Tim Armacost is here tonight on one of only three UK dates as part of a Europe-wide tour promoting his new record, Time Being. His last visit to London was as part of the New Standards Quartet, the ideal showcase for his awesome technique and deep familiarity with the classic language of the Great American Music. His latest project is an exploration of the wider-ranging freedoms possible within the sax-plus-rhythm format pioneered by Rollins in the 1950s – a real test of stamina and imagination for the frontman.
After a typically effusive welcome from host Andy Lavender, the trio stampede into 'Alawain' – Austrian drummer Klemens Marktl sets up the kind of loping waltz groove that Elvin Jones deployed so effectively with Coltrane, and Armacost takes flight over the top. His tone light and clear, his articulation amazingly clean and precise, he rides Marktl's boiling polyrhythms, circling round a single repeated note like a predator stalking its prey, suddenly swooping and diving into peals of rippling phrases. Michael Janisch's accompaniment on bass has the solemn, drone-like quality of Jimmy Garrison's work, and there's even a 'Love Supreme' quote from the leader, but where Coltrane's music had the urgent, yearning quality of the unresolved seeker, Armacost offers a contrasting display of almost academic poise and restraint in his controlled tone, clean articulation and the precise confidence of his ideas. It's a bravura start – "Marktl doesn't mess around" says Armacost – and there's no mistaking the powerful musical intelligence on display from the whole trio.
'Time Being' introduces a sombre theme played in unison with the bass – Marktl colours on the kit whilst simultaneously fixing an errant cymbal stand. The tune features Armacost's experiments with multiple tempos, and though the device is used as a brief bridging device rather than the main component it's still an impressive feat to pull off as naturally as the trio make it sound. '1 And 4' has an extended solo intro from Janisch, demonstrating the breadth of his musical imagination with all kinds of extended techniques, slides and whistling harmonics – Armacost switches to soprano, his tone still rounded and mellilfluous and Marktl's brushes solo descends imperceptibly into silence, so that for a split moment he's playing the air. "We love the real acoustic atmosphere", Armacost says appreciatively.
'Darn That Dream' receives a stately treatment benefitting from another typically adventurous statement from Janisch, and the full glory of Armacost's burnished tone. '53rd Street Theme' simply flies, Armacost delivering a Joycean stream-of-consciousness of bop language, never descending into cliché, while the rhythm team perform time-stretching miracles behind him. They end with a display of protracted musical high-jinks that shows that you can take the music as seriously as your life but still retain a sense of humour. 'Teo' is a bop swaggerer, with Marktl on coruscating form and Janisch delivering a tremendous performance, worrying at a phrase and picking it apart, always in flawless time. Kenny Wheeler's 'Mark Time' is played on soprano and with reverence, with Marktl demonstrating an effortless four-way independence on drums.
This is muscular, impressive, impassioned and intense music, hard swinging and fiercely intelligent, but the good-humoured interplay between the three participants in the conversation, and the leader's relaxed confidence, make this a warm affair. They even return to encore a gut-bucket blues, though it's hard to imagine such a clean-cut, urbane trio playing anywhere remotely insalubrious.
– Eddie Myer
– Photos by Rachel Zhang