By Tony Benjamin, January 25, 2016
Hen & Chicken, Sunday 24 January
It had been, apparently, a marriage of convenience brought about by jazz festival organisers putting the two saxophonists on the same stage but now they had decided to take it on the road for themselves. It seemed a likely enough explanation for the otherwise unlikely pairing of Gilad Atzmon and Alan Barnes, two of the country’s top jazz players and band leaders. It was not, as had been advertised, Atzmon’s Orient House Ensemble plus (though promoter Ian Storrer doggedly refused to accept this to the last) but what Gilad dubbed The Lowest Common Denominator Band (“this is all that’s left of British jazz” he shrugged, wryly). The rhythm section of Frank Harrison (piano), Yari Stavon (bass) and Chris Higginbotham (drums) would, however, be familiar to fans of that other project and the prospect of the influence this new collaboration would have on their sound was in the air before they started.
Happily it proved delightful, not least for the way in which Alan Barnes took the metaphorical centre stage, both musically and as the main ‘voice’ of the band: a surprise, given Atzmon’s well-earned reputations for grandstanding soloing and polemical humour in equal measure. This may have disappointed some for whom the showmanship is the (ex-)Israeli player’s appeal but it freed him up to play to the top of his game in the company of a player whom he clearly respected. The agenda was set out nicely by the first number, Barnes’ Fat Catwith the composer playing baritone sax against Atzmon’s alto. A perfect full-tilt unison bop opening elaborated into a grand solo blast-off that contrasted Barnes’ roots in the British sound of Tubby Hayes and Bobby Wellins with Atzmon’s more American allegiance to Charlie Parker and John Coltrane (though the spirit of the latter would run through both players at times). In Atzmonesque style the number subsided into a sleazy cabaret jazz playout that ended with smiles all round.
The smiles - which were shared by the near capacity audience - stayed there for the rest of the evening as the two multi-instrumentalists swapped between bass clarinet, soprano, alto and tenor saxes (Atzmon) and clarinet, alto and baritone saxes (Barnes). At one point Atzmon even played two saxes - alto and tenor - at the same time, Roland Kirk style and all this variety added texture and context to a well-chosen sequence of all-too rarely identified tunes. Barnes’ tribute to his collaborator Giladiator unleashed Atzmon’s blustering confrontationalism in torrential Coltrane-style outbursts yet was soon tamed into an exchange of elaborations between the front men. The more modernist Phonus Balonus, by contrast had all the insouciance of a cool Charlie Mingus tune. Some of the best moments came in ballads like the elegant Old Folks (dedicated to the grey haired among the audience) which evolved into a fine free improvisation. At some point the soloists exchanged their alto saxes for clarinet and bass clarinet allowing a lyrical, unaccompanied double-solo ending that was one of several free-flowing exchanges that deserved to be developed into more of the material.
That number highlighted the delicate contribution of pianist Frank Harrison: balancing between Yaron Stavi’s ever-muscular bass and all that horn-blowing firepower he somehow always managed to shape the music while remaining never knowingly overplayed (though he was also always quick to seize any opportunity for a smart solo). Drummer Chris Higginbotham similarly reined himself in for much of the time, delivering crisp definition with occasional flutters of randomness. Happily everybody got to let their hair down for Spring in New York with its hip-hop grooviness and blistering bebop solos making an excellent closer for a set that had showcased two formidable musical personalities on a mutual quest to bring the best out of each other.