A big band in a small club can be a thrilling experience. The Scottish bass player and composer Calum Gourlay has been playing a monthly gig at the Vortex with his large ensemble for four years now, and last night I finally got around to acting on the advice I’d been getting to check them out. My informants were correct: Gourlay’s band has not only youth and enthusiasm on its side but also a powerful character of its own.
Three trumpets, three trombones, five saxophones, piano, double bass and drums, all arrayed in the conventional style; this is a mainstream-modern band with no fashionable touches. The originality comes from within, which is the usually best place. And in this case it comes from the way Gourlay’s compositions set up his array of fine soloists.
This isn’t surprising, since Duke Ellington is one of his models — and no one ever knew how to write for a band full of soloists like Ellington. Unless it was Charles Mingus, of course, and I felt I heard a lot of Mingus in this band’s freewheeling spirit, not just because the leadership comes from the man with the bass.
He kicked off with “Evening”, a 6/8 tune featuring a take-no-prisoners tenor solo from Riley Stone-Lonergan. “Blue Fugates of Kentucky”, contrasting boppish unison riffs with brief passages of mayhem, contained one of the solos of the night, in which the altoist Alice Leggett tied together slurs, stutters and triple-time flourishes with an impressive sense of architecture. “Ro” showed off Gourlay’s sense of humour and love of sudden dynamic contrasts, and set up an effective skirl behind Kieron McLeod’s forceful trombone solo. The slow, wandering “Solstice” became a feature for James Allsopp’s content-rich baritone improvisation, and the set closed with Tom Rideout’s Shorterish tenor on “New Ears”.
Not everyone writing for big bands realises that you might have three trumpets and three trombones, but you don’t have to use them all the time. It was apparent that Gourlay loves to mix and match elements within the horns, rather as Ellington and Gil Evans did, making couple of passages of straightforward writing for the reed section all the more exhilarating for the contrast they provided.
The second set was an even more impressive demonstration of Gourlay’s skill at creating landscapes for individual soloists. On two pieces by other composers, he employed the tactic of giving the improviser space to say her/his piece, then bring them back for the coda. On a fascinatingly radical recasting of Monk’s “Pannonica” the solo voice was Laura Jurd’s trumpet; on a startlingly different arrangement of Coltrane’s “Naima” it was Stone-Lonergan. Other original compositions featured fine solos from the pianist Alcyona Mick, the trumpeters James Davidson and Sean Gibbs, and the trombonist Owen Dawson. Dave Ingamells was the alert and propulsive drummer.
Davidson and Mick were also featured in another big band gig at the Vortex a week or so earlier, this one celebrating what would have been the 90th birthday of Kenny Wheeler, who died in 2014. Scott Stroman directed the London Jazz Orchestra — of which Wheeler was an early member almost 30 years ago — through the great Canadian’s charts, filled with glowing brass chorales. There were fine solos from Henry Lowther and André Cannière on trumpets, Martin Speake and Pete Hurt on altos, Matt Sulzmann and Tori Freestone on tenors and Stuart Hall on guitar, all urged on by Alec Dankworth on bass and Paul Clarvis on drums.
The second half was taken up by “Sweet Time Suite”, the extended work featured on Wheeler’s classic Music for Large and Small Ensembles, released 30 years ago by ECM. The singer Brigitte Beraha took the role originally performed by Norma Winstone of the lead voice in the flaring ensembles that filled the room with Kenny’s unique lyricism.
* Calum Gourlay has a new quartet album out on the Ubuntu label. Called New Ears, it contains stripped-down versions of several pieces from the big band’s repertoire and features McLeod on trombone, Helena Kay on tenor and James Maddren on drums. It’s highly recommended.