Gig review: Szun Waves at Headrow House, Leeds

Having risked slipping into fusty and academically dry irrelevance, jazz has enjoyed an energetic comeback in recent years.

Sunday, 2nd December 2018, 3:17 pm
Updated Sunday, 2nd December 2018, 3:20 pm
Szun Waves at Headrow House, Leeds. Picture: Ross McGibbon
Szun Waves at Headrow House, Leeds. Picture: Ross McGibbon

Kamasi Washington’s visionary mash-up of the more heady ends of the genre’s illustrious past have deservedly turned him into a figurehead of contemporary jazz. Although similarly conversant with the hypnotic potential of open-eared exploration, Szun Waves couldn’t be further removed from such retro vibes.

In fact, if you were to dip into tonight’s startlingly atmospheric yet muscularly pounding set (less a selection of songs than a positively disorientating slab of restlessly churning sound) at random points, you might not automatically link the trio to jazz at all. Yet it’s a vital part of their musical DNA, evident in both saxophonist Jack Wyllie’s (of Portico Quarter) and former Triosk drummer Laurence Pike’s instrumental prowess and the group’s improvisational zeal.

Having extemporised the tracks on this year’s excellent second album New Hymn To Freedom (which must have slipped off various Best of 2018 lists purely by accident) in the studio, the three-piece – completed by electronica producer Luke Abbott, in charge of the wildly oscillating motifs that provide the mothership for the two instrumentalists to orbit around – effectively re-dream it all over again. Although familiar themes bubble to the surface now and again, there’s zero interest in replicating the recorded tracks on display tonight.

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Although still loosely rooted in the album’s contemplative atmospherics and ambient soundscaping, the sound is more insistent, simultanuously looser and freer in its borderless sprawl and more tightly sealed around the seams than on the record: keeping with the cosmic imagery projected behind the musicians, the most intense moments during tonight’s all-too-brief hour-long set suggest cruising music for a space shuttle take-off.

Improvised music often involves yawn-inducing idling or the aimless abstraction resulting from musicians pulling in different directions. There’s none of that here. Even more so than on the album, Szun Waves excel in an alchemical ability to render what is essentially three musicians trying to reach and remain on a shared wavelength into a hugely compelling spectacle that’s virtually throbbing with hypnotic potential.

There have been previous attempts to link electronics and jazz (most notably the magnificent minimalist grooves of The Comet Is Coming). Yet the maximalist yet still intricately nuanced stew the trio emits tonight seems unique in its ability to effortlessly blend the two approaches, aided and abetted by Pike, who pummels his kit with the metronomic precision of a drum machine whilst upholding the liberally bashing ethos of vintage free jazz.

What makes the trio’s telepathic interplay even more impressive is their continental split: whist Abbott and Wylie are based in the UK, Pike resides in Australia, rendering rehearsal time a rare commodity. But perhaps it’s the trio’s intent to squeeze every drop of potential from each of their few opportunities that renders tonight’s performance into a triumph that – in stark contrast to the muted lighting and stark, colour-bled images projected behind the musicians – pulsates with dazzling multicolour splendour.