Alex Clarke Quartet + Rob Fowler
(Imber Court, East Molesey, 13 August 2023 Review by Peter Vacher
Barely in to her 20s and seemingly quite new to the game, you might assume that saxophonist Alex Clarke would still be feeling her way. Not so, on the evidence of this Imber Court performance. Ms Clarke knows where she wants to go stylistically, fusing bebop and swing, and came to work poised and ready to play.
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Naturally much of the press attention she has received emphasizes her early start in jazz but seeing her at full tilt with the great mainstream tenorist Rob Fowler alongside and a rhythm section comprising pianist Dave Newton, bassist Dave Green and the ever-aware Clark Tracey on drums was to recognise a player who is already a creative force for good.
She has named Phil Woods as a prime influence on alto, this evident in the Parker-ian strut of her solo on the opening ‘Bernie’s Tune,’ in an arrangement originally penned by Woods. Fowler engaged with this without demur, building his phrases in Hawk-cum-Webster fashion, tonal warmth and melodic shape uppermost. The ensemble blend improved on ‘Dearly Beloved,’ with Green at his classiest, and Newton threatening to levitate as he dug into these time-honoured changes. ‘On Green Dolphin Street’ went well too, energetic all the way, with Tracey enhancing the collective groove.
Rest assured, the Newton-Green-Tracey trio was in no mood to tread water – they were here to dispense swing and they did. Never more so than on Curtis Fuller’s ‘The Opener’ which ironically was the set’s closer and for which Clarke picked up her tenor to give us a taste of the Lockjaw-Griffin tough tenors template, the bravura shout inherent in the arrangement an augury of good things to come. Here, Clarke’s solo unfurled in gritty, hard bop fashion, powered by the trio’s razor-sharp sense of time.
Another rewarding choice was Sweets Edison’s ‘Did You Call Her Today’ (a ‘Mellotone’ contrafact) in the second set, Newton more economical, the double-tenor voicing yielding a pleasing air of blowsy swing. Benny Golson’s lovely piece, ‘Whisper Not’ followed, the outcomes just perfect, Newton sparse at first, Clarke soloing with Green alone. She then set herself a challenge, tackling Hoagy Carmichael’s venerable ‘Stardust’ as her solo tenor feature, and excelled, having sorted out the notation of the verse with Newton via her mobile phone, building well, the phrases carefully assembled. Was she perhaps inspired by Fowler’s earlier, quite sublime reading of another great test-piece, Johnny Green’s ‘Body and Soul’, where he opened acapella before moving elegantly through the changes, varying the intensity and never even hinting at the Hawkins classic?
What with a rouser like Tubby Hayes’ ‘After Tea’ from the Couriers repertoire, given a Latin feel, the tenor pair again in the ascendant, Green double-stopping ably in his solo, there was more than enough here to underline the emerging prowess of Clarke and the agreeably potent combination of youth and experience represented on this bandstand. Fearless, well-organised and never prolix, Ms Clarke is undoubtedly well on her way – and this crowd loved her.
Imber Court’s ongoing jazz programme, curated by long-term organiser Carole Merritt, continues with Five-Way Split (24 September), Art Themen (29 October) and Quintet-à-Tête (11 November). Info: 01932 845174.
Alex Clarke (as, ts,arr), Rob Fowler (ts), Dave Newton (kbd), Dave Green (b), Clark Tracey (d)