Wednesday 27 July 2016

The Impossible Gentlemen at Manchester Jazz Festival

Tuesday, 26 July, 2016, Royal Northern College of Music

Let’s Get Deluxe is the title of the new album and an unnecessary statement to apply to The Impossible Gentlemen. They can’t help but get deluxe. Unfailing quality is a given. The tune opens the concert – something of MJF veterans, this is their fourth appearance under that banner – and it slips down like a treat: high-calibre jazz funk, effortlessly sustained by guitarist Mike Walker’s joie de vivre. Though capable of emulating the immaculate polish of a Crusaders or Steely Dan indefinitely, the Gentlemen opt for different colours, different moods. The second tune (sorry, I didn’t catch the name) is more cussedly prickly; ‘It Could Have Been a Simple Goodbye’, dedicated to John Taylor, is an opportunity for Walker to wear his heart on his sleeve, always gratifying to behold. The central Impossible partnership is between Walker and the pianist Gwilym Simcock and how the latter’s virtuoso, slightly academic muse has been tempered by Walker’s warmth! The dazzling gaucherie has been laid aside in favour of something that swings, and, though capable of chopping time with the precision of an atomic physicist, he restrains himself from doing so. 

‘Dog Time’ starts with Mike in ominous free-form and climaxes with exultant baying, with sinister stalking in-between. There’s a cinematic component to the band as well, offering soundtracks to non-existent movies, with listeners in the role of cinematographer. ‘Dog Time’ is clearly a spaghetti western, with a full cast of desperadoes and badmen. 

The addition of Iain Dixon’s saxophones (and occasional keyboards) adds to the expansive sound. He plays with confidence and can vie with Walker for tenderness. Drummer Adam Nussbaum swings the band with considerable power, but his chief asset is to mix unbridled power with delicacy. On ’Speak to Me of Home’ he gauges the intensity with precision.  Do we miss Steve Swallow? With respect, we don’t, not when bassist Steve Rody holds the centre with such unruffled authority. He’s a conventional time-keeper of immaculate clarity, but then clarity is the sign of a Gentleman. 

‘Barber Blues’, graced by a little fugue between Simcock and Walker, slips into a drum solo by Nussbaum, interrupted by a trick coda that catches some of us out. These guys are playing games with us. ‘Propane Jane’ locks into a solid groove and, again, Mike Walker lights up the night. A true guitar hero, Walker’s trajectory from macho swagger (don’t knock it: swagger is Manchester’s great gift to music) to paragon of warmth and sensitivity is one of the great jazz stories. ‘Clockmaker’, reserved for the encore (and written for Iain Dixon’s dad, Walker reminds us) is something of a Greatest Hit, and an eloquent expression of joy. 

In a word, perfection. 

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