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Olie Brice / JLG

Jean-Luc Godard once compared watching the great Hungarian football team of the 1950s to listening to free jazz. A few hours after the announcement of the great director’s death, it was possible to reflect on the meaning of his comparison during a performance at the Café Oto by the trio and octet of Olie Brice, launching the bassist’s new double album, Fire Hills.

Nowadays when we use the term free jazz we tend to mean music created from scratch, on the spot, with no prepared material. Back in the early ’60s, it tended to mean the use of composition to inspire improvisers to stretch the traditional boundaries, using the material as a launch-pad rather than a template while freeing soloists and accompanists to exchange roles. All that could be heard in the music made by Brice’s groups, both of them benefitting from his ability to use his role as a composer to guide rather than prescribe.

The first half featured the trio, completed by the tenor saxophonist Tom Challenger and the drummer Will Glaser, moving with great empathy through compositions dedicated to Johnny Dyani, Eric Dolphy and Andrew Hill. Linking two of the pieces, Glaser delivered a extraordinary solo that began with mallets rolling fast around his snare drum and two tom-toms, using the three pitches to produce something that had the quality of a song, before reversing one of the mallets to introduce a kind of counter-line. Drum solos are seldom poetic, but this was.

Between the two sets, the Oto sound system quietly played selections from the soundtracks of Godard’s movies, including Georges Delerue’s gorgeous orchestral compositions for Le Mépris: a nice touch on a day when a key figure of contemporary culture left the scene.

The six horns of Brice’s octet were assembled in a single line, but it soon became apparent that he would be using them as two units: a pair of trumpets (Kim Macari and Alex Bonney) and a baritone saxophone (Cath Roberts) to the left, an alto saxophone (Jason Yarde) and two tenors (George Crowley and Rachel Musson) to the right, with the drummer Johnny Hunter joining Brice in the rhythm section.

The short ensemble passages — sometimes just punctuations between the improvisations — had the kind of loose-woven, slightly ragged ebullience that could remind you of Mingus’s bands or Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, without borrowing moves from either. That made sense, since Mingus and Haden also figure strongly as inspirations for Brice’s own playing, in which virtuosity and passion are equally mixed.

The first two solos, by Macari and Musson, were the kind you want to wrap up and take home: on-the-nose power from the trumpet, beautifully controlled tonal distortion from the tenor. There were many duets, notably one between the soaring Yarde and the agile Bonney. One or two of the solos outstayed their momentum, but with this music that’s a risk worth taking. And what the evening showed was that Brice has his own way of applying organisation to music, shaping it in interesting ways without compromising the crucial spontaneity of expression and interaction.

* Olie Brice’s Fire Hills is on the West Hill label: https://westhill.bandcamp.com/album/fire-hills

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Alexander Hawkins #

    On the subject of poetic drum solos with mallets: I feel like I’ll never forget Jack DeJohnette soloing with mallets on Alabama (with Ravi Coltrane/Matthew Garrison), that time you invited them to Berlin!

    September 14, 2022
  2. Conal #

    Great review and gives a great idea of being there and certainly makes me want to check out the music. I also found your thoughts about strands of free jazz very interesting.

    September 14, 2022
  3. GRAHAM ROBERTS #

    Excellent report of a very fine gig; many thanks. I enjoyed the rousing finale as well, when Tom Challenger and Will Glaser joined the Octet for the final piece of the night. And wasn’t it great to witness the joy and pleasure the musicians took in bringing Olie’s music to life, and in each other’s playing? Another superb evening at Cafe Oto.

    September 14, 2022
  4. On the question of free jazz, Ornette Coleman’s groups engaged with the wonderful tunes that Ornette wrote and this led to a series of recordings and bands that combined composition, often quite extended, with the free-er approach to soloing. Olie Brice’s music seems to be in that tradition and contrasts with the totally free improvisation of Derek Bailey, Evan Parker et al. Both approaches are great!

    September 14, 2022

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