REVIEW: Christian Muthspiel/Steve Swallow plus Black Top / Magic Science Quartet plus Jeff Herr Corporation at the Vortex

L-R: Matthieu Michel, Franck Tortiller, Christian Muthspiel, Steve Swallow
Unterfahrt Munich September 2015
Photo credit Ralf Dombrowski


Christian Muthspiel/Steve Swallow Quartet plus Jeff Herr Corporation plus Magic Science Quartet / Black Top
(Vortex. 30th September 2015. Reviews by Sebastian Scotney -first two sets, and Paul Bradshaw - late night set))

Christian Muthspiel described what a siginificant and emotional moment it was, finally to bring his Dowland / Seven Teares project for a premiere in London, Dowland's own city.The band he had brought to play it here, and which also appears on the album (on ACT), were, in his words, the 'dream team,'  Hearing bassist Steve Swallow's miraculous way with this repertroire of finding exquisite shape for every phrase, for every ground bass figure, every hint of melody, it was easy to understand why as bandleader Muthspiel was finding such fulfilment in the moment.

This quartet has many possibilities and has a unique sound. Muthspiel himself plays trombone - sometimes electronically assisted and also with a range of extended techniques, and piano, recorders and Fender Rhodes. When the piano was in the mix there was a hint of a bassless variant of the Modern Jazz Quartet. When there were more brass in play, the sound world approached that of the great album, Carla Bley's Christmas Carols.  It is a particular sound, taking the world of Dowland's polyphony and extending it, helping us to listen to it properly. This project deserved to be heard more widely.

The two nights at the Vortex were (so far) it's only UK outing, which is a shame. I can't help thinking projects like this help us as Brits to listen to it deeply and properly to the music of our own country. Why are we so hidebound, buttoned up and heritage-industry-led about it...?

The opening set of this special evening at the Vortex had presented a short set from drummer-led pianoless trio based in Luxembourg, the Jeff Herr Corporation, with tunes from hi album Layer Cake. This was cultivated, stylish, well-schooled, immaculate drumming from the leader, and compositions well worth re-hearing. Adrian Pallant has described the music extremely vividly in his review of the CD 

Paul Bradshaw describes the late set 

This late night 'Benefit Session' for the Vortex promised a tantalising ‘sound clash’ between the Black Top duo of Orphy Robinson and Pat Thomas and the wonderfully named Magic Science Quartet. Following a feverish onstage swap over of kit and minimal sound check, 91-year old Marshall Allen, forsaking any formal introductions, stepped up to the mic to hush a room full of cosmic music devotees with an intense flurry of sound that couldn’t have come from any other horn player on the planet. Tucked away behind Pat Thomas, who was bouncing on his seat as he sought out a myriad of sounds from that self programmed keyboard of his, was Swiss pianist and ‘spirit drummer’ Ka. Her playing demonstrated both grace and lyrical attack while the bass of the legendary Henry Grimes quietly but confidently shape shifted beneath the drums of Avreeayl Ra feeding on the dynamics of what was swirling around him,

Orphy Robinson delivered cascading waves of sound or stark repetitive grooves on the xylosyth. So focussed was Robinson on the furious dynamics of what was going on around him that the triggers and samples which normally characterise a Black Top performance were left for another day. Just when I thought it might just be all over, Henry Grimes laid down his bass but swapped it for a violin. An ethereal and memorable exchange, punctuated by bamboo flute, ensued. The shadow of the blues closed the night and Marshall’s response to Grimes’ easy snappin’ bass lines was, as ever, sonically mesmerising. His right hand fluttered across the keys of his horn, the sound of which simply grew in power. Overall, it was a dazzling demonstration of purely improvised music where science and magic produced a profound and pure energy!


LINKS: Interview with Christian Muthspiel about Seven Teares
Interview with Jeff Herr
Review of Magic Science Quartet at Cafe Oto

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