Live reviews

John Pope Quintet – Live Album Recording in Newcastle upon Tyne

John Pope Quintet – Live Album Recording

(Star & Shadow Cinema, Tyneside – 17-18 April 2023- John Pope, Faye MacCalman, Graham Hardy, Jamie Stockbridge, Johnny Hunter. Live review by AJ Dehany)

Before… Photo by AJ Dehany

John Pope is a revered ‘open hearted bass player’, band leader, omnipresent champion of the Northern jazz scene and all-round good egg. Inspired by the joyous revery of Charles Mingus’s 1970 live album In Antibes, the second album of new original music by the John Pope Quintet was recorded live over two nights in the main room of the Star & Shadow Cinema in Newcastle, recorded by John Martindale of Blank Studios, and filmed by Euan Preston before (as they say) a ‘live studio audience’ of (as John Pope says) “beautiful people with open ears and hearts.” 

The music is an affectionate homage to his heroes of the American and European avant garde, the roll call of players like Don Cherry, Eric Dolphy, Albert Ayler, Misha Mengelberg—his duo with violinist John Garner covers the catalogue of these kinds of composers. The quintet formed in 2016 to play Ornette Coleman but is all about Pope’s compositions. Referential and reverential, the scrupulously written compositions and exuberant performances lean so heavily into the influences that they could almost tip them over, but there is an irresistibly appealing Mingus Jazz Workshop feel of rackety vibrancy on the edge of order and creative disorder.

Beginning as per the previous album, 2021’s Mixed With Glass, with a count-off, personal preliminaries are all part of the fun, with directions like “You, you and THEN you and then you” and, addressing drummer Johnny Hunter, “Two bars of you…” — ignoring Johnny’s response “This is intimidating!” — to instruct “Two bars of you and then everyone on the top.” It makes sense to explicitly develop the creative mechanics as well as the Antibesian live feel. One wiggy climacteric gave way to an eruption of audience appreciation that surprised Pope so much he had to restart his riff!

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It’s hard to speculate from only a first and second listen about which takes from each night might figure in the final album. The balance of the unamplified quintet in the room might have been better on the second night, and the band, while more tired, more confident. On the first night the compositions seemed to shine brighter than the improvisations but the second night showed more familiarity and engagement with the charts: that evergreen paradox of jazz that as you get tighter you get looser.

Warming up is a problem for a live recording; the band was palpably warmer by the end of the first night. The pre-warmed second night was perhaps more consistent, though they were also more tired after playing all day and the night before. After trumpeter Graham Hardy drew the short straw for the intimidating first solo of the first evening, Jamie Stockbridge’s baritone solo seemed self-consciously far out, and yet on the second night he seemed more ‘together’ whilst at the same time going even further out with some tremendously enjoyable employment of noisy blowing over unconventional fingerings. 

“Shiryō”  (死霊 – the souls of the dead in Japanese folklore) is a double tribute to Albert Ayler and Ryuichi Sakamoto, a fruitful yoking of opposing impulses of Ayler’s free noise and Sakamoto’s melodism, that crashes into a full-on everyone-playing-everything blowing session— as well as featuring a highlight Faye MacCalman second night tenor solo. The lovely, almost wistful theme of “Through The Earth”, and its meditative absorbing atmosphere reminiscent of Sons of Kemet with Faye on tenor and Graham’s emotive trumpet sound adding a poignant feel to ruminative music.

In “Shadow Work” (dedicated to Nicole Smith) a lovely bowed theme recalling gypsy jazz and a skittering slowed down oompah rhythm gives a sense of characteristic Workshop-inspired sense of individualised parts in the creative space in between being with each other and cutting against each other. Remarkably, Pope divulged that they hadn’t played it before 4pm that day: “There’s nothing like being overly ambitious when someone else is paying for your recording time.” Admittedly the second occasion seemed a bolder realisation. 

Thanking the friendly crowd, John Pope said “It’s such a privilege to spend time with music like this and then throw it all to the winds with you…” It was interesting to see the creative development of the music over just twenty-four hours unfolding right before your eyes. On the first night “Shadow Work” included a couple of sudden group rhythm stops; they might have missed the first one and just caught the second, but the take on the second night had completely dispensed with these unified stops. “World Dancer”, the avant-bop set closer with a bop flavour and plenty of avant garde shrieking, included Johnny Hunter’s sole drum solo seventy minutes in, but the second night was trimmed down to a decisive stop ending. 

“I appreciate getting ears other than my own on these,” said Pope. Until then, the tunes only existed as files in Sibelius (the music notation software). For him “the theme of this whole shebang” is fundamentally “being with each other.” The project is supported by a development award the Peter Whittingham Jazz Award from Help Musicians UK, an vital for original creative music in increasingly straitened times. Thanks were also lavished on the host venue the Star & Shadow Cinema, a crucial cultural presence in Newcastle. “Places like these are so important and make things like this happen, especially regionally,” he added, “i.e not in the capital.” He sounded like he’s got thoughts. “I’ve got thoughts,” he said; “Can you tell?”

John Pope poster by Adrian Riley

AJ Dehany writes independently about music, art and stuff. 

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