If you still haven’t been to Played Twice, a monthly jazz night held at Brilliant Corners in Dalston, I suggest you do something about it. The concept is simple. First there’s a playthrough of a landmark album on the venue’s top of the range analogue soundsystem – an anorak’s dream, all glistening valves and sleek silver turntables – and then a band reinterpret that recording live in the venue.
I first went way back in November for a double play of Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil, and I’ve been a regular ever since. It rarely misses a beat. The musicians are always from the top flight and the sense of ceremony that comes from sitting in a darkened room and listening to a record in complete silence gets me everytime.
The live reinterpretations have tended to stick closely to the original recordings. But last night’s performance of Smokestack, a 1963 Blue Note release by progressive pianist Andrew Hill, led by Polar Bear drummer Seb Rochford, was different.
Hill was joined in the studio by two bassists, Richard Davis and Eddie Khan, and by drummer Roy Haynes. Together they produced an album with one foot in hard bop and the other in free jazz. The harmonies are abstract and dense, themes arrive in fragments, and structures and forms are blurred by scrambling basslines, off-kilter drum work and passages of collective improvisation. It’s a difficult listen, full of nagging tension and delayed resolutions and it relies on texture as often as melody to maintain the interest.
Rochford did away with the piano altogether. Instead he chose two tenor saxophonists, Pete Wareham and Shabaka Hutchings, with bassist Tom Herbert taking care of the low end. The arrangements were lighter and more open than the originals, but they still retained much of the atmosphere and the air of spontaneous exploration. Melodies were given more room to breath, changes in texture and dynamic were more pronounced and there were cross rhythms and grooves to add further interest.
They played the tracks in reverse order and, with Wareham on the tremolo-heavy melody and Herbert setting up probing basslines, the room sank into the shadows of “30 Pier Avenue” – the immediacy of the band’s sound thrilling after the recording. “Not So” was varied in its colours. Rochford’s drum sounds were all sticks and stones, Hutchings’ interpretation of the melody had a roguish, take-it-or-leave-it swagger and Wareham delivered a solo full of mercurial lines and mewling altissimo, never seeming to run out of ideas.
“Wailing Wall” opened with a lone sax riff that meshed with a series of shifting cross rhythms, sliding into a languid melody before rearing its head once more, and “Day After” was cooler than on record with a whisper-soft solo for Rochford, at times scarcely audible over the impassive out-breath of the air conditioning unit.
Best of all was “Smokestack” itself, a hysterical tour de force, which saw the quietly spoken and wryly humorous drummer setting up opposing clapping patterns around the room. Wareham conjured a squirming, rat-run of a solo, full of blind corners and hairpin bends and went head to head with Hutchings on throaty riffs, amidst whistles and furious head nodding from the crowd.
Rochford took a gamble here. He tinkered with a classic recording but it more than paid off. Dare I say it, it was better than the original – more varied, more rhythmically engaging and more melodic. In doing so he’s thrown down the gauntlet for future performers at Played Twice, an event that’s fast becoming one of my favourite jazz nights in London.
— Thomas Rees
— Photo: Miguel Echeverria