Live at the Belgrave Music Hall 14th September 2023
It’s an evening of two distinct sets. You’d expect the first from his new album and the multiple sets of wind chimes and nut-shakers: thoughtful, transcendent, new-age. In fact, it is a play through of the new album, with the second set delving into older work. The second set had more intense trumpet playing, somehow more predictable but focussed in the way we expect from a band leader. Matthew is very much not a ‘look at me’ leader and the opening ‘Tracing Nature’ doesn’t even have a solo from him. He spends much of the time crouched down, smiling and nodding, adding little touches though minor percussion, popping up to solo or to say “nice one” after each piece. Looking very relaxed, he shares duties evenly between the large band.
The harp gets plenty of time, frequently being featured and opening and closing ‘Salute To The Sun’ with substantial passages. The piano is mostly set to Fender Rhodes sound and is pivotal, particularly on ‘Mountains, Trees and Sea’ from the current album. The drums get a few solos and are speedy and detailed without sounding busy. Alongside are the congas and chimes, keeping the rhythms nicely complex, and beside them, a double bass. The stage is crowded, leaving just room for the flautist, who doubles on sax. Matthew, himself, has a nest of hanging things, pads and knobs. He’s particularly pleased with the hammered metal tuned triangles that feature at the end of Set One but they don’t chime like the one I played at primary school….
The effect is detailed but integrated, with composition and arrangement focussing on overall sound and ensemble work. Improvisation happens for individuals in their allocated slots, rather than as a group exercise and this is where Halsall is in charge. It’s his band, his show, and the group, while having space to show off their skills, are working to his plan. And his plan is to create a swaying, reverie-inducing aural picture. Yet, in the amped-up second set he does that classic trumpeter thing of rising on bent legs, twisted into a taut missile directing energy through lips and fingers and the crowd really responds to it; given a choice between “smokey-dark jazz and something ‘up’”, they are clear they want up and Matthew responds with a 140bpm drum-fest.
The Belgrave has hosted some great jazz recently, much of it dancy. Matthew Halsall is much more contemplative and perhaps seated would suit better, though a gentle sway goes very well with the sinuous groove. Even when the musical tones get hot and high, the overall movement is never pushy or driven, staying in a relaxed space. It makes for a poised and rewarding evening.