Jazz Cafe, Newcastle upon Tyne

January 24th 2014, by Russel

Saxophonics at the Jazz Café. The dedicated few up front, the chattering classes at the back. Intoxicated or cloth-eared, it is difficult to understand how anyone can’t sit with rapt attention when Saxophonics take to the stand. A pad of originals, classic numbers arranged and in some cases painstakingly transcribed, the Tyneside based saxophone quartet are up there with the best of them. New York to Camarillo to Blyth to the wine bar, Saxophonics traverse the chamber jazz globe reaching for the stars (make that the moon). Small in number, the sound is often that of a roaring large ensemble.

Tenor man Graeme Wilson’s Street of Furs opened the show, as it does on the quartet’s recently released CD The River Flows at Night. Four musicians engaged in musical conversation; convivial consensus, a joke, laughter, a discordant disagreement (amicably resolved), a point well made. The interaction is as tight as could be; sight-readers all, a knowing cue, a telepathic understanding. On more than one occasion one or more of the ensemble took a step back in admiration of their band mates’ solo flights. A new Niall Armstrong tune – Go Forth – sounded good, let’s hear it again.Wilson’s Damfino is one to hear again and again. Check out Brass Jaw’s recording of the tune, a tune to stand the test of time.

The River Flows at Night took it down, late night. Mike Mower’s charts appeal to the quartet allowing Keith Robinson’s incisive soprano to strike out and again on Armstrong’s Accidental Death. Wilson’s Stranded at the Wine Bar evoked that sense of dread – being in the wrong place, wearily accepting of the fact, hoping something (someone?) will turn up. Relaxin’ at Camarillo,  A Night in Tunisia, The New Wallaw(aka The New Wetherspoon’s!) – three fantastic tunes. More please! Bobby Watson? Yes, please! Oh. yes…Come Fly with Me. What more could one ask?

Keith Robinson alluded to the absence of a rhythm section (the Jazz Café is a little cramped). The bass player must have been hiding around the corner. Nope. The quartet’s internal rhythm section – Niall Armstrong – achieved super human feats. It was all down to Armstrong and relief rhythm maker Wilson. The altoists – Robinson and Steve Summers – soared, reaching for the stars. It was some journey. Buster Keaton’s boat? Damfino was the name, apparently.


Jazz at the Lit & Phil, Westgate Road, Newcastle Upon Tyne

Friday 13th December 2013

Much of the material played was from Saxophonics recent CD The River Flows at Night which I reviewed last month. This afternoon was used to launch the CD to a very well attended Lit and Phil and, if the reception given was anything to go by, they should have shifted a few. The live performance was every bit as good as the CD which is praise indeed. However, in keeping with the time of year there were some seasonal items not on the disc but which still made for good listening. Silent Night was full of rich harmonies and splendid solos from Steve and Keith that really opened up the carol in a most delightful way. Graeme Wilson did the arrangement as he did on all but two of the ten numbers. God Rest You Merry Gentlemen must surely be the most swinging of all Christmas carols. It was fast and furious, super solos and at times reminiscent of Four Brothers. Oh Little Town of Bethlehem was cool and relaxed but the finale – Chestnuts Etc was an extravaganza of changing moods and time signatures. I’m sure the composer, Mel Tormé would have loved it. Of the non Christmas pieces Niall Armstrong’s chunky Miner Niner was as rollicking as his Gently Does It was warm and tender. Graeme’s The New Wallaw is always interesting not least because of the stories that surround it. A long derelict Blyth cinema that once had trees taking root inside has now re-opened as a Wetherspoon’s pub. The tempo would have suited the clientèle in its days as a cinema. The car chase in The Italian Job sprung to mind as the four saxes drove fearlessly down a mountain pass. Or, in its present guise, a pint of Abbott’s Ale served with just the right amount of head. Both beer and music with the perfect texture. A splendid afternoon.


Jazz at the Lit and Phil, Westagate Rd, Newcastle Upon Tyne

Friday, April 12, 2013 by Lance Liddle

An out and out demonstration of saxophone virtuosity. The fingers fairly flew as the four players negotiated the twists and turns of the complex charts with the agility of a downhill skier. Not that it was all devil take the hindmost. There were moments of beauty and some rich harmonies but this was no conventional sax section. More like a syncopated Bach fugue or a Mozart string quartet that rocked and almost rolled. With the exception of Night in Tunisia, Mike Mower’s Yuppieville Radio and the 29th St., Saxophone Quartet’s Claudia’s Car, the majority of the pieces were composed and arranged by Graeme Wilson with Niall Armstrong chipping in with the train-like Miner (Minor?) Niner. A special word is called for re Armstrong. To paraphrase an old saying, the man who sells insurance has nothing like the endurance of a baritone player in a saxophone quartet! He is a one man rhythm section, providing both rhythm and harmony for the others to build on. They can take a nap or go for a walk but the bari boy has to be there constantly and, should he falter, then the ship sinks! Niall didn’t falter. Whilst Graeme, Steve and Keith were shooting for the moon he was 20,000 leagues beneath the sea. Plumbing the depths but rising to the surface to ensure the saxonauts landed safely. Piano, bass, drums – who needs ’em? Lance.


St Cuthbert’s Centre, Crook, County Durham

THE Saxophonics launched a season of jazz at the venue, and the foursome with their selection of saxophones will be a tough act to follow. Jazz is new to me, and I was amazed how the four players, playing a variety of saxophones, from the bass-like baritone to the tenor, could escalate and spiral away from each other while always remaining tight and in time. Jazz is the angry zig-zag line that dances around the straight line of regular music; at points the two correspond and you hear a simple catchy tune, but it is quickly obscured by irregular beats, explosions of sound and flitting, sporadic melodies. Or maybe it’s a train passing through thick fog, every now and then you glimpse the familiar track, but it is quickly smothered by the impenetrable cloud; or it could be any one of the dozen or so similes that skipped through my mind inspired by the flailing fingers of this fast and furious foursome. The Saxophonics played their own work, great sweeping pieces that skitted and scintillated, soulful and sizzling, although they also did one or two more recognisable pieces, including an impressive version of Come Fly With Me. Jazz is not a flavour everyone will enjoy, but for fans, St Cuthbert’s has a good line-up of acts over the next few months, while for the uninitiated like me, it is a new and rewarding experience.