Martin Speake & Alison Cawley play the sound of Ornette Coleman

The third Tuesday of January saw me at Southampton Jazz Club for the first live gig of 2022 in a new venue, The Stage Door in the heart of Southampton. The music of Ornette Coleman was played by alto saxophonist Martin Speake along with Alison Cawley on tenor. Calum Gourlay played double bass and Shane Forbes was on drumming duty.

The club website had the following information on the event:

Ornette Coleman’s melodies are a perfect vehicle for Alyson and Martin to improvise freely together and the band that has formed with the addition of Calum Gourlay and Shane Forbes provides a highly spontaneous and conversational environment for these creative musicians to collectively tell their own story. Many of Ornette’s melodies have become standards being played by musicians all over the world, such as ‘Lonely Women’, ‘Ramblin’’ and ‘Law Years’. But there are many undiscovered gems that are not played as often or at all by others.

(see video to hear Martin & Alison talk about the music of Ornette Coleman)

The first set opened with ‘Toy Dance’, a number built around repeating phrases with an enjoyable contrast between the two saxophonists. The melodic line was there in parts but did not play through the number. The rhythm section was strong and I was particularly taken with the bass playing of CalumGourlay, a musician I have not heard live before.

‘Una Muy Bonita’ had Calum playing the bass in a strumming fashion, which I found fascinating. The alto and tenor saxes alternated on the melody and there was some nicely played counterpoint along with an up-tempo ending much appreciated by the audience. ‘Giggin’ continued in an up-tempo mood with great tone from Alison Cawley on tenor during a very well-played extended solo. Martin Speake also produced a wonderful sounding tone on his solo in this number. The drumming from Shane Forbes was superb throughout, particularly when the music moved between the two saxes via the link play of Shane.

The mood of the set changed completely with ‘Broken Shadows’ with melancholy sound produced by the bowed bass of Calum Gourlay and the almost dirge like quality of the saxes. The tenor sax continued this sorrowful tone through to the end but there was light in the slightly brighter sound of the alto: a good finish. The next tune was not announced (and I don’t know Ornette Coleman’s work well enough to be able to identify it) however, it had a jaunty feel to it and a terrific walking bass line, and bass solo, for those of us who like to hear the bass sound in jazz.

Now I have to say that it was around this time that I had become aware of a number of annoyances that had been niggling away in the background: a draft blowing on my neck, a verbal drone from two sections of the audience, and pop music filtering into the venue from an external source (perhaps the venue next door). I mention this now because Martin Speake asked for the pop music to be turned off, as the venue had no control over this the band had to play ‘Embraceable You’, a beautiful ballad, louder than perhaps they ordinarily would have done. Unfortunately, as good as the playing was, the extraneous noise (both internally and externally) did, for me, take the edge off the band’s performance.

‘Lonely Woman’ was the penultimate number of the first set and featured a wonderful opening few bars of bass and drum before the saxes came in in unison with complimentary tones that gave the tune a depth of quality that was terrific to hear. However, there was a point in the tune where I felt that I heard the same phrases and playing styles before and coupled with a heavy handed drum solo over a wonderful bass line my enthusiasm was beginning to wane.

‘Happy House’ brought the first set to an end, an enjoyable up beat number ruined by a totally over the top and, in my opinion, unnecessarily extended drum solo – I don’t think this was planned as Alison stepped up to to take over on sax and had to step back again as the drummer played to the audience and was, in fairness, rewarded with whoops of delight – at which point I put away my notebook and pen and left the building.

The niggles mentioned earlier and that first set final drum solo took the edge off the evening for me. The music of Ornette Coleman is at the edge of what I like to listen to at home so I was aware that there would be some stuff played this evening that I might not enjoy as much as others. I am glad I heard Martin and Alison play and I did enjoy the way they interacted. I am particularly pleased to have had the opportunity to hear Calum Gourlay on double bass and I should love to hear more of him in a live setting but perhaps not playing the music of Ornette Coleman.

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