Helios Suite
Slam CD 325


Holywell Session

Slam CD 324

Differences between a live and a studio session and the effect of adding and subtracting players from a core group are made obvious in these CDs, recorded on subsequent days in Oxford, England by a core trio and guests.

Oddly – and in contrast to the usual differences between in-person and in-studio gigs – Helios Suite is the stronger of the two CDs, buoyed by inventive playing within the structure of appropriately supple compositions. On the other hand, Holywell Session, the live date, is too diffuse, losing much of its power due to the shifting and substituting of different personnel.

Present on both discs are two British musicians, baritone saxophone and tarogato player George Haslam and bassist Steve Kershaw, joined by Italian violinist Stefano Pastor on his first professional visit to the United Kingdom. Genoa-based Pastor – whose experience encompasses work with symphony orchestras, Art Rock bands, singer-songwriters and improvisers as uncompromising as American pianist Borah Bergman – has complete control of his instrument. Veteran Haslam is probably one of the few players extant to have worked both with Swing entertainer Nat Gonella and austere Free Music guru Derek Bailey, not to mention representatives of most styles of improv in-between. Similarly versatile, Kershaw’s main focus is Stekpanna, his contemporary jazz group, with sidemen gigs ranging from backing Jamie Cullum and Stacey Kent on the pop-jazz side, to seconding uncompromising improvisers such as Lol Coxhill, and Howard Riley

Trouble is the three don’t get to play on their own on Holywell, with the added musicians creating less-than-outstanding matches. Partnered with Richard Leigh Harris, a British educator who is primarily a classical pianist, Pastor and Kershaw seem to be frozen into madrigal-like patterning with the low-key output uncomfortably resembling pop-chamber music. Although Pastor adds some glissandi bites, Harris’ crystalline note construction is as undemanding and expected as his Basie-like comping is later on the program.

Haslam and trumpeter/flugelhornist Harry Beckett, the Barbados-born veteran whose background ranges from Bebop blowing sessions to membership in the London Improvisers Orchestra, provide an antidote to these sweet, adagio sounds. But their unison and solo work too seems oddly Swing – as in the era –wedded. Loose enough, their contrapuntal contributions bring some rhythmic strength to the foreground. But despite Kershaw’s slap-bass work and some plunger trumpet sounds, the entire nocturne is far too polite. Elsewhere, Pastor apparently channels Stéphanne Grapelli in his solos, and one could swear the horns echo a chorus from “Strike Up The Band”. Later on, burbling snorts from the baritone and tremolo grace notes from the trumpet add little.

The situation rights itself during the five tracks which make up Helios however. Besides now having a compositional framework, suspicion is that the versatile drumming of Paul Hession from Leeds, adds the iron strength and vitality missing on the other disc. Beckett and Harris aren’t present either.

Almost from the first, with Hession popping, pumping and hand drumming, Kershaw has enough space to open up the tune with speedy walking and double-stopping. Pastor responds in kind with staccato moves, intersecting with and echoing Haslam’s reed barks, wails and flutter tones. On his own composition “Abingdon,” the fiddler plays Chet Baker to Haslam’s Gerry Mulligan to the extent that the tune could be a newly unearthed slice of 1950s West Coast Jazz. More importantly the two front-liners shift tremolo note clusters among themselves, at points playing in unison a few octaves apart.

An instant composition, the three-part title track is the CD’s highpoint, building up to an epiphany on “Epiphany”, the briefest of the three linked pieces, but the one most alive with Free Jazz expression. “Hemera”, the first section, relies a little too much on the intersection of jagged string swells and perambulating baritone saxophone tones. With bass pedal point and bounces from the drummer to anchor him, however, the fiddler is then able to unleash shrill spiccato, striated pulsations, and layers of vibrating, jagged timbres. More pointed still on the middle tune, Pastor’s improvising upticks into staccatissimo; screechy triple-stopping nicely contrasts with note spills from Haslam’s tarogato and saxophone. Eventually all textures reach a crescendo which is subsumed, explained and moderated in “Hespera”, the suite’s final movement.

Resonating with the wood-echoing impulses produced when Haslam and Pastor turn to percussion instruments, these patterns give shape to the penultimate chords which define “Hespera”, as Pastor’s flute-like peeps add additional calming coloration. Finally Kershaw’s steady thumps plus saxophone arpeggios provide a definitive and conclusive finale.

As the song title states: “What A Difference A Day Makes”. Helios Suite definitely merits your attention. Although judging from audience applause, those in attendance at the live date were satisfied, in comparison Holywell Session is an unfortunate misstep by accomplished musicians.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Holywell: 1. Part 1 2. Part 2 3. Part 3 4. Part 4 5. Part 5 6. Part 6 7. Part 7

Personnel: Holywell: Harry Beckett (trumpet and flugelhorn); George Haslam (baritone saxophone and tarogato); Stefano Pastor (violin); Richard Leigh Harris (piano) and Steve Kershaw (bass)

Track Listing: Helios: 1. Marianao 2. The Helios Suite: Hemera 3. The Helios Suite: Epiphany 4. The Helios Suite: Hespera 5. Abingdon

Personnel: Helios: George Haslam (baritone saxophone, tarogato and percussion); Stefano Pastor (violin, percussion and flutes); Steve Kershaw (bass) and Paul Hession, (drums)