Well the football season may be over but, in the jazz world at least, the ‘game of two halves’ lives on. On the surface, at least, this pairing of accomplished jazz pianist Zoe Rahman and hotshot trumpeter Jay Phelps seemed a little unlikely, but in fact it turned out that there was much in common between the two artists.
Each has recently been through a watershed in life which, in both cases, has led to a new departure in their music. In Zoe Rahman’s case it has been the recent birth of her second child and the decision to compose and perform as a solo artist for the first time, while for Jay Phelps an accident prevented him from playing, leading to a compositional rethink and a move towards contemporary soul-jazz (including vocals – another first).
We discovered all this at the concert, thanks to another thing the two performers shared: namely, an easy familiarity with their audience between numbers.
Zoe Rahman was first up, with a set combining her own compositions with less familiar covers of Ellington (The Single Petal of a Rose), Abdullah Ibrahim (Sunset in Blue) and a brooding Rabindrath Tagore tune (Kar Milono Choo Birohi).
Those three were obvious influences in her style – the lyrical melody of Fast Asleep, for instance, having an echo of The Duke, the insistent rolling cross-rhythms of J’Berg suggesting Ibrahim and the fusion of Eastern modality with a blues idea in Jessica Jennifer Williams’ The Sheikh relocating the tune to somewhere nearer Bengal.
That last tune was enhanced by her reaching into the body of the instrument, damping, sweeping and plucking the strings to evoke the sound of a santoor or sarodh before merging into a more Western jazz sound.
Though well-established as a bandleader and collaborator this solo performance put greater emphasis on Zoe’s own technique and choices, the familiar trills and rolls embellishing much of the music, her left hand rhythmic variation as important as her right hand harmonics.
It was interesting to hear a more forceful style emerge in The Calling, an older number revisited, where her crashing sonorities began to wrest strange overtone voices from the piano, or the measured Nymanesque intricacies of On The Road. These departures suggested the ways in which her solo playing might prove liberating, enabling her to be even more revelatory in that context in future.
The set-list for Jay Phelps’ quartet made his particular epiphany more explicit, as the band opened with LSG, a straight-ahead number led off by Jay’s Miles Davis-influenced trumpet.
This was familiar territory – one of his recent projects was called Projections of Miles – but it made a strong contrast with Everybody’s Ethnic, the protest song that followed and featured Jay’s husked vocals over a well-mannered groove from Mark Lewandowski’s bass and John Scott on drums.
The number opened out, giving the first hint of Rick Simpson’s vitality on piano, something that would emerge even more strongly on Free As The Birds, whose chilled vocal start yielded to a brisk Brazilian-flavoured workout tempting an equally brisk, stabbing solo from Jay.
This was an all-star band, of course, each a bandleader and composer in their own right, and though the playing was always skilled and well-judged it was obvious that Jay Phelps’ writing was being tightly adhered to: Amphitrite’s Bounty, for instance, was clearly structured and executed, and André 3000’s Spread held close to a complexity of timing that allowed, finally, John Scott’s impressive drumming off the leash as a reward for his diligence.
In fact, when the whole band let their hair down in a Miles Davis encore number, you could feel some of the energy that had been held back earlier. On such a short tour in advance of the album launch this restraint was inevitable, of course, and it is to be expected that Jay’s music will loosen and blossom on the road to come – though sadly without Mark Lewandowski’s splendid bass, which is destined for New York in the very near future.
Read more jazz reviews: Postmodern Jukebox, Colston Hall