(Vortex, 2nd May 2011, review and drawings by Geoff Winston*)
This could have been the Big Air tenth anniversary tour - it is ten years since this formidable transatlantic quintet were first brought together by the foresight of what was to be an award-winning BBC commission. Intelligent polyphony is the rich seam which runs through their material.
Whether from the Brits - Oren Marshall's rasping tuba, and the scintillating brass/reeds duo of Chris Batchelor and Steve Buckley reunited from their Loose Tubes days, or the Americans - Myra Melford, one moment punishing the keyboard, the next caressing it, and drummer Jim Black, beady eyes on everybody, laying down the funk and changing gears effortlessly - there is rigorous poise in their invention, and a deep care for their musical craft.
Borrowing humorously, they opened with 'All Good Things', a dead ringer for a jumping Mexican brass band - military drum rolls, high brass and knowingly hesitant bass clarinet, with Marshall's pumping tuba plotting the foundations - it could have been festive Oaxaca.
The second set opener also borrowed, respectfully - this time from Ornette's phrasing and alto tones - before Marshall's solo took off in to an other-worldly tundra, with only amplified breath to define the landscape, and Jim Black chipping in invisibly to lubricate the sound. Melford's solo was both cerebral and physical - lightly skipping from note to note then drenching the keyboard with chordal runs at breakneck speed, right hand in freeform cartwheel mode.
Buckley's authority and precision on both alto and skinny bass clarinet, was a perfect foil to Batchelor's deft, Spanish-toned hints of Miles. Somehow, after the crazy histrionics of an escalating, distorted tuba solo they all managed to wind down into a mellifluous restatement of the theme of 'Hole in the Pocket', Black's sticks just glancing the cymbals. Encoring on 'One Way Only', the rangy Buckley knelt down to the mike with penny whistle, mimicked momentarily by Batchelor on mute, to an assured backdrop of driving, syncopated rhythms, and a big-band arrangement pulled out of nowhere.
The same sense of enjoyment all the way through was shared by the musicians and by their appreciative Bank Holiday Vortex crowd.
Personnel: Chris Batchelor: trumpet; Steve Buckley: alto saxophone, bass clarinet; Myra Melford: piano; Oren Marshall: tuba; Jim Black: drums
Big Air's CD is on Babel
(*)Drawings copyright Geoff Winston 2011. All rights reserved.
Steve Buckley and Jim Black