REVIEW: Roller Trio at the 2018 Cheltenham Jazz Festival

Roller Trio in the Parabola
Photo credit: © John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk

Roller Trio
(Parabola Arts Centre, 5 May 2018, Cheltenham Jazz Festival. Review by Mary James)


“It’s great to be back!” said James Mainwaring towards the end of Roller Trio’s gig at Parabola Arts Centre, Cheltenham. It’s been nearly four years since Mercury Prize nominees Roller Trio released Fracture, over two years since they last stood on a stage as a band. Their new line-up – James Mainwaring, saxophone, Chris Sharkey, guitar and Luke Reddin-Williams, drums – had its first big airing playing compositions from their upcoming album New Devices and a few old favourites. The instrumentation is the same, the tunes as deceptively jaunty and memorable as ever, but just about everything else is new.

When Tony Dudley-Evans mused that there was a lot of electronics in use at the Parabola at the gigs he curated, he may have been thinking primarily of Roller Trio’s set where the inclusion of Chris Sharkey added more than a third person, he added electronics mastery where assorted recorded noises, distortion, plinks and plonks are an integral part of the new sound, a background tapestry that shimmered, disoriented and pulsed, sometimes sneaking in unexpectedly with a life of its own, a huge complex soundscape without the need for volume.

It would be unfair to say that over these two years the band’s unique sound has merely matured – it was always very well-developed live and in the studio. Perhaps what is new here is the sense of daring in how they compose, their timing where there is plenty of space for improvisation, knowing when and how to end each piece. In any minute of this gig you could experience raucous saxophone, thrashing drums and a deep underlying growl from the guitar, the pace breathtaking, then a sudden change of tempo and direction in a heartbeat. This is virtuosity (from Mainwaring in particular) that touches you because it’s not just technique, it communicates at a deeper level. Mainwaring recently toured India with John Law’s Congregation, his existing interest in Eastern rhythms perhaps deepened by this experience and evidenced in moments of moving serenity. And there was an eastern feel to Sharkey’s guitar on The Third Persona

In the middle of the set two earlier compositions had a rework – a haunting sax solo opened R-O-R and The Nail that Stands Up where the guitar was genuinely chilling and thrilling. The final composition, Mad Dryad, could have been danced to, had the seating permitted. The closing notes of sax gently brought us down to earth after one hour of masterly freefall.

Mary James, who lives in Gloucestershire, is a jazz promoter working with John Law and others. Twitter @maryleamington

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