Steve Swallow/The Impossible Gentlemen/Louis – review

Various venues, London

The graceful airborne implications of the name Steve Swallow might sound better fitted to the bouyancy of a ballet dancer than the earthbound stomp of a bass guitarist. But veteran American bassist/composer Swallow makes the instrument sound as expressive as the human voice, and as smooth-flowing as a softly blown sax.

Swallow brought an all-new repertoire and a new band (with his musical and life partner Carla Bley playing gothically spooky organ) to the third day of the London jazz festival, sharing the Queen Elizabeth Hall's stage on Sunday night with powerful Anglo-US quartet the Impossible Gentlemen. Fronted by Britain's Gwilym Simcock and Mike Walker on piano and guitar, the group opened the show by powering through its postbop-to-fusion repertoire with even more fire and panache than usual, the result of this popular band's regular get-togethers this year.

Swallow's set was by contrast an altogether smokier, film noir-esque affair – but he is an ingenious melodist who leaves a lasting impression by economical means. Chris Cheek's luxuriously fluent tenor-sax lines often suggested a 21st-century Stan Getz (once an employer of Swallow). Guitarist Steve Cardenas's sparing bursts of bluesy edginess occasionally illuminated the swaying Latin grooves, noir atmospherics and faintly Thelonious Monkish themes.

Much more raucous was the soundtrack music to Dan Pritzker's silent Armstrong/Chaplin movie homage, Louis, performed at the Barbican in the afternoon. Child star Anthony Coleman was delightful as the young Armstrong, though Pritzker's emphasis on slapstick comedy and designer-bordello sensuality risked turning early 20th-century New Orleans into a pretty piece of postmodern tourism. But Wynton Marsalis's live score, played by a storming group of his long-time associates and local players, and the awesome classical pianist Cecile Licad, rightly had the crowd cheering as the credits rolled.


John Fordham

The GuardianTramp

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