Episodic and layered Live at Hundred Years Gallery is a reedy meditation recorded last year in London, an exercise or so it seems, first impressions only on ‘After Joshua.’ There used to be more albums for reeds but that is me being anecdotal. Probably some data scientist out there has the stats and there could be hundreds of sax quartets releasing all the time for all I know. I was a free-jazz fair weather fan of Rova in the 1990s and also the Kölner Saxophon Mafia. More recently the very different Deltas’ proggy exploration of the music of King Crimson grabbed me by the lapels and begged for grey matter submission and happily passed the bloody minded bouncers usually stationed there worried about health and safety when they really need to be more concerned about being blind sided by the real anarchists who always slip in, I readily surrendered. Habitually cerebral (I use the term uncertainly but it not uncertainly applies when you sit down to listen to all and any of these groups mentioned so far) Madwort Saxophone Quartet skilfully punctuate their compositions in less obvious fashion than simply using the splendid baritone sure footedness of Cath Roberts as either a bass metronome or percussion replacement. ‘Maps’ is more compelling, drawing you in: the soprano sax becoming more like a flute as the narrative urgency of the music increases to flow like a pastoral symphony written in tiny snippets of reedy code.
At its best the blend here becomes like a choir using four kinds of voices; at its least successful the quartet lose their compass blinded by light pouring down through the branches of thinly wooded hills obscured by the spindly trees. And there is only so much weaving in and out of registers four saxophones can do without it becoming clear that they are, actually weaving in and out, no legerdemain as somehow we as listeners seem to crave a sort of conjuring and do not need to know the reasons why. Yet the possibilities are endless and these talented improvisers are exploring these rather than limiting themselves. ‘Birds’ has more of a brutish parping energy to it at the beginning, an attempt to smash patterns via minimalist exploration seems more urgent but goes on too long. ‘Creeping Commercialism’ is clever and inuring; ‘Shard’ thrives on a contented unison, lines melting together and the easy playing empathy of the quartet – Led Bib’s Chris Williams on soprano and alto saxes, the group’s composer Tom Ward on alto sax, Andrew Woolf on tenor, Roberts – is most evident. Sax quartets are catnip for saxophonists rather than regular listeners to fully begin to munch up and just as specialist if not quite as unusual as solo bass concerts. Let’s not however get caught up in the esoteric nature of the format and enjoy the album for what it amounts to and achieves: stimulating small group work best experienced in hearty gulps preferably live. SG. Out now