January 31, 2012 5:14 pm

Jazz in the Round, Cockpit Theatre, London

The triple bill featured trumpeter Yazz Ahmed’s trio, ambient guitar from Stewart McCallum and the premiere of the Black Top trio

Compere Jez Nelson introduced the first of the Cockpit Theatre’s monthly jazz club sessions with the promise of innovation, informality and a mix of genres and generations. The triple bill featured trumpet newcomer Yazz Ahmed’s chamber jazz trio, a solo showcase for ambient guitarist Stewart McCallum and the premiere of Black Top, a fresh and free collaboration from experienced hands. Add in the “in-the-round” setting, the offer of a quick audience Q&A – unfortunately there were no takers – and the ambience of an experimental 70s theatre, and the promise was well delivered.

The evening opened with the spectral sound of pre-recorded guitar. Dave Mannington added figured bass guitar and Yazz Ahmed played the first motif on flugelhorn. Ahmed has a true tone and spins long lines over complex, self-penned structures, but at times her lyricism lacks melodic focus. Young stand-in vibraphone player Ralph Wyld stood out for his rhythmic accuracy and panache, and provided a highlight on the Arabic inflected “Jamil Jamal”.

Stewart McCallum also began with sampled guitar, but his additions were the sequenced riffs, echoes and delays of ambient dance. The Manchester-based guitarist was keen on evolving textures, and local references –“Hillcrest” named after the school where he tutored guitar; “Vital Space” a local estate agent’s – but though minor key, his mid-evening set was more comforting background than foreground display.

The headliners, Black Top, were a much more abrasive bunch. Introduced by marimba player Orphy Robinson as playing “archaic Nubian sounds”, their through-improvised pieces had rhythmic intent wide contrasts in texture. Robinson opened with four-mallet spirals and mid-register twists, Pat Thomas intertwined close-argued piano clusters and saxophonist Steve Williamson added oblique, warm-toned sax. Soon, the trio were moving moved in and out of rhythm, jaunty at one moment, a fury of blurred mallets and fluttering sax the next.

With Robinson linchpin and powerhouse, Thomas could confidently alternate warm-hearted piano with blasts of white noise and the thin-toned rhythmic loops that he triggered from his battered keyboard and laptop. There were calls and responses and nagging dancehall beats, a shimmering ballad and four-to-the-bar discords delivered with imperious urgency. The ebb and flow rarely flagged, and capped a first strong first night.

3 stars

www.thecockpit.org.uk/jazz

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