Review: Nat Birchall Quartet, Leafcutter John And Andreas Schaerer Make For An Irresistible Jazz In The Round

Less than 24 hours after the finale of this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival you would have thought that live jazz would have been the last thing on most Londoners’ minds. But a ticket to Jazz In The Round, a monthly event held at the Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone and hosted by Jazz on 3’s Jez Nelson, is a difficult thing to resist.

Informally dubbed the Jazz In The Round Christmas Party but mercifully free from festive repertoire, this month’s triple bill opened with a set from Swiss vocalist Andreas Schaerer who performed to a packed house. Schaerer is part standup comedian, part beatboxer and part singer and his immaculately paced introductory spiel and vocal trickery had the audience in fits of giggles from the start. (I won’t spoil it by telling you why). Those giggles turned to murmurs of disbelief in the following number as he sang a simple township melody while beatboxing over the top, throwing in an assortment of effects that ranged from trumpet and rattle noises to the sound of a squash ball ricocheting around the room. A ‘stereo’ rendition of Sonny Rollins’ ‘Oleo’ sung across two microphones came next and then it was time for some participatory drones from the audience while Schaerer added a haunting near-eastern melody and hammed up his role as conductor.

Just as engaging was an appearance from Polar Bear electronicist Leafcutter John (pictured above) who arrived armed with a sparkler, a candle, two bike lights, a camera phone and a lighter, with which to conjure fizzing, ambient soundscapes from a perspex box full of light sensitive electronics. By altering the settings on his painstakingly pre-programmed laptop and varying the intensity and the position of the lights, he produced a mesmerising array of sounds, layering pitch bends and distorted vocals over muffled drumbeats and trembling washes of church organ before handing things over to headliner Nat Birchall (pictured top).

Performing alongside pianist Adam Fairhall, bassist Michael Bardon, drummer Johnny Hunter and an animated, barefoot Corey Mwamba on vibraphone, the Manchester-based saxophonist offered up a series of impassioned, musical prayers set against smouldering modal backdrops. Among the highlights was a unnamed track from the group’s forthcoming album, which floated an imploring sax melody over throbbing bass and punchy piano and vibes.

The saxophonist makes no secret of his love for John Coltrane and, though his soprano sound (at times uncannily like that of a cor anglais) is very much his own, both his tenor playing and his compositional style owe a lot to the great man. A rendition of Bill Lee’s ‘John Coltrane’ was a fitting tribute, opening with gravely piano and bass before launching a solo for Birchall that merged seamlessly with the opening line of a blistering Mwamba vibes feature. Closing with the title track from their 2011 release Sacred Dimension, the group brought the house down. Jazz festival or no jazz festival, there’s always room for more good music.

– Thomas Rees

– Photos by Steven Cropper

Jazz In The Round returns on 26 January 2015 – for more info go to www.thecockpit.org.uk

This article was originally published on jazzwisemagazine.com

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