The Axis saxophone quartet is a new project – this UK debut was only its fourth gig. The concert was also the first of the Wigmore Hall’s Jazz Series under the curatorship of Joshua Redman, a member of the quartet. It was a lovely gig, resonating with warmth, personality and the strong bond of four saxophonists who cut their teeth in early 1990s New York and whose careers have overlapped ever since.
The generous single set opened with a rising flutter through a leading chord, there was a rough baritone riff and soft cadences smoothly delivered. Soloists edged to the fore, scattered notes and seamlessly dropped back to ensemble duties. The background swelled, the riff returned, and a final flutter called a halt.
Most compositions were similarly episodic and even those that sustained a single mood were rich in textural contrast. An early waltz had chiming tones, but soon a solitary baritone was plodding with soulful intent. And much more was to come. Later in the set, a single note was expanded to brass band sonorities, changed tempo and morphed into a wickedly awkward riff. Tossed back and forth, it acted as background for a dramatic highlight chase.
Such close attention to detail could easily have drowned the spontaneous spark, but each saxophonist has a strong will and trademark sound. And the ample space for solo improvisation, not to mention the Wigmore’s crystal-clear acoustics, laid bare every breath and nuance.
Chris Cheek was a gruff, disciplined and riffy baritone anchor. He switched to tenor late in the set, his round sound and bluesy turn of phrase a marked contrast to the oblique airy lines of Mark Turner’s soprano and tenor. Redman was urbane and centred while Chris Potter attacked head-on with a clearly articulated rush – both played across the saxophone range.
That said, solo highlights were rare. An early unaccompanied Potter alto solo drew applause – quickly dampened by a whisper-quiet ensemble – and a zigzagging tenor chase between Cheek and Turner stood out. But this gig was more about gorgeous sound, the demanding score and exuberant musicianship roaming freely from abstract jazz to chamber-music romance and, for an encore, a Sonny Rollins blues, “Tenor Madness”.