An accomplished display of UK jazz talent that spans several generations.
Kevin Le Gendre 2010
One of the strengths of jazz is that its practitioners consistently find new combinations in which to play. If the musicians are imaginative then unusual timbres and structures can often result from a blend of instruments not heard every day. That is the case with Neon Quartet, a kind of all-star UK ensemble that boasts a sexagenarian veteran, saxophonist Stan Sulzmann, a 20-something piano star, Kit Downes (his profile presently high due to a Mercury Prize nomination earlier this year), and two accomplished 30-somethings, the vibraphonist Jim Hart and drummer Tim Giles.
Given their credentials – they’re all either leaders or co-leaders who have played with anybody from Kenny Wheeler to Wynton Marsalis – it comes as no surprise that the composing and arranging are engagingly good. But it is perhaps the freshness of the sound palette that impresses the most. On many pieces, the ensemble voice is sombre and shadowy with the vibes, piano and reeds acquiring enigmatic, haunted resonances, particularly when they opt for mid-tempo minor themes or dramatically sustained chords that hover over the pulse of the music.
Indeed, the floating character of many of the songs is fostered by the absence of the double bass and emphasised by the careful restraint of Hart, who doesn’t flood the arrangements with the many notes that the vibraphone offers him but occasionally chords with sufficient delicacy to just hiss or hum around the piano. Given the fact that Giles is a driving, percussive player, this doesn’t mean that the group sound is at all flimsy, it’s just lean and swirling, and if there are any clear references to jazz heritage that give an idea of where they’re coming from, then Neon sounds at times almost like an organic blend of mid-60s quartets fronted by Gary Burton and Stan Getz, Bobby Hutcherson and Harold Land. Evenly split between Sulzmann, Hart and Downes, the writing ranges from lyrical and majestic to more terse and agitated, but the execution is consistently tight and focused.
Overall, this is an accomplished display of UK jazz talent that spans several generations and schools of thought.