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Julian Arguelles Quartet at Ironworks: a Live Short Take

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The Julian Argüelles Quartet played a warm, uplifting set at Ironworks last night, the second of three North American jazz festival dates. This new group, which has yet to record, features a rhythm section of emergent next-generation British improvisers: pianist Kit Downes, bassist Sam Lasserson and drummer James Maddren. (Maddren is also a member of Kit Downes’s current trio, and plays on Downes’s recent quintet record, Light from Old Stars, just out on Babel.) The quartet instantly demonstrated their responsiveness to each other from the get-go; the first tune, “Mr Mc,” had a calypso-like feel loosely reminiscent of Sonny Rollins, and, although Argüelles’s approach to tenor seems to me a little more angular and restrained than the colossus, his improvisations clearly drew on the thematic tactics that (according to Gunther Schuller’s reading) Rollins pioneered in the 1950s. Argüelles dedicated the piece to South African expat Chris McGregor, which might also explain what sounded like its (again, loosely) Afro-Caribbean leanings, but it also showcased Argüelles inclination toward odd meters (11/8?) and off-kilter phrasings. The quartet negotiated complex, prime-number pulses with alacrity, and teased out vamps and grooves that drew their audience in and held them, heads nodding, feet tapping. The music was thoughtful and sophisticated, but also contagiously dynamic, and I don’t think the drummer stopped smiling through the entire eighty-minute set. The second number, which Argüelles said was a “twelve-tone piece” called “A Simple Question,” started with Downes playing solo reminiscent of Paul Bley (whom he name-checks on his own CD’s second cut, “Bleydays”); Argüelles also offered lyrical and measured solo playing, but as the quartet entered the music took on a Phrygian feel and things morphed into what he described after as something “half Spanish” – his composition “Unopened Letter.”

But it was the fourth tune – called “Redman,” he said, and dedicated to “what could only be one of two saxophone players,” who turned out to be Dewey not Don – which clarified the influences on Argüelles’s conception of this group. I was hearing what I thought were echoes of Kenny Wheeler’s melodicism and – especially in the piano – of John Taylor’s latter-day harmonies, but “Redman,” both in the composition and in the improvisations that followed, hearkened directly and unabashedly to Keith Jarrett’s American Quartet, with Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian. The resonances were almost uncanny. I’m not charging Argüelles with derivativeness, but rather suggesting that Jarrett’s quartet music presents a lineage, and a potential, in quartet music that rarely if ever gets taken up by recent players. The groundwork laid by Jarrett’s group in the early 1970s brilliantly drew together groove and edginess, form and freedom; Argüelles seems to me, at least in part, to be taking up the provocations offered by the American Quartet in ways that are musically compelling and still, even this many years later, forward reaching. (Both “Mr Mc” and “Redman” were recorded in 2009 with an NYC trio – Michael Formanek and Tom Rainey – but those earlier versions seem to echo less the Jarrett group than Redman’s work with Ornette Coleman. The addition of Downes’s piano makes a huge difference in the overall texture of the music: Downes is among a youngish set of British pianists, including Liam Noble, Gwilym Simcock and Nikki Iles, who seem to me variously to have appropriated and repurposed some of Jarrett’s more open – and more polydirectional – musical trajectories, an inside-outside conception parallel to and even filtered though the work of longer-established players such as Paul Bley, John Taylor and perhaps even Stan Tracey.)
Of the remaining numbers in the set, “Phaedrus” seemed to draw on the idiom of Steve Kuhn’s ECM quartets with Steve Slagle, while the waltz-like ballad “A Life Long Moment” was affectingly lyrical. The alternately falling and lifting cadences of the oddly-monikered “Lardy-Dardy” produced a sinewy, organic swell and flux. “Triality” was built around a Dave Holland-like freebop line, while the quartet’s encore – called “Pick It Up,” I think – offered a floaty, looping shuffle. The concert felt like witnessing the emergence of a historically savvy, formally propulsive and musically progressive ensemble. It was a warm, involving and affirmative performance.


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