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Nat Birchall’s Unity Ensemble with Alan Skidmore and Mark Wastell at Café Oto

Nat Birchall’s Unity Ensemble with Alan Skidmore and Mark Wastell

(Café OTO, Friday 17 May 2024. Review by Pete Woodman)

(L to R) Adam Fairhall, Lascelle Gordon, Michael Bardon, Nat Birchall, Paul Hession, Alan Skidmore, Mark Wastell. Photo credit Sean Kelly


A sell-out crowd at Café OTO on Friday night witnessed what to my mind is one of the finest and most moving concerts I’ve seen in many a year.

Nat Birchall is a saxophonist and composer much better known in the north than in the south; he has been a key part of the Manchester jazz scene for over 20 years, having released his debut album in 1999. I have seen him perform on many occasions in that time, but last Friday night’s event at Café OTO was a sublime spiritual experience.

A sextet with a five-piece rhythm section might sound like a peculiar set-up, but this band have such an affinity with each other that the music flowed in a beautifully balanced way throughout the gig; Michael Bardon, Adam Fairhall and Paul Hession have all played with Birchall for many years, and this band knows what it means to perform as a cohesive and organic unit.


The gig opened with Elevation, the closing track on the Ensemble’s album New World, released in March this year, which set the tone for the evening with all six members of the band making exhilarating contributions. Adam Fairhall’s piano solo was followed by Wastell and Gordon exploring their variety of percussion pieces; Hession’s drums then joined in before the whole band brought the piece to a close. It was clear from the start that this was going to be an evening of highly spiritual music, and so it proved; imagine the spirit of John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders transferred to the Peak District. This was deep, earthy music which held the audience spellbound.


The percussion element of the band, with Hession on drums, Gordon on small percussion and Wastell on tam-tam, gongs and other large percussion kept up an almost constant rhythm throughout, coupled with moments of delicacy which only augmented the overall performance.


For the start of the second set, the band were joined by 82-year old tenor player Alan Skidmore who was on fine form. Skid produced masterful solos on New World and Exaltation from the new album. Sadly, these were Skid’s only contributions to the performance due to ongoing health issues, but his soloing seemed to inspire the band to ever greater things, and these two pieces were the evening’s crowning glory.

After Skid’s departure, Bardon’s beautifully executed bass solo started the set’s third piece, Unity before the evening was brought to a close with a rousing rendition of Bill & Clifton Lee’s John Coltrane (what else?).


All in all, this was a mesmerising performance; I truly hope that Birchall gains the global recognition that he deserves.


Nat Birchall – tenor sax

Adam Fairhall – piano

Michael Bardon – bass

Paul Hession – drums

Lascelle Gordon – percussion

with

Mark Wastell – percussion

Alan Skidmore – tenor sax


Set 1:

New World

Kalaparusha Arha Difda

One For the Sun

Song to the Divine Mother


Set 2 :

New World

Exaltation

Unity

John Coltrane


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