The Grip grab The Vortex with free funk and spiritual jazz

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There is no definitive jazz line up. Piano trios or tenor-led quartets may be among the most common ensembles, but they are not mandatory options for musicians with imagination. This fine set made the point in no uncertain terms, as The Grip – Finn Peters [alto sax/flute], Tom Skinner [drums] and Oren Marshall [tuba] – reprised and decisively energised a choice of instrumentation largely pioneered by the great Arthur Blythe, Steve Reid and Bob Stewart. Indeed the name of this new ensemble is taken from the title of Blythe’s landmark 1977 album, arguably one of the best live sessions of the decade.

Launching its debut album Celebrate, The Grip displays a very firm handle on the original template, effectively showing why it is so appealing – Blythe’s bag was a conjunction of New Orleans marching band culture, with its spiky, tight-on-the-beat street resonance, and the kind of structural ambition that spans bebop and the avant-garde.

Tonight the net result is a mutant acoustic free funk, simultaneously traditional and modern, symbolized by the music’s strong underlying pulse that easily suggests gospel hand clapping, regardless of all of the spicy harmonic stew that may be bubbling atop the throaty bass and drums. ‘Celebrate’ is not a throwaway title in that respect, and the other wry, pithy tunes that stand out on the night, the rhythmically teasing ‘Compost Fly’, playing incessantly with offbeat, backbeat and swing, the haunting Arabic-flavoured ‘Saladin’ and the sexy slow grind of ‘The 199 Blues’, are testimony to the skill with which The Grip retains a sense of hearty processional joy all the while pushing to abstraction. Furthermore, the latter piece unveils another key reference, Julius Hemphill, on whose timeless ‘The Hard Blues’ the song is based.

Yet if there is one other sacred spirit in the room it is that of Sam Rivers, who Peters channels to devastating effect when he switches to flute, achieving the same kind of tonal flutter and quicksilver momentum as that of the late master. Intricate yet engaging, cerebral yet physical, thematic yet episodic, The Grip presents a new black music that looks as far forward as it does back.  

– Kevin Le Gendre