Thanks to Amir Behrouzi for the photo.
Jazz at Johns is held three or four times a term on Friday evenings in the Fisher Building of St John's college. It is extremely well-run, with a large committee drawn from across the university and numerous friendly helpers. The lack of parochialism, relaxed atmosphere, and cheap bar always prove the catalysts for a strong attendance. The setting is functional, rather than charming, and allows for guests to either relax and chat a little further away from the action or sit intently in front of the stage.
Supporting the Mark Perry Quintet was Cambridge alumnus Sarah Tandy and her accomplished piano trio, playing a set consisting mostly of classic standards. Tiago Coimbra's metronomic walking bass and Rick Hudson's varied, shifting rhythms anchored Tandy's advanced, Herbie Hancock influenced piano playing. The group were tight and well-rehearsed, pausing and reentering in unison to underscore key moments. The high quality of the support was impressive considering the £4 entrance fee.
After a short break the Mark Perry Quintet filled out onto the stage for the first of two sets of original numbers. The quintet's rhythm section of drums, acoustic bass, and fender rhodes keyboard were at the back of the stage while the horn section of trumpet and tenor saxophone led at the front. Containing some of the nation's most promising young jazz musicians, in particular drum prodigy James Maddren, the band commanded the attention of the willing audience.
The quintet crafted music that was complex and forward-looking, yet gripping and pithy. Sam Leak invoked the spirit of the electric Miles Davis period as he summoned swampy chords from his rhodes before punctuating the gloom with shrilly oscillating right-hand runs. As Perry's cool-toned trumpet and Josh Ison's jagged saxophone took their turns to solo, Leak picked out and echoed key notes and phrases. Maddren's sense of rhythm was immaculate, tapping out polyrhythms in which the omitted beats were more significant than the accented. Along with the always impressive Empirical bassist Tom Farmer, the rhythm section was formidable. Out front, the horns sounded individually inspired but slightly disconnected - both from each other and from their colleagues behind.
The contrasting expressions and temperaments of the musicians were fascinating to behold: the laconic trumpet-gripping frontman, when not conveying an air of artistic detachment, gave off a slightly perturbed air; saxophonist Josh Ison had a giddy look of excitement, bouncing and nodding to his partners' solos; slack-jawed Maddren seemed utterly relaxed yet deep within the groove, occasionally exchanging mischievous glances with Farmer.
Individually, the quintet were captivating but as a unit sounded slightly inchoate. The band will surely benefit greatly from more time performing together, away from each member's duties with their other bands. Jazz at Johns has provided exciting new jazz at a thoroughly reasonable cost and in a lively setting. Next on the bill is the John Randall Quintet on the Friday 13th November.