Friday, 8 May 2009

John Abercrombie & Julian Argüelles...

I'll leave the review of the ICP Orchestra until later because in many ways it will be a lot harder to write up than this pretty straight forward gig last Tuesday at Edinburgh's Queen's Hall. The short break in Edinburgh was just what we needed, and although the weather was poor we had no problem filling the days and the nights. This gig was the second we'd seen in as many evenings, and both made the perfect excuse for a visit to a beautiful city. There may have been no music on the third night, but we were lucky enough to catch a rare cinema screening of Connery as 007 in You Only Live Twice (1967) at The Filmhouse. How apt to catch this ludicrously enjoyable film in Connery's backyard, and I could write an entire post about the antics of a slightly disturbing German cinema-goer who sat in the row in front of ours and began shouting at the top of his voice for the projectionist to turn the sound down as soon as the opening sequences began to roll. Clearly furious at what was in all truth a pretty normal cinema experience, this was an Ernst Blofeld-esque moment to treasure!!

I first saw Argüelles over 20 years ago. Just as I was getting into jazz his career was gathering momentum and he seemed to pop up everywhere - from the big bands of Kenny Wheeler to CMN tours backing up countless visiting Americans. I was in the Midlands as a student in the mid to late 80s and the Wolverhampton bred Argüelles seemed to be so ubiquitous that I barely gave him any thought. Thinking back, I supose I saw in him a quiet guy who could clearly play, serious about his music but not particularly interesting or notable when compared to the many more exciting players I was discovering at the same time.

His brother Steve, a forward looking drummer who went to Paris to seek creative outlets, was always a better proposition to my ears. Neither seem to be particularly active at the moment, and several years have passed since my last encounter with the saxophonist. In the interim he's 'upgraded' and moved to Scotland, as well as spending some time in the US rubbing shoulders with some pretty heavyweight company. The trio of John Abercrombie, Mike Formanek and Tom Rainey he's currently touring with is top notch by any standard, the kind of group capable of going into any contemporary musical terrain - from free floating structures to straight ahead jazz via rock. I was intrigued beforehand at the prospect of seeing jut how the quiet Englishman would mesh with such a forceful bass/drums team, though the guitarist's pastoral streak seemed to offer a more obvious compliment to Argüelles' wispiness.

So how did it all stack up on the night? As unassuming as ever, Argüelles seemed pleased, if a little overawed, to be fronting such a group. He stuck exclusively to tenor, and for the most part played his own compositions, some written especially for the tour. Abercrombie played yet another of his handmade guitars, and Formanek had one of those small half size touring basses that seem to be increasingly popular as airlines get more and more greedy when it comes to carrying heavy and bulky luggage. It cramped his style a little, but I think that the lack of projection was more down to his amp settings and Abercrombie's continual changes of volume than the instrument its self. Rainey was as unpredictably inventive as ever, clear evidence that less is more when you make it count. Put them all together and, for all the bright moments, I'd have to say that we got something significantly less than inspiring.

On record I love Abercrombie and can listen to him for hours. His harmonic abstraction is about as far out as tonal music can be taken and his sound for ECM is always crystalline. Live, I'm yet to have a fully satisfactory experience from the guitarist. Constant knob-twiddling and over use of the effects rack (often within the same solo) make for a disjointed feel. Surely he's spent enough hours playing the guitar at this stage of his career to know what kind of sound he needs for each piece? Whilst Arguelles was silky smooth, Abercrombie often appeared ragged, only really cohering on his own piece 'Line Up' and Cole Porter's "Everything I Love'. He's never a man to take the obvious route from A to B, but a combination of spongy reverb-laden amp settings and Argüelles' harmonically bland music didn't really do him any favours.

Often compared to Elgar because of the very English type of lyricism in Argüelles compositions, I've come to the conclusion that for all his qualities he simply represents a type of jazz that I don't really enjoy. He plays with the speed and precision of a post-Brecker lick machine but his sound has the same ethereal presence as Jan Garbarek, who I love so much. To truly work the folksy ascetic path needs fewer notes to create vast musical spaces. The diametrically opposed fast and flash approach of Brecker school demands muscularity and a certain brash edge. With Argüelles, one competing influence cancels out the other and he ends up with neither. Despite being in the company of an ECM stalwart, a muscular bassist and one of the most inventive drummers you'll find, the results were curiously underwhelming. I'd love to have heard Tommy Smith fronting the same band, and his great musical grounding and situational flexibility would surely have succeeded.

Argüelles is clearly at ease and has offered a consistency within his chosen form of musical expression that cannot be disputed. His tunes are well conceived if slightly unmemorable, and his solos are extremely accurate in their execution. It would be unfair to suggest that he's a musical bore, and there were enough moments in this gig to make it worthwhile. Ultimately I suppose the problem is this - in over 20 years Argüelles' music has simply failed to force a way into my consciousness. It plays around the periphery without ever making the breakthrough. A lot of people in the disappointingly small audience seemed to agree, and there was no clamour for an encore. If the meek are ever to inherit the earth, Argüelles shows that the winning of hearts will perhaps be something he finds far harder than the winning of minds.

Fred Grand

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