Alexander Hawkins Ensemble at The Vortex, 22 April 2012

When, back in February I wrote my review of All There, Ever Out, the most recent album by Alexander Hawkins Ensemble, I thought I was late to the party. In fact it wasn’t actually released until this April, and this Vortex gig was, I think, its official launch concert. Time seems out of joint in other ways too, since there have been some significant changes in the Ensemble since July 2010, when All There was recorded.

Only electric guitarist Otto Fischer remains in the Ensemble from the line-up that recorded the album, although double bassist Dominic Lash—having since spent a year in New York and subsequently relocated from Oxford to Bristol—was back as a sub just for the night. Tom Skinner has replaced Javier Carmona on drums, while Shabaka Hutchings, on bass clarinet and clarinet, is a notable addition to the frontline. The absence of Hannah Marshall’s cello, Orphy Robinson’s steel pan and Oren Marshall’s tuba, each of which have enriched past Ensemble performances, meant that Hawkins’ ambitious arrangements were necessarily pared back for a relatively conventional ensemble palette.

Hawkins has been busily composing new material too, as he explained: The lengthy suite-like compositions the ensemble essayed during the bulk of the set were medleys of material old and new, the new titles so far unnamed. Only “Elmoic”, Hawkin’s bouncy, Monkish tribute to Elmo Hope (which he preceded with a fine solo), and the acute yet atmospherically vaporous “So Very, Know” (which Hawkins, in dedicating it to the late Tony Marsh, whose funeral will be held today, described as “a ballad”), were readily familiar from the album.

Perhaps it was because of the denuded ensemble colours that the ensemble sometimes seemed over-deliberate, carefully sight-reading evidently meticulous arrangements which occasionally verged on the skeletal. At one point all of the audiences’ (and his bandmates’) attention was focused on a halting sequence of short bow strokes on Lash’s bass. Fischer’s deft harmonics were vital here, contrasting wonderfully with the warmer tones of Hutchings’ always understated bass clarinet. Skinner proved a fine recruit, winkling the rhythmic essence out of music which, understandably perhaps, invests most heavily in harmonic and melodic development. Although Hawkins writes for the full ensemble, and by no means emphasises his own instrument’s role, it was only behind his own solos that the group seemed to fully relax and inhabit the moment.

It’s a catch-22 for Hawkins, for whom the difficulties in maintaining a working ensemble of this calibre and diversity must be quite daunting, and who will always be pushing on with new writing, but his music no doubt needs to be known inside out before it can be spontaneously expressed. I hope the current version of the ensemble holds together long enough for that to happen. They aren’t quite there yet, but in reaching for it they come tantalizingly, and often enthrallingly close.

They show what’s possible with an encore of Steve Lacy’s “Prospectus”, from the great soprano sax man’s 1987 album of the same name for the Steve Lacy Seven, his then sextet plus guest trombonist George Lewis. Similar ensemble ambition, but essayed by Hawkins and friends with the spontaneity of informed and intuitive reinvention.

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