JAZZ / Strange fruits: Phil Johnson on the versatile London Saxophonic at the Hope Chapel in Bristol

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The Independent Culture
While the saxophone's role in jazz is prized above all for the idiomatic expression of a personal voice, in the classical repertoire the instrument often comes across as curiously impersonal. Saxophone quartets can sound like nothing so much as wind-assisted versions of the King's Singers, with the governing dialect a kind of musical Received Pronunciation. There's a plum in its mouth, when what is required is an occasional raspberry.

Happily, the London Saxophonic - 10 saxes, two keyboard operatives and a drummer - manages to mix the best of both worlds. The jazzy inflections come out strongly in their readings of Moondog (aka Louis Thomas Hardin, the legendary blind itinerant American composer), whose compositions they were first formed to play, and the leader, Will Gregory's splendidly irreverent re-workings of ethnic themes. Meanwhile, the customary impersonality fits their choice of minimalism like a glove. Re-arrangements of music from John Adams's opera Nixon in China and Michael Nyman's Icarus were delivered as if by a particularly inspired machine, the component parts meshing together perfectly.

The range of saxophone voices on offer, from sopranino to bass, emphasised the remarkable versatility of the instrument; in Gregory's opening piece, they formed a quadraphonic saxophone choir, with players dotted about the hall improvising a plainsong descant to the leader's wailing solo. In the very Steve Reich-ian Stub, composed by Graham Fitkin, and played by the Apollo quartet - a sub-group of the Saxophonic - the suitability of the instrument for minimalism seemed incontrovertible, the cycles of notes timed to the length of a breath, each phrase flowing with the rhythm of waves breaking on a shore.

You had to feel sorry for the keyboardists, though. With nothing to blow or suck, they looked a little surplus to requirements. One operative stared intently at his score while he played only one note with one finger for what seemed an age. Perhaps he expected a sudden flurry of activity? Overall, however, this was a mesmerising performance - a triumph for the saxophone, whose inventor's 150th birthday evidently falls this year.

London Saxophonic play the Purcell Room (071-928 8800) on 10 February

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