The Impossible Gentlemen, Pizza Express Jazz Club, London – review

The Impossible Gentlemen are a left-leaning, high-octane US/UK jazz quartet, formed in 2010 and with a recently released second CD under their belt. Their recordings are a tightly argued blend of contrasting lead voices and American rhythmic nous – Steve Swallow and Adam Nussbaum were on bass and drums – but rival projects have made live appearances decidedly thin on the ground.

This gig, the first of a four-night residency, came after a concentrated 10-date UK tour, and they hit the ground running, tight as a glove and brimful of confidence. A splat from Nussbaum’s snare and a swish of fast brush-driven swing cued the slight, somewhat jolly motif of “Modern Day Heroes”. But it came with a tricky structure and dense harmonies and evolved into an aggressive, phrase-swapping trade between Gwilym Simcock’s articulate, classically trained piano and Mike Walker’s blues-edged, rhythmically astute guitar.

Simcock’s “Just to See You” followed, a haunting warm-hearted reverie with a liquid bass solo from American stand-in Steve Rodby; then came the gear-shifting complexities of “You Won’t be Around to See It”, based on the harmonies of “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise”. It began with the soft-shoe beats and syncopated lines of 1950s film noir – Walker’s resonant single notes conjuring naked light-bulbs in seedy bedsits – then toughened into rock, sped up, swung hard, then stopped dead.

Most compositions similarly changed tempo and all had tricks up their sleeves – a two-bar drum break, a short burst of guitar or a briefly added texture. And Walker’s tunes had a particularly strong sense of time and place. The slightly surreal, tango-inflected “Wallenda’s Last Stand” was inspired by the retiring walk of a long established high-wire artist – a side wind, we were told, blew him to his death. And the second set’s “Clockmaker”, a near-abstract collage of ticks and clacks, was for a close friend’s father who retired and made clocks.

Both sets ended with Walker on a controlled-fury high, the first over broken-beat funk, the second over a slow-burning blues in compound time. They stuck to the blues for their encore, a bustling and embellished Simcock tribute to composer Samuel Barber.

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