REVIEW: Alex Bonney Quartet plus UNKLAR

Alex Bonney
Photo credit: Peter Freeman

Alex Bonney Quartet & George Crowley, plus UNKLAR
(Vortex, 9 February 2018. Review by Brianna McClean)

This was a double-bill evening showcasing high-calibre musicianship. A typical Vortex Jazz Club audience was present: attentive and respectful. The result was an evening which showed both great technical skill and the accord between the contemporary jazz scenes of London and Paris.

As The Alex Bonney Quartet opened, the experience of the musicians on stage was obvious. The group – Alex Bonney on cornet, James Allsopp on bass clarinet, Olie Brice on bass and Jeff Williams on drums – was joined by tenor saxophonist George Crowley, a welcome addition. All members played with near faultless technical skill which resulted in a tight sound, and satisfying textures and rhythms. Their set included some very enjoyable moments; a driving beat which gradually pulled all members together or a point of obvious on-stage partnership. There was a particularly pleasing moment of musical conversation between James Allsopp and Alex Bonney.

Jeff Williams
Photo credit: Peter Freeman

The drummer, Jeff Williams, was outstanding - playing with avidity and holding the audience’s interest consistently. It is in view of Jeff’s charisma and stage presence that the overall performance’s missing element becomes clear. While the quartet displayed exceptional skill, it was their lack of listening which led to a certain tentativeness. To a certain degree, this hindered the freedom allowed by this genre, resulting in a certain dryness. Jeff Williams is a much more seasoned musician than the others, perhaps it is this experience which allowed him to engage more with the opportunities presented by improvisation.

When one looks at the likes of who Jeff Williams has played with (Stan Getz, Bill McHenry - listen to this INTERVIEW) perhaps it is no surprise that he has such great capacity for communication, both with his fellow players and the audience. In the end, technical skill alone can never be the defining factor of success for live performance.

The second act UNKLAR, played with an enthusiasm and passion which showed great potential for capturing the audience’s imagination. The heavily layered rhythms and deft use of a synthesiser added to the set’s interest. The group, consisting of Nicholas Stephan on saxophone, Fanny Ménégoz on flute, Antonin Rayon on Hammond B3 and bass keyboard (a particular stand-out) and Benoit Joblot on drums, has a unique sound to offer.

This unusual instrumentation is thanks to the experimental encouragement of the Paris Jazz scene. Yet, this experimentation did not sufficiently find its way into the group’s performance. The predictably of variations within the tunes was frustrating, given the Quartet’s potential for distinctiveness. The most entertaining element of the evening was saxophonist Stephan’s patter with the audience. His charming French-ness, complete with inaccurate translations, made the evening an enjoyable experience.

What should have been a dynamic evening of European Jazz was a pleasing but – for me – not an  enthralling experience. The talent present was unmissable, yet there was something missing. This is the mystery of live music – what is it that gives atmosphere and colour? Perhaps the presence and the experience of a musician such as Jeff Williams is the answer.

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