Review: Joshua Redman/Necks/Cookers

Andy Hamilton witnesses the "classical" Joshua Redman, the freewheeling Necks and the hard-bopping Cookers at Sage Gateshead

Maybe there were names with more market appeal in the big hall – Loose Tubes on the final evening filled it quite respectably, partly for reasons of nostalgia I'd guess – but the excellent acoustic of Hall Two at the Sage hosted three superb performances from leading musicians 11-12 April. The first highlight was Joshua Redman and his longstanding trio with bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Greg Hutchinson. Though I think of them as comparable figures, Redman doesn't have the swagger of Branford Marsalis – his approach is more classical than romantic, more restrained than free. Lee Konitz once made an interesting comparison between Brad Mehldau and Keith Jarrett, the former more structured, the latter more free, and maybe that applies here too. Tonally, Redman is rather Rollins-like – his 2007 album Back East was a tribute to the latter's Way Out West – and he began on tenor with a quirky arrangement of The Surrey With The Fringe On Top, featured on Back East. This was followed by an original composition, performed on soprano sax, followed by the excellent Two Step by Matt Penman, and another original called – I think – Track Thirty. A beautiful ballad interpretation of Never Let Me Go was followed by Redman's own catchy Soul Dance, in 6/8 time. For an encore, surprisingly, the trio improvised on a theme by Bach. The group was amazingly tight, and all three players showed sympathetic and inventive use of dynamics.

Australian improv trio The Necks featured in a late-night gig with generous timing – two sets of around 45 minutes each. Dedicated to an aesthetics of spontaneity, the trio have been playing together long enough that they can "just play" – there are no compositions, and they take off from immediate inspiration. For the first set, pianist Chris Abrahams initiated proceedings, with Lloyd Swanton's bass following. The piano gradually became more luminous, and richer harmonically. Suggestions of tonal instability introduced an edge, but the performance was at the minimalist end of the Necks' stylistic range. There was no groove, but instead what I'd call "pulse no metre", with a pulse like breathing, and circular repeating cells or motifs on piano. Drummer Tony Buck exploited tintinabular effects, using small cymbals or crotales resting on his kit. After 30 minutes the bass became more mobile, and the mood changed – the music became more active, though still without developing a groove. The set concluded as ecstatic improv, with the drums roaring. For the second, Abrahams featured more rhapsodic, less minimalist piano, and there were freer polyrhythmic effects on drums – here, Tony Buck's independence of hands and feet was remarkable. The set built to a roiling, molten climax, and ended in radiant major tonalities. I'm not sure the full panoply of lighting effects was necessary – the sparkling lights were rather distracting, and the music was more than able to speak for itself. This was a remarkable vindication of what Ted Gioia has called the "aesthetics of imperfection", the spontaneous creation of forms with all the risks and artistic advantages that that entails.

Finally, The Cookers – a septet who've been together for seven years, releasing four albums. They opened with Billy Harper's Capra Black, the title-track of a Strata East album from 1973. Featured on this number was pianist George Cables, dapper and elegant, followed by the stylish – in every way – 72-year-old tenor-player. The Coltrane-influenced tenor saxophonist has – says Wiki with unusual eloquence – a distinctively stern, hard-as-nails sound on his instrument. (See an excellent long interview with him at Peacemaker by Cecil McBee featured in a wonderful arrangement and interpretation with Eddie Henderson on muted trumpet, Jemeel Shaw's rather acrid alto sax, and Cecil McBee, intensely melodic and using lots of space. The bassist, leaning professorially over his instrument, is at the age of 80 still incredibly mobile, exploiting the full range of registers and sonorities. Croquet Ballet, a 6/8 composition also by Harper, was recorded originally with Lee Morgan. The arrangement ended cleverly with unaccompanied horns, gradually attenuating the vamp till it disappeared. Farewell Mulgrew by George Cables is a tribute to pianist Mulgrew Miller, which appeared on the bands last CD, Time And Time Again from 2014 – a beautifully plangent, bluesy piece, and the sound was excellent here, with Billy Hart on brushes.

Slippin' And Slidin' by Cecil McBee is what trumpeter and MC David Weiss called a "blues with a twist" – a slow blues with an unexpected gap in the theme, though the solos followed the familiar 12-bar pattern. The band ended with Freddie Hubbard's The Core, featuring a blistering solo by Eddie Henderson. I was reminded of the World's Greatest Jazz Band, and how thanks to time's winged chariot, it's now the turn of the hard boppers to have a band of septuagenarians and octogenarians. My only gripe was that the faster numbers were over-amplified, with Billy Hart coming across as a bit of a basher, which he isn't. Think of how many times you've been to a gig that was under-amplified – in my case, once, Keith Jarrett at the Festival Hall – which suggests that the sound guys might like to err on that side of things a bit more.

All pix by John Watson

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