Review: Hans Koller Quartet feat. John O'Gallagher at Jazz at The Oxford,

Hans Koller Quartet featuring John O'Gallagher
(Jazz at The Oxford, NW5. 31st March 2014. Review by Daniel Bergsagel)

A muggy Monday evening is not the easiest time to fill a pub's function room, but upstairs at the Oxford in Kentish Town was packed for the Hans Koller Quartet featuring John O'Gallagher - two sets of Koller originals harnessing O'Gallagher's free-ranging alto sax in a series of cerebral compositions.

The group opened with Secret Garden, a strong introduction to O'Gallagher's improvisational style and the considered contributions of Koller's rhodes, followed by the rhythmic start of Ohr Uhr. At times evoking Bernard Herrmann, the cinematic suspense of the rhodes and Percy Pursgloves' double bass provided a backdrop for O'Gallagher to explore the chromatic range of his saxophone and scrape the upper register. One Two Three Animal saw Koller take his valve trombone and join O'Gallagher in drawing out ponderous harmonies before returning to the bench to build a song modulating between murky close chordal work and urgent searching alto lines. Choice moments were highlighted by dramatic percussion from Jeff Williams , who was then given free rein in Blues for JW, bringing around a tom-heavy rumbling solo to close off a cheery improvisation vehicle.

The atmosphere generated was one of study and exploration and well characterised through the naming system employed for a brace of the compositions, harvested from amusing homophones noted when Koller was teaching his child German: Ohr Uhr a confusion between 'ear' and 'clock'; One Two Three Animal a play on 'vier' (four) and 'tier' (animal).

The act of the Quartet's leader frequently swapping keys for brass drew additional focus to the close scripted interplay between the two horns. As successful as these brief periods were, it raised the question as to whether Koller was yearning for more instruments to set in his compositions. While his presence on trombone was much appreciated, it seemed a shame to lose his support on the rhodes when creating these melodic moments, and perhaps these moments are best suited to his sextet or big band outings.

The broadly bright and energetic first half was followed by a more reflective second. A short melodic piece, the palindromic Toot Toot invoked a study on a tune and it’s retrograde. It was followed by two compositions based on poems, Why and Half of Life, both multifaceted arrangements stitching together a series of long musical thoughts: saxophone angst, swinging bass, beautifully bare horn harmonies and flurries of 1970s New York. These were followed by a brief passing composition in Little Knowledge and a strong ballad to finish, Heart and Soul, with exemplar sincere solo moments from all, notably a half-crouched, pensive John O'Gallagher.

While the two featured artists led strongly with virtuoso improvisational work, the substantial depth of the evening was provided through Koller's crafted compositions. As two vocal exponents of George Russell's modal style and the utilisation of Schoenberg's twelve-tone composition (O'Gallagher having produced The Anton Webern Project, and as author of the book Twelve-Tone Improvisation - A Method for Using Tone Rows in Jazz) it is little surprise that the pair combine so effectively, or that they appreciate each other’s improvisational displays so visibly in concert. As recent recordings of Koller and O'Gallagher together are still awaiting release, this concert perhaps gave a taste of what can be expected.

The organiser of the regular Monday night jazz slots at the Oxford, George Crowley, had promised us an evening that would be 'a bit special'. It was.

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