REVIEW: Iain Ballamy's Anorak and guests at the Guildhall School Annual Jazz Showcase

Anorak. L-R: Gareth Williams, Steve Watts, Iain Ballamy, Martin France

Iain Ballamy's Anorak and guests
(Milton Court Studio Theatre. 28th april 2016. Second Day of Guildhall Jazz Showcase. Review by Sebastian Scotney) 

"His tone," wrote Chris Parker of saxophonist Iain Ballamy, "is winsomely light, yet capable of great strength and variation, shading into either an attractively foggy breathiness or a rapturous warble as required." Those typically well-judged remarks were made about the most recent album by Ballamy's band Anorak. Which means they were made way back, in July 2007. Yes, it is now virtually a complete decade since this band - with a different bassist - last recorded an album. To state the obvious, things have moved on. There haven't been any albums, press releases, events, or "impact." But that doesn't mean either a lack of creativity, or things standing still. There has been all the strengthening, deepening and assuredness you could ever want in a band. The group can now deliver a far bigger sonic presence. What struck me most forcefully when Ballamy first walked on the stage at the Guildhall's new Milton Court Studio Theatre last night was the compelling focus, depth, scale and persuasiveness that he gave to his sound in the opener, Tribute to Alan Skidmore’s tribute to John Coltrane.

Ballamy's regular working quartet is also a remarkable unit. Steve Watts on bass gives a solidity to the pulse reminiscent of Ron Carter at his stentorian finest, and that gives both Martin France, "one of the most inventive and creative of mega-drummers," as Malcolm Edmonstone introduced him last night, and Gareth Williams, a pianist who will always take the listener by agreeable surprise, limitless freedom to roam.

Emmeline. Malcolm Edmonstone and Iain Ballamy

The opener of the second half, Emmeline, played by Ballamy in a duo with Malcolm Edmonstone, brought out the softer side of the saxophonist's playing, with excursions into subtone in all registers of the instrument.  The duo format also allowed the two players complete rhythmic freedom, each allowing the other space, this was superb colla parte playing in an effortlessly fluent, trusting game of give-and-take.

This was more than just a very good concert, the evening had a specific purpose as an occasion, a rite of passage. It was the formal marking of the arrival of Ballamy, France and Williams - and also Trish Clowes - as new members of the jazz faculty at Guildhall School. And it was also the culmination of the School's two-day jazz showcase in the Studio Theatre in Milton Court.

Gareth Williams' spoken contribution was brief, but wonderfully eloquent and poignant. He remembered that as a student at Guildhall in Ian Carr's jazz history class, Carr had encouraged them all to "check out this guy" - Iain Ballamy - and to listen to the album Balloon Man (1988). Thus for Williams to be playing, now, as a fellow Guildhall professor with Ballamy, meant a lot. Indeed, the sense that the Guildhall Jazz Department is locating some of its own buried roots, and picking up strength and momentum by re-connecting with them, is very much in the air at the moment.

The beginning of the evening had seen Trish Clowes performing three numbers, of which perhaps the most effective was the last one, a joyous Shorty Rogers-ish fast-bop roast. It set the tone just right for for a life-enhancing evening.  

Trish Clowes (foreground) and Steve Watts
LINKS: Iain Ballamy's website
Review of Liane Carroll and Guildhall Jazz Band and Choir March 2016

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