John Law's New Congregation review – gifted jazz maverick is full of surprises

Pizza Express Jazz Club, London
The British pianist’s impeccably reshaped group is more contemporary-music recital than jazz burnup

Alfred Brendel described British crossover pianist John Law in 2003 as “an interesting and highly gifted maverick musician”. Last year, Law simultaneously released both an authoritative and very personal reworking of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and a set of new originals for jazz quartet, the maestro’s judgment remains right on the nail. Law is currently touring the UK, and brought the reshaped group he calls New Congregation to the Pizza Express Jazz Club this week – built around the impeccable double-bassist Yuri Goloubev and the succinct Laurie Lowe on drums, with sophisticated variations from Josh Arcoleo, a young saxophonist with a measured eloquence all of his own.

New Congregation’s Yuri Goloubev and Laurie Lowe at Pizza Express Jazz Club, London.
New Congregation’s Yuri Goloubev and Laurie Lowe at Pizza Express Jazz Club, London. Photograph: Venla Shalin/Redferns

Balancing lyrical themes and knotty structural challenges is a Law speciality, and he emphasised it from the off with an electronic loop that passed through an implacable, systems-music piano/drums repeat, and out into open spaces cruised through by Arcoleo’s quiet yelps and terse phrasing, trimmed and steered by Goloubev’s guiding interventions. The epigrammatic, Wayne Shorter-ish tenor sax theme of When Planets Collide was prefaced by bell-like electronics and quiet prepared-piano clatters, and a Goloubev solo of humming tones and delicate top-end figures built to a fierce percussion climax.

On the ensuing twilit sax theme, a glittering Law piano break of pin-sharp swing and thoughtful development soon outstripped the melodic interest of the vehicle in which it was travelling, but the hypnotically circling treble melody of These Skies in Which We Rust – edging out of celeste-like chimes and the choral backdrop of a Brahms Requiem recording – was a highlight of the gig, as it was of the album.

However intense it gets, a Law performance often sounds more like a contemporary-music recital than a jazz-driven burnup (he pointedly called the gig a “concert” in his intro) and he’s such a good improv pianist that hearing more of that would be welcome – but, as in most years, the gifted maverick has come up with another set of fascinating surprises.

At Dempseys, Cardiff, on 2 March. Box office: 029 2049 6802. Then touring until September.

Contributor

John Fordham

The GuardianTramp

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