Live review

Hans Koller Big Band at the Vortex

Hans Koller Big Band
(Vortex Jazz Club. 24 September 2022. Live review by Duncan Heining)

Tom Challenger in the Hans Koller Big Band. Photo courtesy of Peter Freeman

Hans Koller is one of the most accomplished composer/arrangers on the UK scene today. Had he been around in the late ’60s, he would have a clutch of Derams to his name and be celebrated as a major figure in British jazz. How times do change!

Koller’s latest project grew out of a 2016 commission, Twelve Reinventions for George Russell, and focuses on the work of the great African-American composer. With Russell’s centenary falling in 2023, this superb set at the Vortex – heard last Saturday by two packed houses – should  be viewed as the opening salvo in next year’s celebrations of Russell’s life and work. Hopefully, there will be many more outings for this remarkable band and Koller’s take on Russell’s music.

The band packed a massive amount of music into their hour-long set. They opened with Bird’s “Billie’s Bounce” featuring eloquent but concise solos from trumpeter Alex Polack and Tom Challenger on tenor backed by contrasting riffs from the brass and Monkish fills from the piano. Koller’s own bluesy tribute to the great man, “On Great Russell Street” was followed by Russell’s “Knights of the Steamtable”, that belied Koller’s claim to have “just fleshed out the arrangement a bit”. 

For me, the acid test for any jazz composer lies in their ability to write for trombones. Here and throughout, Koller met that test with the three trombones adding a sonic gravity to proceedings that Russell would have loved. In fact, the sound of Olivia Hughes’ bass trombone coming through the mix was one abiding memory of the night. This was big city jazz echoing with the sounds of Russell, Gil Evans and Ellington.

On “Parker’s Mood”, Koller used the woodwinds and brass to excellent contrasting effect as they swapped riffs and counter-melodies. Young trombonist , Matt Seddon damn near stole the show with his solo, his use of vibrato suggesting the wonderful Ellingtonian Lawrence Brown. However, on an evening of stellar performances it was Josephine Davies’ lyrical, flowing tenor solo on Russell’s “Ye Hypocrite, Ye Beelzebub” that really grabbed the plaudits and captured the essence of Koller’s Latin-inflected arrangement. This was so good, it made one wish that Koller would take on take Russell’s “Cubana/Be-Cubano Bop” and “Manhattan-Rico”.

John O’Gallagher’s alto graced Koller’s witty, sparkling “Ducks in a Row” and the band closed with a near complete deconstruction of “Ezz-Thetic” featuring a series of cadenzas and duets between the horns. This was a music rich in colours and textures but with unusual, angular juxtapositions particularly from the horns but powered by the rhythm section of Calum Gourlay and Tim Giles. I reckon George was up there smiling.

Hans Koller at the Vortex. Photo courtesy of Peter Freeman

Dr Duncan Heining is the author of Stratusphunk,, The Life and Works of George Russell. (LINK TO INTERVIEW)

Personnel – Hans Koller (piano), Tim Giles (drums), Calum Gourlay (bass), Olivia Hughes (bass trombone), Matt Seddon, Malcolm Earle-Smith (trombones), Robbie Robson, Steve Fishwick, Alex Polack (trumpets), John O’Gallagher, Zhenya Strigalev (altos), Josephine Davies, Tom Challenger (tenor) 

Set list – “Billie’s Bounce” (Parker), On Great Russell Street (Koller), Knights of the Steamtable (Russell), Sixteen (Koller), Parker’s Mood (Parker), Ye Hypocrite, Ye Beelzebub (Russell), Ducks in a Row (Koller), Ezz-thetic (Russell) 

This performance was part of the Vortex Jazz Festival, which received support from London Borough of Hackney

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