Gary Willcox’s Drummer/Composer Project – February 2023

Progress Theatre, Reading, Friday 3 February 2023

Julian Siegel saxes | Chris Batchelor trumpet  | Gary Willcox drums |Oli Hayhurst bass | Gareth Williams piano

“Wow, what a brilliant gig, the best I’ve been to for a long while,” was just one comment overheard as an enthralled audience made its exit from the Progress Theatre on Friday 3 February after two exhilarating hours of jazz at its most creative in the company of Gary Willcox’s Drummer/Composer Project.

The advance publicity was absolutely spot-on; this remarkable tribute to the composing talents of drum legends Kenny Clarke, Denzil Best, Elvin Jones, Paul Motian, Peter La Roca, Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette and Bill Stewart and their contribution to the evolution of jazz across eight-decades from be-bop to ECM and beyond, scaled the heights of “inspiring, in the moment playing”.

Seasoned veterans all, but new to the stage of Progress, Chris Batchelor, Julian Siegel and Oli Hayhurst quickly made their mark amid ‘Three Card Molly’’, a veritable explosion of raw energy bearing  the unmistakeable hallmarks of its composer – Elvin Jones.

Gary Willcox revealed his own composing skills to spell-binding effect in ‘The Arrival’, its intrinsic lyricism heightened by the delicate interplay between Batchelor and Siegel over an atmospheric background conjured by the rhythm section. Willcox’s use of hand-held bells and a single-stick snare drum roll was especially impressive.

However, imagine the shock and surprise of suddenly being transported from this trance-like state of sublimity to the heat and intense fury of Pete La Roca’s ‘Basra’ – a real whirling-Dervish of a number. Talk about a ‘wake-up’ call! By all accounts, La Roca, along with his bassist colleague Steve Swallow, had taken LSD on their way to recording his debut album as a leader for Blue Note in 1965. As you might expect, it produced rather startling results in the studio – replicated here without, I might add, any stimulants others than Progress tea!

In his 1940/50s heyday Denzil Best was noted for the swinging quality of his brush work accompanying such piano stars as George Shearing and Erroll Garner. He was also a composer of some note with credits including the great bebop anthem ‘Wee’ (aka ‘Allen’s Alley’), ‘Bemsha Swing’ (a collaboration with Thelonious Monk) and most famously ‘Move’, which appeared on the classic Miles Davis album ‘Birth of the Cool’.  On this occasion it received the full bebop treatment with everyone ‘champing at the bit’ to keep up the breakneck tempo. Great fun!

Paul Motian, a member of Bill Evans’ groundbreaking trio of the early 1960s and a drummer of exceptional  sensitivity, was in an ebullient mood when he penned ‘Mandeville’. Its infectious calypso spirit evoked the warm glow of Caribbean sunshine with ‘dreamy’  solos  from Oli Hayhurst and Gareth Williams and a delightful closing duet from Chris Batchelor and Julian Siegel.

They continued to bounce ideas off each other in ‘Think Before You Think’, a quirky conversation piece for trumpet and tenor saxophone by Bill Stewart. This timely advice brought the first set to a resounding close and  a well-earned break for the musicians.

And so to the second set … Oli Hayhurst’s expressive and increasingly intense bass lines led the way into ‘Epistrophy’ and an absolute masterclass in the use of time, space and melodic invention.  All praise to Gary Willcox and his Drum/Composer Project for interpreting this timeless classic, jointly credited to Thelonious Monk and drummer Kenny Clarke and dating from 1941, with such faithful attention to its original spirit. It was a joy to listen to: for me, the highlight of a very special evening.

Julian Siegel is shortly to be leading his own big band on a tour of major UK venues including Ronnie Scott’s in London. He swapped his tenor for a soprano saxophone to soar freely above a melee of sound and rhythm in his portrait of ‘Ahmed the Terrible’, a track composed by Jack DeJohnette in 1982 for his band Special Edition.

The opening notes of Chris Batchelor’s superlative introduction to ‘Pee Wee’ instantly caused the hairs to rise on the back of my neck. What a sound! An echo from Miles Davis’s 1967 ‘Sorcerer’ album. Solos by Julian Siegel and Gareth Williams perfectly sustained the mood of wistful reflection.

Tony Williams was just twenty-four when he composed this tune and already a veteran of five-years as drummer with Miles’s second great quintet. He went on to compose many tunes for his own bands, including the Latin-tinged ‘Sister Cheryl’ which followed ‘Pee Wee’. Tragically he died from a heart attack at the all-too-early age of fifty-one whilst undergoing a routine gall bladder operation.

A tiny spark of an idea, from the prodigious imagination of Paul Motian, lit the fuse for a volcano of free expression that had been threatening to erupt all evening. This joyous outburst of collective invention neatly summed up the spirit of the evening. It couldn’t be matched, even by the flag-waving brio of the finale, ‘Salt Peanuts’.

A fantastic evening that will stay etched in the mind for a long time to come. Don’t miss this show if it comes to a club near you!

Our thanks first and foremost to the members of Gary Willcox’s Drummer/Composer Project – Chris Batchelor, Julian Siegel, Gareth Williams, Oli Hayhurst and Gary himself. Also a special word for Jason Yarde who was originally scheduled to play the gig before he suffered a stroke in late 2022. We wish him a speedy recovery and look forward to his return to ‘active duty’.

Of course, thanks to the volunteers of the Progress Theatre for their hospitality and technical skills in sound and lighting.

And finally, it was especially pleasing to see several young people in the audience (and I don’t mean people who haven’t quite reached retirement age). We hope they enjoyed the music and look forward to seeing them again. With friends maybe?

Review posted here by kind permission of Trevor Bannister

Photo by Zoë White Photography