Donald Trumpet? Carla Bley’s political jazz muses and amuses – review
Ivan Hewett reviews the Riverside Quartet at Pizza Express Jazz Club, with special guest Carla Bley
Time was when visiting American jazz musicians would schmooze the audience. Now they apologise for the state of their nation. Last night Dave Douglas, America’s most inventive jazz trumpeter and co-leader of the Riverside Quartet with saxophonist Chet Doxas, wanted to make it clear before the quartet had played a note that "we did not vote for that man".
Carla Bley, the quartet’s star guest for the evening, and one of jazz’s great composer-pianists, is even more angry. She’s written an entire anti-Trump suite called Politics, which last night received its first British outing.
It could all have made for a dour and dark evening. In fact the predominant tone was musing and gentle, enlivened by odd moments of anarchic energy and humour. The quartet released their latest album back in July, but this was far from being a rerun of the album’s contents; in fact all the material seemed to be new, apart from the odd classic like Carla Bley’s Ida Lupino, a beautifully lyric number from the early Sixties with that tinge of lonely pathos in the harmony which is such a Bley trademark. She savoured that feeling, her now frail hands seeking out new harmonic angles on her own thoughts of half-a-century ago.
By contrast saxophonist Chet Doxas’s piece had a dark cabaret-noir feel, which seemed somewhat thin musically. More satisfying was Douglas’s own sarcastic Tango Incrementale, where Douglas’s talent for fashioning tautly inventive improvisations finally shone out. He also contributed a side-steppingly witty piece with a curious title, which Douglas assured us was Norwegian for "Environmental Song". One gathered this was another dig at The Donald.
Finally it was time for the big broadside against the current president, in the form of five-movement suite. "An Unholy Mess", the first movement, was like a reinterpretation of the old New Orleans funeral dirge, flavoured with a tolling "wrong note" from Bley, and some extraordinary keening sounds from Chet Doxas’s tenor sax. Then the tone lightened for some wittily parodic numbers, including one in which Doxas and Douglas seemed to be trading insults, before the keening returned to bring things to a close. It had a feel of a work-in-progress, albeit an impassioned and impressive one.
Dave Douglas and Riverside’s latest album The New National Anthem is out now on Greenleaf; greenleafmusic.com