reviewsJazz Barbara Thompson Medici String Quartet Tippett Centre, Bath

'She swoops and dives, keeping the soulful tone and easy grace that tend to elude legit players'
Click to follow
With jazz musicians increasingly dipping a toe - or even risking full body immersion - into the shark-infested waters of "straight" music, saxophonist Barbara Thompson's dive into the works of Kurt Weill at least provides continuity with her career so far. Thompson has written her own Concerto for Three Saxophones and performed in just about every context there is, from solo recording in a medieval monastery to purring out Lloyd- Webber's lines for the album of Cats. Weill is also close enough to the traditions of popular song to carry the weight of melody associated with the best of jazz standards while offering enough harmonic density to support serious writing for strings.

A clash of cultures was still evident, however, in the contrast of concert manners. The Medici String Quartet's leader, Paul Robertson, announced the quartet's warm-up opener of Ravel with all the plummy fluency of a Classic FM presenter (which of course he is, as well as being a professor to boot), while Thompson ummed and erred her introductions in time-honoured jazz fashion.

The concept, though, is a personal one: Thompson has commissioned arrangements of Weill songs - from eight British composers, scored for her own soprano, alto or tenor saxes, accompanied by the strings of the quartet. Opening with John Dankworth's pretty and witty reworking of "Speak Low", Thompson immediately hit "Charlie Parker with strings" territory, a light and boppish soprano lilt accompanied by the quartet's deep-pile carpet of lush accompaniment. This emphasised how good a player she is: to swoop and dive between the intervals while keeping the strong, soulful tone and easy grace that tend to elude legit players such as John Harle.

Neil Ardley's "Barbara Song" left only a dim impression but Richard Rodney Bennett's "It Never Was You" was beautifully tender, Thompson's impassioned alto soloing against the lowing chorus of strings. The two most "difficult" arrangements were introduced with a hint of "you might not enjoy this but it will be good for you", but both Barry Guy's "Zuhalterballade" and Mike Westbrook's "September Song" were among the most convincing pieces in the set. True, the Westbrook didn't seem to have much Weill in it (Thompson admitted to misgivings when presenting it to the quartet for the first time), but it at least dared to be different and Guy provoked the most intense string playing of the evening (bar Ravel), at last getting the Medici's fingers into serious action-mode.

Thompson's own arrangements of "Je ne t'aime pas" and "Mack the Knife", were perhaps a little too user-friendly for the quartet's own good, but the overall impression was of a successful collaboration, and if the balance favoured sax rather than strings, it was, after all, Thompson who had called the tune. We didn't get to hear the whole programme either, Mike Gibbs's "Bilbao Song", and Geoffrey Burgon's "Surabaya Johnny", being sacrificed for the first half's Ravel, which at least got those fingers working.

n Barbara Thompson's 'Barbara Song' is released on the Virgin Classics label in November

n She plays the Queen Elizabth Hall, London, SE1 (0171-960 4242) on 17 Nov

Comments