Live review

Iain Ballamy and Martin France at Frank and Mark’s, Iffley, Oxford (opening gig)

Iain Ballamy & Martin France with Frank Harrison & Mark Hodgson

(Iffley Church Hall, Oxford. Frank and Mark’s opening gig. 18 January 2023. Live review by Alison Bentley)

L-R: Frank Harrison, Mark Hodgson, Iain Ballamy. Photo by Melody McLaren

It was the first gig Oxford-based pianist and bassist Frank Harrison and Mark Hodgson had organised together, and Harrison wasn’t sure what to tell us. It was enough to know that world-class British saxophonist and drummer Iain Ballamy and Martin France were joining them on a cold winter’s night in a warm hall filled to capacity, with an audience packed with local musicians. The church bell-ringers were out in force too. “If they had jazz in the Vicar of Dibley it would be like this,“ said Ballamy.

They opened with a “heavily encrypted” How Deep is the Ocean, the supple tenor in slow, mellow arpeggios and breathy minor phrases; the piano in gorgeous spread chords and sweet melodic runs. The effect was very free but focused. Delicate drums and solid bass took us to the tune’s deep places. The sax’s long notes had a distinctive tone, with such clarity of phrasing- then it chased its own tail. Hodgson’s rich bass tone was melodic; as they broke into 4s, the sax was speedily intricate among silvery cymbal sounds: the subtle sound of musicians really focusing on each other and appreciating each other’s playing.

Iain Ballamy (R) and Mark Hodgson. Photo by Melody McLaren

“You know you’ve made it in the UK when you’ve had a cul-de-sac named after you,”said Ballamy. “They liked this guy so much they named Rio de Janeiro airport after him.” Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Portrait in Black and White (“a bit high risk”) took flight with ringing piano echoing the distant bells and shivering cymbals. The heartfelt tenor eked out the tune freely as France launched a bossa groove;the bass pinned it down. Ballamy phrased like a singer, emphasising certain notes to mark the chromatic steps of the melody.

In the piano solo, notes curled round the groove, exploring alternative harmonies as big rhythmic chords spilled across the beat. The drum solo was full of dazzling rimshots.

Mark Hodgson and Martin France. Photo by Mark Rowan-Hull

Sometime Ago, by Argentinian Sergio Mihanovich, began freely with a piano and sax duet, the long vibrato at the end of Ballamy’s notes recalling Dexter Gordon’s warm sound. It became an upbeat jazz waltz, the piano solo leaping across the stepping stones of the tricky key shifts, skipping between 3 and 4. There was humour in the extended coda as sax playfully hopped up a semitone.

“Let’s see what feels right,” said Ballamy, rifling through his charts. “Are we having fun yet?” We certainly were, as It Might As Well Be Spring broke into

a fast samba with oriental scales, anarchic- and fun. France and Ballamy have played together for 40 years and their rapport was strong as the drums sparkled through samba and swing.

Star Eyes opened the second set with an extended version of Charlie Parker’s Latin intro, in a kind of rhumba. The sax played very freely with humorous quotes, Coltrane-like squalls and a tougher sound. The piano solo went into easy swing for the bridge with neat cluster chords, as the drummer dropped bombs. They all landed seamlessly “like a flock of starlings,“ said Ballamy.

The lilting minor chords of Legrand’s Once Upon a Summertime were elegantly slow, with strong bass stretching out notes between the beats and slicing cymbals. The melancholy piano held back notes then caught up in quick syllables; Ballamy showed us again how good he is at playing a tune. In total contrast, he brought the band in with 4-to-the-bar marching time for East of the Sun. He referenced earlier jazz with humour and flair, even quoting String of Pearls. (Ballamy helped to found Loose Tubes, and you could imagine them playing this.) The thoughtful bass solo had time to explore elegant shapes and more complex phrases.

They ended with  Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now, a reminder of Ballamy’s ECM jazz-folk recordings with June Tabor. Chords were regrouped rather than reharmonised: key changes gave a lift, with some bars and notes elongated; others were curtailed or repeated- it was very beautiful. Ballamy never played notes just for the sake of it- he had nothing to prove but everything to say.

Frank Harrison and Mark Hodgson. Photo by Melody McLaren

Harrison and Hodgson (aka frankandmark) started the monthly jazz gigs to have more chance to play together and feature their “favourite international musicians.”

 Next In the series: Brigitte Beraha, Wed 15 February – BOOKINGS

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