Review: Arild Andersen Quartet at Ronnie's

The Norwegian bassist's talented quartet and technically superb, affirmative playing impress Michael Tucker and put him in mind of E. M. Forster

I'm not usually a great fan of the idea of opening or warm-­up bands, but drummer Chris Higginbottom's fine quartet with Mike Outram (elg), Tom Cawley (p) and Chris Hill (b) made me think again: they offered a tasty hors d'oeuvre for the debut appearance at Ronnie's of Norwegian double-­bass maestro Arild Andersen and his current quartet with Tommy Smith (ts, f), Helge Lien (p) and Paolo Vinaccia (d).

Higginbottom is much in demand on the London scene and beyond, for example with the Orient House Ensemble, the Kyle Eastwood Band and the Ronnie Scott's Club Quintet. His playing was hot, focused and stimulating, at times bringing to mind the cross-rhythmic intelligence and exploratory dynamic precision of Tony Williams. An extended take on the lop-­sided bop classic Epistrophy and a lyrical reading of Wayne Shorter's meditative Fall supplied the emotional bookends of a well-­crafted set rich in full-­on yet intelligently varied energy and drive, with Outram's crisp, clipped lines outstanding and with fine moments also from Cawley and Hill.

And so to the main event. Andersen was one of the first musicians to record for ECM, in September 1970 on the famous Afric Pepperbird quartet session with Jan Garbarek, Terje Rypdal and Jon Christensen. He has featured on so many excellent, essentially lyrical albums for Europe's premier label that it's easy to forget that this is a man who worked with Don Cherry in the late 1960s (“His sound is so beautiful; you will keep hearing from him” said Cherry) and who spent some time in America in the early-­to-­mid-­1970s, working with, among others, Sam Rivers. I've been lucky enough to have heard Andersen in all sorts of contexts and for me this was one of his most electrifying gigs to date.

The hour and a half performance began with Andersen alone with his beautiful new lion-­headed bass, using digital delay to build up reflective rubato layers of pedal-point arco figures as he conjured afresh the keening atmosphere of one of my all-time favourite pieces of his, Hyperborean (if you don't know it, check out the definitive recorded version with Danish pianist Carsten Dahl and French drummer Patrice Héral, on Stunt Records's 2002 The Sign). Vinaccia and Lien eased their way into the sound picture, supplying adroitly cast colour and rhythmic nuance, before Smith's full­-toned tenor brought etched added weight to the patiently arching melody. If this piece exemplified the lyrical side of Andersen's sensibilities, what followed was testimony to how complete a musician this technically superb, ever-affirmative bassist has become.

Andersen's compatriot Lien was both strong and dynamically imaginative, especially in the lower registers and sometimes “inside” the piano, while Smith (pictured left with Andersen) was, simply, in terrific shape. His lines cut incisively into and across the fluid textures and variegated rhythmic drive supplied by his colleagues, his commanding sound integrating many a deliciously fractured overtone in the extreme upper register. All in all, the music offered a cornucopia of delights. Clearly accented yet intriguing melodies and quicksilver rhythmic flurries; fast moving, triplet­-driven walking lines and bottom-­heavy, intelligently re­cast funk; jazz­-rock and delicate waltz, measured mood and stomping affirmation: all were here.

At one point, Smith pulled out his treasured shakuhachi flute and explored some affecting folk-­rinsed melody before turning to tenor, the poetic unity in the tonal transition testament to outstanding musicianship. Throughout, the excellent Vinaccia displayed strength and subtlety in equal measure, model complement to the leader's uncanny ability to shift register, range and rhythmic impetus while maintaining the overall feeling and structural unity of the various, all-original pieces.

"Hallo, everyone. It's great to be here at Ronnie's for the first time, in such a beautiful room . . . a little scary, to be honest!” volunteered Andersen after the first couple of numbers. The only thing scary here was the sheer quality of the music on offer, appreciated fully by a sold­-out house which included Andersen's old playing partner, John Marshall – to whom Andersen gave the warmest of name­checks, revealing that, many years ago in Italy, it was hearing the great English drummer on the radio with Soft Machine which had sent a young Paolo Vinaccia jazz's way. It was an appropriate anecdote for an evening which underlined how much – in the hands of masters such as these – jazz is able to make real the replenishing wisdom of Forster's injunction: only connect.

Photos by Forrige Neste

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