Be it Chet Baker with Russ Freeman on Pacific Jazz or with Dick Twardzik on Barclay, Booker Little on Time, Joe Wilder on Savoy, Tony Fruscella at the Open Door, The Musings of Miles, Lee Morgan’s Candy, Freddie Hubbard on Herbie Hancock’s Empyrean Isles or Tomasz Stanko’s Soul of Things and Suspended Night, the line-up of trumpet, piano, double bass and drums has a great attraction for me. There’s something clean and uncluttered about it. That certainly struck me again last night, while listening to the Nick Malcolm Quartet at the Vortex.
Malcolm teaches trumpet at Wells Cathedral School and he has a lovely bright, rounded tone that any student would do well to emulate. He also has an outstanding rhythm section: Alexander Hawkins (piano), Olie Brice (bass) and Ric Yarborough (drums). The gig was part of a short UK tour arranged to coincide with the release of their second album, Beyond These Voices, on the leader’s own Green Eyes label, which was recorded with the band’s earlier drummer, Mark Whitlam, and also features guest appearances by the outstanding vibraphonist Corey Mwamba.
The quartet began with a piece yet to be recorded, a long slow blues anchored by a deep, sinewy bass line with a clever rhythmic twist. Malcolm started conservatively but balanced his phrases quite beautifully, while Hawkins found the common ground between Monk and gospel music with some rousing two-handed phrases. I wanted to hear it again straight away.
There would be other new compositions alongside material from the album (and its predecessor, 2012’s Glimmers). Brice and Whitlam underscored the ingenious arrangements with enthusiastic precision, always attuned to the occasional need for silence but deploying, when appropriate, a momentum that encouraged the trumpeter and pianist to loosen up as the set progressed. Malcolm incorporated growls, flutters, microtones and other effects into his lines, occasionally unfurling long, seamless legato phrases reminiscent of Kenny Wheeler and on one occasion, while playing an unaccompanied interlude, blowing directly at the open lid of the club’s Steinway, the sound reflecting down to produce sympathetic tones from the piano’s strings. Hawkins, freed from the responsibility of leadership, seemed to enjoy himself enormously, unleashing a homage to Erroll Garner on a boppish piece called “There’s Lead in Their Pencils” and elsewhere deploying his range of techniques with such elan that his hands disappeared into a blur.
The only non-originals were interesting choices: the sombre title piece from Andrew Hill’s 1999 septet album Dusk and Ornette Coleman’s bouncy “Checkout Time”, from Love Call (1968). Both proved to be ideal material for this line-up, the latter inspiring Hawkins to a brilliant extended solo consisting of one unbroken single-note line from his right hand while the left lay completely idle, creating a sense of spaciousness that was both unusual and quite typical of a thoughtful ensemble whose consistently compelling work deserves wider attention. Not “trumpet and rhythm” at all, of course, but a highly evolved mechanism in which four voices create a sense of perfect integration.