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The UK orchestrator and pianist Tim Richards’ current line-up – a nine- piece band – tests the mettle of any arranger, falling as it does between the overpowering strength of a big band and the precarious freedoms of small group jazz. Richards got the balance just right, crafting arrangements with some neat filigree detail that still allowed the impressive roster of soloists room to breathe, and a rhythm section, with guitar and vibraphone added to the leader’s piano, to layer latin, funk and swing grooves without clutter.
Although Richards is a self-effacing leader – the small stage was dominated by four seated horns facing down the diners, a hair’s breadth in front of them – he is a purposive arranger and pianist, with a strong sense of space and timing that was clear from the outset. The first set’s opening three compositions, taken from the band’s 1999 debut album Suite for the Shed, delivered a Latin vamp, a pastoral melody and ghostly tremolos in quick succession.
Richards’ piano work is an integral part of the ensemble. His well- tempered tone – resonant on grand piano, subtly smoky on electric – supported the brass while well-placed stabs organised an excellent rhythm section. And although possessing a strong technique, he is not afraid to lay out if it fits the bill. A spacey reggae supporting Dick Pearce’s trumpet was a delight, while Dave Smith’s drum solo was a genuine end-of-show climax.
Richards also has a fine ear for musicians, and the solos and features provided the evening’s enduring highlights. The vibes player Roger Beaujolais’ four-mallet attack and earthy tone were a standout all night, as were Tony Kofi’s measured phrasing on alto sax and forceful bluster on baritone, although it is probably Ed Jones’ unaccompanied introduction to Thelonious Monk’s classic tune “Epistrophy” that will endure. Switching from tenor sax to bass clarinet, he alternated beautifully toned liquid arpeggios with whooping harmonics.
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