Review: Matthew Halsall, Halesworth

Garry Booth finds the Mancunian man of mystery has descended a few celestial notches while hinting at promising new directions

If attendance at the shows on his current tour is anything to go by, young man with a horn Matthew Halsall’s brand of blissed out northern jazz is winning a huge following. This month his Gondwana Orchestra has sold out King’s Place in London and also Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music theatre, for example.

But for people like me that have been following Halsall’s progress since he first hit the scene, the touring band doesn’t reach the transcendental heights of its earlier incarnations.

The Mancunian mystic’s material is still strong, his Buddha-fat toned playing spreading its spiritual vibe aided by heavenly accompaniment from Rachael Gladwin’s harp. But soul-searching saxophonist Nat Birchall is absent from the front line, because the Coltrane acolyte recently quit the orchestra to concentrate on his own music. Nor is flautist Lisa Mallett on the tour, at least not at the gig I attended.

When I caught the Gondwanas at Halesworth’s Cut arts centre in Suffolk on Friday night (23 January), Halsall had drafted in Jordan Smart for sax duties. While Smart acquitted himself well, he simply doesn’t have Birchall’s wailing chops. Anyway, we had already heard him with Mammal Hands, the Gondwana label’s latest upcoming young band who are in support on the tour.

Nor did the Cut’s out of tune piano do Taz Modi any favours.

But there were compensations. First, the sextet included the Cinematic Orchestra’s lairy, loose-limbed drummer Luke Flowers, who’s almost as good to watch in action as he is to listen to.

Plus, as well as running down tunes from the current album When The World Was One, Halsall is previewing some new music. That means some very soulful singing on three numbers from another really promising youngster, Josephine Oneyama.

But, taken as a whole, the diminished Gondwana “orchestra” couldn’t deliver the sort of transcendent jazz high that we’ve become addicted to. Notwithstanding, a hard driving, spine-tingling opener in Music For A Dancing Mind, and some beautifully focused playing from Gladwin, the music was a little less vivid this night than Halsall’s usually capable of delivering.

The Gondwana Orchestra plays Sheffield Millenium Hall (Jan 30); RNCM Theatre (Feb 7); Ostend Storm (Feb 21); Leysin Worldwide Festival (Mar 29).

Photography by Brian Payne



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