Like most great bass players, Larry Bartley prefers to be heard and not seen, and for 20 years he has been tucked into the rhythm sections of the top names in UK jazz. At this gig, though, he took the lead with his new band, the twin-sax, piano-free quartet Just Us, and presented music from his recent album Beauty in the Hideous.
Bartley’s downbeat, bittersweet themes evolve into dense, constantly evolving textures that resonate with emotional complexity. Saxophonists Tony Kofi – full-toned and fluent – and Ed Jones – warm-toned and airy – are contrasting voices who have melody in mind. Here, they continually swapped roles, intertwined and changed gear, urged on by drummer Rod Youngs’ pulse-shifting beats. Bartley holds it down, giving each flight of fancy a harmonic root with the firm lines and strong sense of time that make him such an in-demand bassist.
The single set opened with the bouncy, boppish and tempo-changing “Groundhog Days SOS” and continued with “The Dreamer” and the pensive title track of the new album. The centrepiece was a truncated version of a five-movement suite that was initially inspired by Bristol street names dating back to the slave trade – “White Lady Walk” and “Black Boy Hill” – and then expanded to take in slavery as a whole. Supple, sensitive and full of detail, Bartley’s work gives new insights to a much-visited theme.
Bartley was the headline act of a contrasting triple bill. The Anton Hunter Trio opened, improvising freely over a palette defined by the sparse voicings of the leader’s guitar. The set began with Hunter’s single notes and scattered harmonies hovering in the air – the theme of Joni Mitchell’s “The Fiddle and the Drum” somewhat stretched – and ended with a furious strum over rocky beats. In between, they delivered empathetic and appealing guitar trio minimalism over a pitter-patter pulse.
Next came vocalist Lauren Kinsella, who improvised on randomly selected pages of James Joyce’s Ulysses – pages 532/533 according to host Jez Nelson. Kinsella read snippets of text and extemporised a mix of jaunty jazz and Irish folk, nonsense syllables and the growls, spits and beeps of the avant-garde with the speed of someone turning a radio dial.