George Crowley opens his Can of Worms at The Vortex

Saxophonist George Crowley has been paying his dues on the fringes of the London jazz scene since finishing his studies at the Royal Academy at the end of the noughties.

The launch of his impressive upcoming second album on Whirlwind titled after his new quintet Can of Worms coming at the end of a mini-tour of the UK though looks like putting him on the map as a composer and bandleader. The line up boasts a gifted and able set of London-based contemporaries including fellow tenorist Tom Challenger, pianist Dan Nicholls, drummer Jon Scott and double bassist Sam Lasserson.

Speaking to the audience between tunes, Crowley is as eloquent and comfortable with a microphone in his hand as he is with his sax, if inheriting an excess of the kind of self-deprecating humour that’s characteristic of the British jazzer, but none of the reserve. He and the LOOP Collective’s Challenger follow in the spirit of recent double tenor horn frontlines that include Polar Bear and Outhouse. But all work to a different aesthetic, the common thread being how the saxes both contrast and complement each other. Crowley’s playing is breathy and lithe, while Challenger is the more gutsy-toned, exploratory one but they have empathy and are as impressive paired up as they are solo.

Chattering free jazz-y horn dialogues and surging Afro-Cuban-edged themes gave way to cooler, wormier high-register unisons, with a gospel tinge at times that recalled something of Mingus. Drums and bass added a bubbling percussive drive to Crowley’s rousing themes, but it was the LOOP Collective/Strobes’ pianist Dan Nicholls’s strong personal concept that provided the unexpected twists, breaking up the party with otherworldly music-box, occasionally John Cage-ish, motifs or a trance-like flow of rhythmic ideas, drawn from a progressive tonal jazz tradition but steering clear of more familiar phraseology. A partisan full house – packed in like sardines into the seating area with little standing room available – was highly appreciative. It was a welcome sight in light of the venue’s recent financial blip, and the thunderous applause and whoops at the end of the second set was thoroughly deserved.

– Selwyn Harris

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