing over the ensemble, while the group’s rendition of Jimmy Heath’s Big P gave each player space to shine. As if propelled by the excited reaction of his audience in the first set, Western-King exuded confidence in his later solos.
The performance featured several of Western-King’s own compositions, with the wistful ballad line of Inner Eye deepening into the sixth number, Dark Space, a sleek samba which saw Wickham in the spotlight. The contrast of the slower numbers with the frenetic The Long Road demonstrated Western-King’s talent and range as a composer as well as a performer.
Beneath the acrobatics of the saxophones and trumpet, the rhythm section was charged with energy. Leak’s solo in Dizzy Atmosphere was a real highlight, gliding across the keys with laidback charisma. Davis, too, had a remarkable ability to give off the impression that he was just going with the flow, while expertly driving the group across rhythmic spaces. In every one of his solos, Wickham effortlessly explored the full range of his instrument. His tight partnership with Leak in Duke Pearson’s Gaslight was just one example of the solid foundation underlying this ensemble.
One of the most special elements of the night was the interaction – both musical and personal – between the two saxophonists. Western-King’s admiration of Garnett was great to watch. Garnett’s solo in Raymond Hubbel’s Poor Butterfly – his best of the night – elicited an infectious, excitable reaction from Western-King. It was the moments of mutual appreciation between the players that really brought out the musicality of the ensemble.
With Garnett and Western-King cracking jokes throughout, the group stripped away any pretention and revelled in the warm and genuinely enjoyable atmosphere they created with the audience of the 606. Western-King’s ensemble was a group that did not take themselves too seriously, but provided a night of seriously good music.