(Norwich Arts Centre. 22 September 2023. Live review by John Arnett)
As Matthew Halsall obligingly explained at the outset, this sold-out show at the Norwich Arts Centre was a game decidedly of two halves. The first featured pieces mostly from the band’s new album “An Ever Changing View” (2023) his ninth, on the independent Gondwana Records founded by himself in 2008. The second set was more in the way of a retrospective, with pieces chosen from the extensive back catalogue.
It was a framework and concept that worked very effectively, looking both forward and back as well as showcasing to mounting effect a dynamic young band. Even before the seven musicians arrived on it, the fairly small NAC stage (quite some contrast to their previous night’s landmark gig at the Royal Albert Hall) was visually striking, dominated by the harp, stage right, and an array of percussion instruments including gong and suspended metal triangles made, we were told, “by this hippy dude in Bristol”.
The six titles and indeed the pastoral mood of this first half were reflective of the landscapes and nature of North Wales and Northumberland where the new album was largely composed, beginning with “Trace of Nature”. The choice of instruments created a beautiful, rich soundscape shown to great effect on second piece “Calder Shapes”, with its apparently simple four note melody, over a complex rhythmic backdrop. Percussion was courtesy not only of drummer Alan Taylor but also of conga player and hand held percussionist Sam Bell, and sometimes Halsall himself, creating music that was somehow both driving and relaxed.
Closing tune of the first half “Pattern” ensured that the set ended on a high note with a new level of drama and intensity largely on account of Alan Taylor’s unusual and brilliantly constructed drum solo. (Incidentally, it was only towards the end of this set that I realised there was an additional percussionist on stage, Sam Bell. Up until that point he had been audible but not visible. Dry ice – who needs it? Aside from the dangers of breathing it in, surely it is better to be able to properly see the interactions of the musicians, as well as hear them.)
Not yet a subscriber of our Wednesday Breakfast Headlines?
Join the mailing list for a weekly roundup of Jazz News.
The second set wasted no time in taking this energy and excitement to new levels, as well as featuring much more prominently the harp of Alice Roberts. Opener “The Temple Within”, for example, was notable for its interesting tonality, melody and atmosphere. It featured a nicely judged flute solo by Matt Cliff as well as a lovely eastern-inflected solo flight by harpist Alice Roberts. “Salute to the Sun” which followed, again featured the harp, with some unexpected bluesy notes, and a very satisfying sound palette overall, slow and spacious over a simple bass figure by Gavin Barras, who has been with Halsall since his first album. A high point here was Halsall’s own trumpet solo, fiery, melodic and full of invention against the spacious and sympathetic backdrop of the whole ensemble.
“Eleventh Hour” started with the gong and soon settled into a mighty groove powered by bubbling double bass underlying a sitar-like drone and leading into another spirited trumpet solo. From this point the momentum never let up, right up to the encore “Finding my Way”, a powerful and appropriately searching piece featuring a fluid, atmospheric electric piano solo by Jasper Green and drawing things to a fitting close.