Fifty years since first playing Ronnie Scott’s and on this occasion playing two houses to different audiences on a very busy night on Frith Street, a lot of people understandably cramming in to hear one of the greatest jazz bassists on the planet, this is a new trio, well kind of, as Holland and guitar star Kevin Eubanks at its core go back to the late-1980s and most recently Prism.
The new element is their pairing with Monty Alexander drummer Obed Calvaire, bearded and heavily perspiring in a short-sleeve T shirt as the set progressed, big on groove big on subtlety, fingertip-precise, spurring the other two on as they all burst into a huge splash of colour and life at a climactic point two thirds of the way through the performance.
The set – none of the tunes were announced, the soundman when asked later said they probably don’t even have a set list – began so softly like footsteps in the dark it was impossible not to think of In a Silent Way, a classic album that like Bitches Brew Holland appeared on in Miles Davis’ band.
Time after time the Wolverhampton man who has lived in America for many years and who turns 70 later this year, set up massive riffs in organic steps the ostinato sometimes doubled by Eubanks who lovingly washed a pedal-poised veneer of bluesy silk over all the raw materials, the nails of his fingers buffed and shining as his semi hollow body guitar sang out long and aching into the night.
Holland earlier had talked about his love of Bartók and mentioned the encouragement that John Surman had given to him starting out as a young musician wanting to play jazz, a music that his music college (Guildhall) didn’t allow at the time. The set was full of absorbing numbers each defined by jam-fired groove, a lateral approach that allowed for movement, progression in an ideas sense and a bluesy fervour to take hold, Eubanks moving into John McLaughlin territory a little as the momentum shifted towards 1970s jazz-rock. The flow was a joy.
Upstairs beginning between houses the Andy Davies hard bop jam, a weekly staple, was busier than ever. At the back in couples the unselfconscious dancers drew people into their circle kicking back. (It was very nice to see singer John Garfield in the audience and looking so well: he has a new spot at the Victoria in Highgate with a gig coming up on 26 March.) Davies, whose MC patter gets better and better (a speaking voice landing somewhere between Murray Walker and Speedy Gonzales) and whose trumpet tone is pure and ringing was with Jamie Woon drummer Saleem Rahman, Davies’ Simians of Swing bandmate Lorenzo Bassignani and guest Nigel Price of the Filthy Six. Gigi Gryce’s ‘Minority’ featuring a well aimed drum solo from Rahman was the pick of the early part of the evening. SG
Dave Holland, top. The Andy Davies quartet above. Lorenzo Bassignani, from left-to-right, Davies silhouetted, Saleem Rahman and Nigel Price
Detail from the Variety night poster. The evening was conceived by recently installed Old Vic artistic director Matthew Warchus, and directed by Annabel Bolton
“A glorious spectacular riotous evening of magic, music, comedy, novelty,” the cast list programme glossed the evening.
Comedian Mark Watson was the affable and usually self-deprecating host. He appeared often in tandem with the be-sequinned Matilda Lloyd as pure-toned trumpet stooge who stood there occasionally explaining how Watson should blow raspberries into the mouthpiece of his own soon-to-be broken trumpet. She began from a box above the stage, playing fanfares on her trumpet excelling most of all later in the stratospheric solo part on Paul McCartney’s ‘Penny Lane,’ backed by the Echoes of Ellington conducted by Pete Long. It was great to see a jazz connection however fleetingly in this fairly new vaudevillian-themed evening in one of London’s most beautiful and revered theatres.
The Echoes began with the ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’ (Long quipping jauntily: “Tchaikovsky was after the funding”) and followed with Cotton Club-era Ellington favourite ‘Rockin’ in Rhythm.’ Later, and this was a revelation, the Echoes became an excellent brass-heavy soul band backing unbilled West End star Killian Donnelly (currently playing Charlie Price in Kinky Boots at the Adelphi on the Strand) who belted out ‘Soul Man,’ the Isaac Hayes/David Porter song synonymous with Sam and Dave.
The evening had opened with backpack wearing-drummer MckNasty who got the crowd clapping really quickly operating in duo with a DJ behind him who sagely nodded along.
Amusing stand-up Angela Barnes reminded me a little of Josie Lawrence in her Whose Line is It Anyway? days, while a cappella troupe Only Men Aloud didn’t really get going until later with a Welsh hymn, their opening gambit ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’ slick but a little laboured to begin with. Tim Key was the pick of the comedians, zany and teetering on the brink of anarchy, as he knotted his tie spilling something all over himself to gain immediate impact, while magician Jeff McBride was better with his clever mask routine than when flinging cards into the auditorium. Eugene Burger injected gravitas after the interval and proved an effective suitably grizzled cod-cosmic turn: how long is a piece of string, anyway? Killian Donnelly stole the show in both acts returning towards the end with microphone slippin’ and slidin’ and ‘Shake a Tail Feather’ the pick, the Echoes brass section rising to the challenge and transforming themselves into a mighty house band for the night.
Tuxed-up and rockin’ in rhythm under the proscenium arch, above, Echoes of Ellington