Herb Robertson’s NY Downtown Allstars, The Vortex, London

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The trumpeter Herb Robertson’s Allstars are an acoustic quintet playing avant-garde jazz with an exuberant self-belief that almost convinces you that this is the only way to play. And although their vision of downtown Manhattan carries a slight whiff of nostalgia for the expressionist 1960s, they are rescued from the ordinary by the superb rhythm section of Tom Rainey on drums and Mark Dresser on acoustic bass.

Both sets followed the same pattern – an attention-grabbing feature set up a series of solos and duets loosely connected by ensemble passages. The first set, “Six Fragments”, opened with impressively full-blooded solo bowed bass decorating a simple motif with slurs, echoes and slaps. The second set, “Elaboration”, kicked off with Robertson and the alto saxophonist Tim Berne creating cascades of peeps, bleeps and sucking sounds.

The ensemble passages tended to be dirge-like mantras with long notes wavering microtonally or hard-to-grab-hold-of melodies. But with Rainey and Dresser deconstructing rhythms with a seductive verve and uplifting commitment, the weakness of the writing didn’t much matter, especially as most of the evening was given over to improvisation.

Robertson himself is an impressively energetic soloist, whose quavery sustained notes exploded into quickfire glissandi.

The saxophonist Berne also had a few free-form tricks up his sleeve, and with a strong centre to his sour but breathy tone, worked well with the leader’s trumpet. Their ululating duet was one of several first set highlights. Sylvie Courvoisier gave The Vortex’s precious Steinway a good old two- fisted bashing and twanged strings with mallets, but by the second set her palette proved to be limited, and it was the mixture of space and ferocity in the final drum solo that was the evening’s climax. ★★★☆☆

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