Live From Old York: Delta Saxophone Quartet, Ballaké Sissoko, Larry Miller & Blackbeard's Tea Party
November 22, 2013
The Delta Saxophone Quartet's best-known album is Dedicated To You, But You Weren't Listening (MoonJune, 2007) which tackled the music of Soft Machine, particularly concentrating on the the output of bassist/composer Hugh Hopper. Delta is a group which ostensibly exists within the modern classical sphere, but this gig emphasised the expansiveness of their musical concerns. The set shifted focus from minimalism to ambient to rock'n'roll, with all trades given a governing voice through being arranged for saxophones. The Chapel of York Saint John University lent an appropriate aura for the spiritual shimmer of Arvo Part's "Summa." Originally a choral work, then transposed for string quartet, the piece continued its journey through Delta's tubes. Chris Caldwell (baritone) and Pete Whyman (alto) are the old guard members who have been running the quartet for three decades, joined by Tim Holmes (tenor) and latest addition Shaun Thompson (soprano). Whyman is principally known within the jazz world as a longtime cohort of Mike Westbrook, and Holmes was a member of another saxophone quartet, Itchy Fingers.
This gig was certainly an underground phenomenon, seemingly designed for denizens of the university only, but your reviewer espied a flyer at York's competing academic edifice two days earlier. The attendance in The Chapel (literally the campus chapel) was adequate, but there were a few more pew-spaces left vacant that would surely have been filled if the publicity had been further-reaching. The programme made a deliberate journey from the first to second halves. Philip Glass and Steve Reich nestled comfortably beside each other, with the Mishima soundtrack opening movement running into "New York Counterpoint." These, too, featured re-jigs from strings (Glass) and clarinets (Reich) to saxophones. Delta also revealed two short sections of their new commission for Mark-Anthony Turnage, his "Run Riot" starkly shunting away from minimalism into a less predictable landscape of dynamic change. A hint of the second set's rockier material came with "Swan," a piece by local York dweller David Lancaster, belching with a funkier breath, after having set a harmoniously contemplative launchpad in its earlier minutes.
The second half introduced pieces by writers whose roots lie in rock, even though they are amongst its most wayward practitioners. Ryuichi Sakamoto's "Merry Xmas, Mister Lawrence" heralded David Bowie's "Art Decade" (the English chameleon starred in the Nagisa Oshima movie that used the Japanese composer's soundtrack). Lancaster provided an arrangement of Brian Eno's "Music For Airports," requiring Delta to exchange saxophones for clarinets. Then it was back to Bowie for "Speed Of Life," another one of his instrumentals. This was the only number which didn't quite survive its transmogrification, with tonalities that didn't sound exactly right, which is not surprising given the skewed sonic terrain of the original. The evening climaxed with a couple of Soft Hopper works, "Facelift" and "Mousetrap" nudging the nature outwards to slugging jazz-rock territory.
Ultimately, Delta didn't reach unhinged levels of virtuoso entanglement. The performance was more studied than that, this calmness no doubt imposed by the formal mood of the gig. Caldwell did his best to personalise the programme with directly communicative introductions to each piece, in lieu of any programme notes. Delta made some wise musical choices, the selected works complementing each other. These compositions displayed a gradual shift through the history of a certain kind of adventurous art music, over a chosen period of five decades, from the 1960s up to the present day. Delta inhabit a pleasing hinterland between jazz and classical: not too wildly untamed, and not too woodenly rigid. Their choice of composers was exemplary, the execution skilled and the venue was partially suitable, though it would have been good to gather in all of this music in a jazz club environment.
National Centre For Early Music
November 23, 2013