Arild Andersen Quintet and Reisjeger/Fraanje/Sylla by Thomas Rees – QEH, EFG London Jazz Festival 2013

Great jazz demands virtuosity from its practitioners but virtuosity alone is never enough. Communication and sensitivity are key, and it was this that came to the fore last night, on the intimate stage of the Southbank Centre's Queen Elizabeth Hall. Performances by the star-studded Arild Andersen Quintet and by a lesser-known Dutch trio, featuring Harmen Fraanje on piano, Mola Sylla on vocals and percussion, and Ernst Reisjeger on cello, were both characterised by playful, beguiling interaction.

The trio's first half set was a contemplative one. They depend on what Reisjeger calls “sensitive cooperation” and describe their performances as “readings” of original material, choosing to rehearse “options” but to not to predetermine the form or structure of a piece. For the most part, the effect was enchanting. Fraanje provided modal vamps and swirling soundscapes, rivers of sound accompanied by occasional vocals, so sensitive they they were almost indistinguishable from his piano lines. Sylla responded, his voice strident and impassioned, steeped in the sound world of his native Senegal. His melodies were tinged with melancholy and what sounded, at times, like fear. In robes of crimson and gold, he provided a visual dimension to the performance too, emerging from the audience in the opening number, his arms held aloft, and striding across the stage twirling bird-callers and scaly, West-African rattles.

Reisjeger was no less theatrical, drumming upon the body of his cello, sliding wetted fingers over the strings and strumming chords while holding the instrument across his knee, like an oversized guitar. His delicate arco lines glistened with distorted harmonics: fragile and haunting like the sound of old gate hinges swinging in the breeze. There were jagged pizzicato melodies too and whispers from the world of baroque classical music in the form of elegant ground-bass. The strongest and most varied of the three musicians, it was Reisjeger who maintained the interest when the mellow set began to drift towards the monochrome, the other players responding to his changes of texture and direction. At times, these subtle shifts were arresting. Trance-like grooves and lilting accompaniments belied just how alert the musicians were, listening and reacting without delay or a hint of hesitation, coalescing on stops, catches and harmonised melodies.

The Andersen Quintet offered engagement and interplay of still greater quality, along with a more varied palet of colours and intensities. The veteran Norwegian bassist, described the pan-European quintet, which featured Poland's Marcin Wasilewski on piano, Frenchman Patrice Heral on Drums, Swiss trumpeter Matthieu Michel on flugelhorn and Scotland's own Tommy Smith on tenor saxophone, as his “dream group” and it was clear from his playing that he meant it.

The set was a whirlwind of tempo changes and metric modulations. Wistful melodies raced away into snatches of surging swing with the rhythm section pushing hard, urging the group on. Gentle ballads, like “Lucia”, and passages of introspection drew the audience in. They sounded strange and beautiful with simple tunes and chord changes that evoked songbook classics while remaining contemporary and free. It was almost as if you had heard them before, as if Andersen were rescuing old melodies from the swirling fog of your imperfect memory.

The bassist's arco lines radiated warmth, like the soft red curtains and heavy lamps that adorned the stage, but his playing could be aggressive too. His angular, off-kilter duets with Heral, with whom he has worked in numerous different settings over the past ten years, were a particular highlight. The pair were all smiles as they second-guessed and wrong-footed one another, trading and reinventing ideas. They brought the best out of Wasilewski who stamped his foot and hunched his shoulders, spinning out lines and snatching his hand away from the keyboard as if he were afraid it might become entangled in the threadlike melodies. Michel and Smith were imperious throughout. The scotsman contributed muscular solos on up- tempo numbers like “The Fox” with altissimo holds and twisting lines that were heartfelt, almost Coltrane-like. His gentle introduction to the last ballad of the set, played on wooden flute, recalled the airy folk music of the Andes and was a further highlight. It blended perfectly with the enviable sound of Michel's flugelhorn which came soaring out of the texture to take up the melody.

In a final change of pace, the quintet's closing number saw Heral vocalising the rhythms of his kit, distorting and layering them with a loop pedal and playing over the top, thrashing at tomtoms and cymbals. After a nod from Andersen, the tune's signature riff returned, the voices of the horns filling the auditorium and adding to Heral's shouts: a climatic whirlwind of sound and a final hymn to cooperation and interplay.

– Thomas Rees

The Write Stuff

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