REVIEW: Kairos 4tet at SJE Arts, Oxford

Kairos 4tet on a previous visit to Oxford in 2010


Kairos 4tet
(SJE Arts, Oxford. 8th May 2015. Review by Alison Bentley) 



In the beautiful church of St John the Evangelist, saxophonist and bandleader Adam Waldmann quipped: ‘In case you’re wondering, none of these tunes can be found in your hymn books.’ The tunes were written by Oxford-based Waldmann; his melodic mix of jazz and folk has earned his band a MOBO award and critical acclaim. A Kairos Moment (title of the 4tet’s first album), can mean an opportune moment for action or decision. It seemed an appropriate name for a band where everyone was constantly seizing the moment, as they improvised together.

The spacey acoustic of the building felt as if we were sitting through an ECM recording. In Simpler Times, Waldmann played tenor with digitally-produced harmonies, and he sounded as if he was improvising with the church organ. Abstract ripples on Ivo Neame’s piano became Satie-esque chords over Jon Scott’s strong brushwork. You felt drawn into the band’s sense of time, as everything slowed down. The notes rebounded round the building, creating new harmonics and overtones.

In contrast, V.C. (stands for ‘Very Cheers’) from their first album had melodic fragments teased out of the restless groove. Dane Jasper Høiby, as long-limbed as his bass, underpinned everything with a huge pulse. Waldmann admires Avishai Cohen, and many pieces had strong central bass lines, a little like Cohen’s writing. The groove blew this way and that, Waldmann playing very fast Oriental runs on soprano, but every so often homing in on melodic phrases to orientate us. Swedish singer Emilia Martensson joined them for El’s Bells (written for Waldmann’s niece, and from the latest album, Everything We Hold). The acoustic increased the ethereal qualities of her voice, meditative and even hymn-like after the storminess of the previous piece.

Two new pieces followed: in Expansion, the sax looped and harmonised with itself before being expanded by Neame and Høiby in Steve Reichian repeated chords. The soprano arced over the fitful phrases, giving a clear line through the asymmetrical beats. Neame and Høiby work together contantly in Phronesis, and Neame almost telepathically synched with parts of Høiby’s solo; the bass was like a bass drum ‘dropping bombs’ among the sighing cymbals. I Shall Not Hate came out of workshops Waldmann had done, bringing together Israeli and Palestinian children. It was named after a book by a Palestinian doctor who ‘didn’t lose his optimism for peace’. Lyrics to this and other songs were by actor Rupert Friend, an old school friend of Waldmann. Most of the lyrics sadly vanished among the church pillars, though Mortensson sang beautifully, especially as the long vocal lines blended with the sax. You could hear the darker modal harmonies opening out into sweeter ones on the word ‘peace’.

A number of Waldmann’s tunes were in unpredictable time signatures- though, he said, it’s important to him that the music follows emotion rather than maths. It wasn’t always clear- and didn’t matter- whether the unstable time signatures came from the writing or from pulling the time around- the pulse appeared like smoke from the heat of their improvising. Statement of Intent, the title track of their second album, concluded the set. The minor folk-edged theme grew tenser, the bass like gunfire, the drums exploding into a solo that the audience applauded intently.

Set 2 opened with Russell’s Resurgence and Monk-ish piano phrases; the sweet catchy tune emerged from the restless groove, and the audience loved the drum solo (though from my particular pillar the bass drum blurred the details.) In Narrowboat Man, Martensson’s voice had sudden, emotive decrescendos into breathiness- the kind of dynamics that tend to be evened out in recordings. Song for the Open Road (sung by Omar on the new CD) here had soprano harmonising with the voice, with a folk clarity at the centre of the song and some molten free improvising at the end. The slow walking bass pulled everything together, in contrast to the wildness of the final piece, J-Hø from the Block. Waldmann wrote the tune especially for Høiby (all similarities to Jennifer Lopez ended with the title.) The intricate, complex themes for sax and piano were echoed rhythmically by the drums. The audience roared their approval.

This was a wonderful gig, with complex modern jazz, folk simplicity and heartfelt melodies, played and sung with absolute sincerity.

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