Some jazz musicians achieve a place in the limelight; some have it thrust upon them; there are many others who deserve that place but for any number of reasons prefer to work outside its garish illumination. Nigel Thomas’ bands have been a byword for excellence for over twenty years amongst those in the know. While his own name may be unfamiliar to many outside his native South-East, the reputations of past front-line collaborators Byron Wallen and Ben Castle continue to grow, demonstrating the calibre of players who appreciate the quality of his bass-paying and compositional skills.
Tonight see the welcome return to the stage of Thomas as band-leader after the absence of several years. His capacity for securing top talent is undiminished; tenor supremo du jour Paul Booth turns in a typically committed performance on a programme composed mainly of Thomas’ originals. Completing the line-up is the return of long-time rhythm section team-mates Mark Edwards on piano and Winston Clifford on drums. Both outstanding players in their own right, they’ve been working together in Thomas’ bands for over twenty years, and it shows; there’s a level of empathy and trust as they negotiate some of Thomas’ trickier compositions that can only be achieved through years of mutual respect.
Thomas’ bass playing is confidently virtuosic in the higher registers without ever sacrificing it’s solid support. He looks like he’s having a ball with this band, and the audience react with whoops and cheers. Edwards, himself something of an an under-appreciated player, turns in a succession of dazzlingly inventive solos that stretch the forms to breaking point; notably on an un-named, brand new original whose slippery meter changes the band negotiate with panache. A Coleman Hawkins blues line provides the starting point for an joyous work-out that goes from Edwards’ dense, abstract harmonic explorations to Booth’s unexpected raucous, down-home riffing and ends in a thunderously creative solo from Clifford.
‘Yoichi’, a beautifully contemplative tribute to a Buddhist mentor, features a poised Jack Kendon guesting on trumpet, and he also contributes to the closing ‘Egypt’, a pulsing groove that sounds like an out-take from an ‘Ethiopiques’ session. The energy and creativity feel like they could flow all night, and the packed, Brighton Festival crowd are certainly ready to stay; a recording session for this superbly empathetic and accomplished band surely beckons. “Any millionaires in the audience, please see me afterwards,” quips Thomas.
- Eddie Myer