Live reviews

Byron Wallen at the 606 Club (EFG LJF 2023)

Byron Wallen
(606 Club. 18 November 2023. EFG LJF. Review by Mike Collins)

Byron Wallen. Photo credit Urszula Tarasiewicz

A packed 606 club welcomed Byron Wallen to the stage on the final Saturday of the 2023 EFG London Jazz Festival with a new musical venture. Wallen is a musical adventurer and singular voice on the UK scene, and his encounter with legendary pianist and composer Andrew Hill, playing in Hill’s big band and quintet in the composer’s latter years, was the genesis for this project. The quintet took the stage a large selection of Hill compositions and a sprinkling of Wallen originals inspired by the connection with Hill.

This was the first outing playing this material for the band of young and emerging players Wallen has assembled. The Hill compositions Black Monday and Snake Hip Waltz were no gentle looseners.  Daniel Piers on piano, Kobe Heath-Ngugi on bass, Sacha Harlan, and Daniel Kosztolánszki on tenor, dug in with verve. The dark, twisting logic of  Black Monday set the scene for explorations all round of the angular harmony. Snake Hips Waltz with a nod at a Fats Waller influence had a strutting attitude. 

They really began to stretch out with a Wallen original Merry Go Round, the spot-light falling on bass player Heath-Ngugi, who answered solos from the rest of the band in turn, finding propulsive phrases and inventive lines as the energy built.  Pianist Piers explored and thickened the harmony of the darkly beautiful ballad, Erato with Harlan’s drumming a delight, all colour and commentary filling out the air of strange beauty.  Another Wallen original, Pickle ratcheted the intensity up further in the second set, the sinuous theme morphing into a trancy vamp with an off-kilter riff that gave Kosztolánszki space to stretch and build the intensity, punctuating blistering runs with hoots and multiphonic squawks. The set closed with Dusk, another Hill composition, this with an elegiac, but edgy air. The band were playing with freedom and invention, marking this out as a unit to look out for and catch again.

Byron at the centre of the action was on great form. Having conceived the repertoire
and brought the musicians together, he played like the music was in his blood,
injecting energy and fire whenever he stepped forward. The result was an intense,
rewarding evening

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