The second of the ticketed gigs I had signed up for was with the Alison Rayner Quintet (ARQ). I was aware of the name but not of the music, so there were no expectations here: a new experience. Having said all that, the first person I met on entering the hall was the band’s drummer, Buster Birch, who I had met previously when he played at Southampton Jazz Club with John Harriman’s Heads South back in August.
ARQ have released three albums to date and all featured in the set played. Here and Now, from the latest release Short Stories, opened the first set with solo spots from all except the bass player Alison Rayner and drummer Buster Birch. All soloed soundly and this augured well for what was to come.
Next came New Day, from the second album A Magic Life, where Deirdre Cartwright got to show off her skill as a guitarist with a fantastic solo. Deirdre featured heavily in the next tune Seeing Around Corners (the final track on Short Stories) with some heavy blues edged playing before swapping phrases with saxophonist Diane McLoughlin. The tune, written by pianist Steve Lodder then took on a reflective European jazz style – a stark contrast to the earlier blues feel – with some sublime cymbal playing from Buster Birch. We then heard the first bass solo from band leader Alison Rayner with a beautifully simple piano accompaniment from Steve Lodder.
The Deirdre Cartwight tune Life Lived Wide was the penultimate tune of the first set with Buster Birch playing a thunderstick and Alison Rayner bowing the bass in the opening few bars. The tune was then picked up through the sax and as the volume increased the piano came to the fore. Deirdre Cartwight was grinning like a Cheshire cat as the sax player let rip on this wonderful tune, which certainly caught the ear of the audience judging by the number of people who asked which album it was on during the interval and then buying it.
The audience did not have to wait long to make their purchases as the final number of the first set Queer Bird, from the first album August, comes in at under five minutes in length. The tune was a great uptempo number in the golden age (1941 – ’59) of jazz style with which to end the set, it was also the first time Buster Birch got to solo and drum solos are always well received by a jazz audience.
The second set opened with the title track from the second album A Magic Life. There were strong Celtic references in this tune and more stunning cymbal work from drummer Buster Birch. There’s A Crack in Everything, written by Alison Rayner, is a tribute piece to a family member, and for me the most powerful and emotional tune of the two sets. A recurring motif ran throughout the piece particularly when punctuating Steve Lodder’s beautifully lyrical piano solo. There was a lot of light and shade throughout the tune and is probably one I shall return to again and again.
Penned by Buster Birch, Buster Breaks a Beat, was the next tune to be aired. This featured some heavy jazz guitar work from Deirdre McLoughlin – this lady sure knows how to get a great tune out of six strings! Then to bring things down a notch or three a short but beautiful ballad in the shape of Loving and Giving was played.
Into the home straight now with Croajingolong Bushwalk, which will come as no surprise is set in Australia. The band really gave a sense of being in the bush including appropriate animal representations. The set, and gig, ended with Half a World Away, from the first album. Yet another great tune from a tight-knit unit whose six years of gigging together really showed.
Sometimes you come across a band, or listen to a performance that reminds you just how good jazz music can be. A number of times during this performance I caught myself thinking “how on earth can anyone not like jazz?” This was an outstanding event played by first class musicians who looked like they were enjoying playing as much as the audience was enjoying listening. I also had reaffirmed just how powerful and emotional jazz music can be.