Brian Charette Organ Sextette – Pizza Express, London

“I’m gonna get myself a cocktail,” Brian Charette decides as show-time looms. With a borrowed Hammond B3 and high-class local stand-ins for his New York Organ “Sextette”, Charette is relaxed and interested in the prospect of these strangers playing his music.

His six acclaimed albums are influenced by Larry Young at least as much as the inevitable Jimmy Smith. More even than that, he’s an Anglophile prog-rocker at heart, idolising Keith Emerson, and was pretty much drummed out of the sometimes stiflingly doctrinaire New York scene for several years for playing rock. His music tonight doesn’t raise the soulful steam his instrument usually suggests. Its boredom with bop or soul-jazz verities leads to less well-mapped territory; even so, there’s a feeling that he’s boxing himself in for the jazz circuit’s sake, and not letting rip with all he has.

Gareth Lockrane (flute), Sammy Mayne (alto sax), Osian Roberts (tenor sax), James Allsopp (bass clarinet) and Matt Fishwick (drums) are Charette’s enviable pick-up band. It’s the clarinet that gives this line-up its edge, finding sinuous melancholy on ‘Computer God’, as the alto completes a pensive ascent. Allsopp suggests the urban romance of ‘40s New York, too, before the sax was fully king.

‘Fugue for Kathleen Anne/The Ex-Girlfriend Variations’ (exes are, Charette confesses, a theme) begins sounding like mediaeval court music on the Hammond, then becomes smooth, churchy funk, surging forward as Charette pours it on for the climax. The B3’s versatility, evoking both 1960s futurism and Anglican classicism, is fully explored.

‘Risk’ begins as a tiptoe down the stairs that becomes a drunken tumble, before Charette settles into a sort of smooth staccato, then strikes a more jarring beat with drummer Fishwick. ‘Prayer for an Agnostic’ includes a comfortingly mournful alto solo, and more introspective tenor work. Charette again shows church chops, though he hasn’t darkened the door of one for years, and finishes faintly recalling The Band’s Americana organ genius, Garth Hudson.

Lockrane plays the funkiest, hardest-blowing flute I’ve heard in a while on ‘The Question That Drives Us’, as Charette calls and conducts from his stool. ‘Cherokee’ and Gershwin’s ‘A Foggy Day’ (“the most traditional tune in our book”) offer more familiar ground, perhaps reluctantly, but Charette’s breathy club organ on the latter leads his ad hoc band into sleek, cruising union by its end.

It would take a greater mind than mine to explain Messiaen’s harmonic ideas, as apparently explored in ‘French Birds’, but as white-shirted altoist Mayne leans back to play bop and Charette helps Fishwick start to really hammer it, it all works.

Charette accurately announces ‘The Elvira Pacifier’ as “our reggae tune…with a disco ending.” Its melodic optimism rises in volume and speed, in a decent climax. The atmosphere stays low-key, as if nothing crucial is at stake. But some worthwhile ideas achieved by disparate musicians linger in the mind.

– Nick Hasted


The Write Stuff

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