LIVE: Matthew Halsall @ Union Chapel, London
Seated on pews in the Union Chapel, the audience who assembled to see Matthew Halsall perform seemed more like devotees at a religious ceremony than regular gig-goers. A crowd that spanned all ages rippled with the low, expectant hum of conversation and, in this setting, cans of water were more common than pints of beer. This impression was confirmed after the band leader announced that they would be performing ‘Mindfulness Meditations’, cueing a soothing panoply of trumpet lines, miscellaneous percussion and harp melodies. Performing in the fading daylight, refracted through a vast stained glass window, Halsall’s series of meandering jazz pieces succeeded in captivating an already silent audience.
The Mancunian trumpeter, composer, DJ and label owner has built up a name for himself at the vanguard of the UK jazz scene since his debut album appeared in 2008. He appeared at the Union Chapel alongside a diverse musical line-up, with Alice Roberts on harp, Matt Cliffe on sax and flute, Jasper Greene on keys, Gavin Barras on bass, Alan Taylor on drums and Jack McCarthy on percussion (including marimbas, congas and a kalimba). The set featured performances of older tracks and showcased their new album. Harmonic minor cadences in ‘Land Of’ and euphoric major seventh piano chords in ‘Patterns’ evoked older jazz standards (‘My Favourite Things’ and ‘Night in Tunisia’ coming to mind). However, the set was dominated by pieces from their newest album, ‘Salute to the Sun’, released in November 2020.
A standout performance at the heart of the set was ‘Salute to the Sun’, the title track of their latest album. The piece opens with harp triads drifting through a stark silence. In a solo introduction accompanied only by lazily hissing cymbals, Alice Roberts showcased immense virtuosic skill. Using the full register of her instrument, she introduced gentle, interlocking melodies in the highest pitch before plucked chords scattered rapidly across multiple octaves in a sweeping movement, sinking down into rippling echoes in the lowest register. After a structured section of modal piano chords, repeating double bass and trumpet improvisation, her return to the forefront in another virtuosic improvisation was show-stopping in the chapel setting.
Although the track titles to Matthew Halsall’s new album at first glance could be mistaken for categories of scent (‘Harmony with Nature’, ‘Canopy & Stars’ and ‘Tropical Landscape’ among them), their soundscapes evoke a sense of reconnection with the natural world and the spiritual life. The gentle rhythms and flute melodies of ‘Tropical Landscape’, rustling percussion of ‘Harmony with Nature’ and hypnotic loops of double bass and harp in ‘Canopy & Stars’ combined to create a sense of being taken on a long walk through the forest. The afterlife of Alice Coltrane was palpable, both in Alice Roberts ’ stunning harp performances, and in the performance of a tribute named after her. Heavily influenced by Eastern religious traditions, her album names also referred to a sense of connection with the world (‘Universal Consciousness’, ‘World Galaxy’, ‘Illuminations’ and ‘World Spirituality’ among them). In a style reminiscent of Alice Coltrane’s extended jams, this performance had an improvisational quality to it throughout, featuring a mischievous interplay of call-and-response between piano, harp, drums, percussion, double bass, flute and trumpet.
Leaving the chapel calm and clear-headed, it was clear that this performance had surpassed all expectations.
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