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August 28, 2011 4:51 pm

Sam Leak – Aquarium, Vortex, London

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Aquarium are a sparky, London-based acoustic jazz quartet who first formed in 2008 and have just released their debut CD – this gig was the self-titled album’s launch. Led by pianist/composer Sam Leak, they deliver fresh harmonic pathways, lyrical modal jazz and free-form expression. And though their transatlantic influences are strong, Leak’s well-worked, linear compositions are shaded with English eccentricity. Bucolic reveries toughen into grimy urban soundscapes, there are classical references and the band’s performance has a gritty matter-of-factness.

Leak compresses each facet into the natural order of things while making the most of the contrast between his own relaxed, somewhat spiky improvisational style and the expressionist virtuosity of his saxophonist, James Allsopp. And with each theme evolving smoothly into a multilayered structure, the constant flow of new textures and altered moods never failed to grip.

The first set started with the bustling modal bass pedal of “Grasshopper” and continued with the catchy two-note piano motif of “Strangers”. The second set began with a wistful ballad, “Shades of Grey” and moved on to the bowed-bass lament of “Milan”. There was the hissing swing of “Pisa Rain”, the introverted balladry of “Shy” and an as-yet-untitled singalong revel, which disintegrated quickly into chaos.

Improvisation remains at the heart of any jazz performance, and both Leak and Allsopp are strong soloists who grasp complex themes with a firm hand. Leak solos with long lines that move from near-abstraction to rootsy repeats and then fade tantalisingly into the lower register. There was a lovely unaccompanied interlude on “Strangers” that developed its diatonic framework with an almost baroque logic, while the free sections, dense runs and spiky mid-register clusters dominated. Allsopp also provided highlight moments by building melancholic inflections and haunting, high-note trills into a climax of sustained split notes and whirligig phonics that, at one point, seemed to deliver central theme and ghostly counter-melody at the same time.

With Calum Gourlay adding the urgency of counterpoint bass and drummer Joshua Blackmore playing a holding role, the quartet had a good internal balance and moved smoothly from the tricky rhythms and swishy ballads of the opening themes to free-flowing solos and a trenchant climax.

4 stars

The Vortex

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