In some jazz, what you hear from the opening bars is what you get from there on in – which, even by the detour-driven urges of the art, isn’t necessarily a bad thing if the main story is good enough. But Tom Cawley, the award-winning British keyboardist, composer and teacher, likes more ambiguous signals. Is the music of his new quintet, Catenaccio, a tribute to Chick Corea’s first Return to Forever, or to Joe Zawinul, or EST? Is it the homage of a football obsessive? (Cawley being that rare thing, a Lincoln City fan, has chosen the Italian name for a 1950s/60s defensive formation as the moniker for his project). Or is it all of those and more, but primarily dedicated to thrilling seat-of-the-pants jamming, particularly from flute virtuoso Gareth Lockrane and Cawley himself, a leader whose keyboard skills have put him on the road with Peter Gabriel and U2 and into a professor’s chair at the Royal Academy of Music? The group made it clear that the objective was conclusively the latter, at Soho’s Spice of Life on 24 July.
Across two fast-moving sets, Cawley, Lockrane, singer Fini Bearman, bass-guitarist Conor Chaplin (creditably depping for Robin Mullarkey) and drummer Chris Higginbottom breezed through the music from the band’s eponymously-titled May release, plus some new Cawley pieces. The skilful and accurate Bearman deftly negotiated Cawley’s slippery rhythm-shifts in her wordlessly floating, Flora Purim-like scatting role with his keyboards and effects, and with Lockrane’s flutes – with the latter coolly embroidering her end-notes with trills on the jazz-rockish ‘The Ungainlies’, and Cawley and Chaplin supplying a hypnotically looping hook under weaving variations from Lockrane and a sizzling closing drums break. On the sleek and springy latin-jazz dance, ‘Jabulani’, a unison flute/vocals theme triggered a flute solo of startled whoops and surefootedly skipping runs that sidestepped repetition over many choruses, while ‘Ramona’ swelled out of lustrous, church-organ chords to an alternation of smooth and bumpy grooves, eventually egged on to a drums roar by Cawley’s churning chords.
The second set’s ‘Left Peg’, with its cleverly modulating theme and languid, chunkily-chorded pulse, was another vehicle for the inventive Lockrane, now on alto-flute, and the latter grinningly prodded Chaplin into bending his solo all over the harmony, until the bassist coyly resolved it on a swooning reprise of the theme. ‘Imps’ (Lincoln City’s nickname) found the fluent Higginbottom sustaining a seductive ripple of chattering hi-hat sounds and crackling snare-shots that spurred his partners on. A wistful valediction for Cawley’s and Bearman’s roving cat illuminated the latter’s expressively wistful soulfulness (mainly deployed as a chorus-singer, she’s a little underused in this group) and also the bandleader’s forthrightness in its working title – ‘Come Back Home You Little Bastard’. Catenaccio’s energies and improv powers are more excitingly apparent on a live show than on their slightly more muted album.
– John Fordham