Matt Wates Sextet | October 2018

Friday 19 October, Progress Theatre, Reading

Matt Wates alto saxophone, Leon Greening piano, Malcolm Creese bass, Matt Home drums, Steve Main tenor saxophone, Steve Fishwick trumpet & flugelhorn

Having to sit through handful of groan-worthy jokes that easily pre-dated the Relief of Mafeking was a small price to pay for the otherwise sublime pleasure of listening to the Matt Wates’ Sextet at Reading’s Progress Theatre on Friday 19 October. Though the band is brimming with solo talent, it was the quality of Wates’ writing and arranging skills that stood out in my mind throughout the evening. As host-for-the-evening Paul Johnson pointed out in his introduction to the second set, ‘An entire programme of originals can get to be very samey. Not so with Matt Wates.’  With all but two of the tightly-arranged numbers coming from Wates’ prolific pen, each set sparkled with interest, variety and thrilling challenge for musicians and audience alike. He has a remarkable ear for creating melodies that take firm root in the imagination and uses the instrumental resources of the band to bring them to life in full.

The gorgeous bass-lines of Malcolm Creese set the opening number, ‘Victoria’, in motion and introduced the contrasting sounds of the three front-line instruments as they blended together or played their separate parts in developing the theme: the fluid, pure toned and balletic grace of Wates’ alto; the immaculate precision of Steve Fishwick’s trumpet and the dry, muscular tones of Steve Main’s tenor. Leon Greening is both the band’s energy source and harmonic navigator at the keyboard and charts his course with a huge sound. His two-handed, multi-layered approach to soloing never loses sight of the melody and it’s this quality which makes his playing so beguiling. Meanwhile, Matt Home demonstrated the aplomb that makes him the first-call drummer for any situation demanding straight-ahead jazz swing.

‘Heatwave’ maintained the temperature, though at a slightly more relaxed pace, before the band changed into their dancing shoes for the blistering jazz-waltz ‘Hill Street’ – the residents of Hill Street, Reading, located a little more than a mile away from the Progress would have been delighted with this unexpected dedication to their notoriously steep thoroughfare.

‘What Good Is Spring’ brought a change of mood. Composed by Matt Wates’ twin brother Rupert, resident in the United States, it featured the haunting tenor of Steve Main in a beautifully melancholic evocation of spring.

Obviously with a mind to the fast approaching interval and the well-stocked Progress bar, ‘Gin and Bitters’ brought the first set to a suitable close.  Bright and cheery, and like the cocktail itself, it held a gentle hint of potential menace.

The second set opened with ‘Third Eye’ and instantly brought to mind the clean, knife-edge swing of Cannonball Adderley’s great bands of the early sixties. ‘We held that together by the skin of our teeth,’ Wates admitted when this breathtaking number came to a close.

‘On the Up’ hit a more funky groove with tenor saxist Steve Main to the fore, while rock inspired ensemble passages added tense excitement to ‘Dark Energy’. The effervescent joy of ‘The People Tree’ culminated in a masterful drum solo by Matt Home.

Steve Fishwick’s mellow flugelhorn set the smoky, blues-soaked scene for ‘After Hours’, a moving dedication to Ray Charles featuring Leon Greening at the height of his keyboard powers.

Matt Wates and Leon Greening presented ‘Beatriz’, a composition by Brazilian guitarist and singer Edu Lobo, as a duo, unleashing in the process a performance of powerfully expressed emotion. Wates’ intense cry of passion was absolutely spellbinding.

Can you think of a better title to describe six young-at-heart jazzers than ‘When We Grow Up’?   It wrapped up the evening in suitably playful style, but as no jazz concert is complete without an encore a little persuasion  brought the band back to the stage to ride-out the evening with the rousing, ‘Blues for Ari’.

It’s all too easy to take British jazz musicians for granted. The Matt Wates Sextet served to remind us of their world class qualities. As the late alto legend Joe Harriott once observed, ‘Parker? There’s some over here who can play aces too …’

A great evening and thanks as ever to the Progress ‘House Team’ for the warmth of their hospitality and flawless management of sound and lighting.

Review posted here by kind permission of Trevor Bannister.

Photo by Zoë White Photography