Impossible Gentlemen

The Impossible Gentlemen brought their trademark blend of virtuosity, lyricism and funkiness to the Liverpool International Jazz Festival (a tad overblown, that ‘international, I think) last weekend.  I recalled seeing this four-man jazz supergroup before, but it wasn’t until I searched this blog that I was reminded this was the third time I’d been to one of their gigs.  Right there is one of the main reasons I write this blog: to back up a failing memory.

We first saw The Impossible Gentlemen together at Manchester’s RNCM in 2010 when they went under the clunky sobriquet of Simcock/Walker/Swallow/Nussbaum. A partnership of two Brits – Mancunian guitarist Mike Walker and Bangor-born pianist Gwilym Simcock – and two Yanks – bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Adam Nussbaum – by the time we saw them again a year later at Birkenhead’s now-defunct Pacific Road they had transmogrified into the rather mysterious Impossible Gentlemen. At that gig, as at the Capstone last Friday, Steve Rodby (best known for his work with the Pat Metheny Group) substituted for Steve Swallow on bass.

In Liverpool last week, the Impossible Gentlemen were supporting a new album – their second – that carries a title as impenetrable as their collective moniker: Internationally Recognised Aliens.  Not surprisingly, several numbers from the new album were featured in the show, along with a generous helping of tunes from their first eponymous album.  A performance by the Gentlemen is always terrific entertainment because the compositions (mainly by Simcock and Walker, though Nussbaum contributed two terrific, blues-inflected numbers) are so strong and the solo improvisations so enthralling.   I also like their relaxed presentation style: these guys really look as if they’re enjoying themselves, and take time to say a little bit about each number, each contributing introduction, with Walker’s being slightly surreal.

Walker and Simcock still do most of the writing, though Nussbaum’s two numbers suggest he’s a force to be reckoned with. To a large extent it’s Mike Walker’s guitar that gives this group its characteristic sound: varying between early-seventies jazz-rock, jazz-funk, John McLaughlin-influenced sonorities and the lyricism of Pat Metheny.  The latter is an acknowledged influence on Mike Walker’s guitar style, while Simcock has said he grew up loving Metheny’s music, and bassist Steve Rodby is a long-standing member of Metheny ensembles.

Numbers drawn from the first album included Simcock’s ‘You Won’t Be Around To See It’ which he introduced with a quiz question: it is, he said, ‘a decidedly odd take’ on a standard, but which one?  At the end, a guy at the back with a very good ear shouted out the correct answer: ‘Softly As In A Morning Sunrise’.  Also from the first album was Wallenda’s Last Stand’, a lyrical Walker showcase which he introduced at length with the story of the man who inspired the tune: high-wire artist Karl Wallenda who fell to his death at 73. It’s a great number that opens with Walker tiptoeing out on the wire in fine Pat Metheny style, before leaving space for bass and piano improvisations.

In complete contrast, an energetic highlight off the new album was ‘Heute Loiter’, composed jointly by Simcock and Walker, which opens with Walker’s choppy wah-wah guitar before settling into a powerful funk groove maintained by the now-bearded Simcock on piano.

Another standout Walker tune was the strangely-titled ‘The Sliver Of Other Lovers’ which incorporates rock elements and featured fine solo spots by Simcock on piano and Rodby on bass.

Other numbers off the new album included Simcock’s tender ballad ‘Just to See You’; ‘Modern Day Heroes’, an exuberant joint Simcock-Walker composition in which piano and guitar intertwine effortlessly.  For me, the instant favourite of the new tunes was Simcock’s ‘Barber Blues’, inspired – as Simcock explained in his intro – by one of the American composer’s Excursions’ and a reminder that the pianist began with classical studies and also makes elegant albums with a jazz-inflected classical flavour, such as the two he has recorded at Schloss Elmau.

Another of my firm favourites is Nussbaum’s ‘Sure Would Baby’, a blues which he introduced with a lengthy account of the musical influences passed by his parents (both musicians who possessed an influential record collection).  This rougher, tougher-edged blues featured muscular drumming by Nussbaum and extended solos from Simcock at the piano and Walker on guitar, in full-on blues-rock mode.

At the close, Nussbaum thanked us all for coming out and supporting the music – and it is true that, excellent as the albums are for home listening, there’s nothing like a live gig for appreciating four jazz musicians at the top of their game, improvising extended solos that you don’t hear on record.

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