In a period of pre-gig contemplation, as I sat in The Spin watching the crimson lightbulbs admire themselves in the air ducts overhead, I saw myself writing a glowing review. After all, I was about to witness the convergence of two of the country’s finest musicians, the multi-award winning Steve Waterman on trumpet and stellar trombonist Mark Bassey.
The rhythm section was a trio drawn from Oxford’s top flight and the venue, oft nominated for the Parliamentary Jazz Awards, is arguably the best british jazz club outside of London. Things were looking good and amidst the customary scramble for alcohol and chairs, expectation was high.
Perhaps the players sensed it or, more likely, perhaps rehearsals had been lacking, because the first set started tentatively. Bassey and Waterman played with consummate skill and there was some nice interplay between the rhythm section, featuring Pickett on piano, Paul Jeffries on bass and Ben Twiford on drums, but the whole thing lacked inspiration and cohesion.
Fortunately, just as the review I had been turning over in my head was beginning to sound more like a post-mortem than the reverential piece it had been before the off, the players found their feet and the quality picked up notably. The penultimate number of the first half, an elegiac ballad entitled ‘Our Fragile Lives’, went down especially well. It opened with a richly textured and beautifully mellow chorale followed by a contemplative piano solo decorated with sonorous bass interjections before featuring Waterman on flugelhorn. This was the highlight of the set and rightly received warm applause along with some sagely nods from the huddle of white-haired jazz club veterans propping up the bar.
The quality continued into the second half. Whoops and whistles from the audience followed an arrangement of Ellington’s ‘Take The A Train’ featuring some thrilling improvised interplay from Pickett’s special guests. Bassey roared and Waterman flew round the instrument in an impressive display of musical pyrotechnics and it seemed as if they could have gone on all night playing off each another’s ideas.
Waterman is a joy to watch. He wrestles with his instrument, all high- stepping fingers and furrowed brows, and he comes out on top every time. He barely dropped a note or missed a lick during the ninety minutes he delighted the audience. A rendition of Bert Bacharach’s ‘In the Land of Make Believe’, which featured playful switches in time and feel, and a solo section the band could really get stuck into, was another gem and bore testament to Pickett’s skill and inventiveness as an arranger.
Thus, while much of the first half left me feeling flat, the night ended on a high. Though they may not have been as flawless as I had hoped, all in all, the Martin Pickett Quintet delivered a performance worthy of this fantastic venue which seems to be going from strength to strength as it enters its thirteenth year.