Johnston St Jazz, July 30


It all comes down to sound. Even when streamed rather than live, you hear a life-force fermenting in Matt Ottignon’s tenor saxophone that can rear up like a tsunami or melt like chocolate. Not merely a matter of commanding the keys and mouthpiece, the sound’s grip results from the need to speak through the instrument; to engage, communicate and touch.

Tread Lightly is the collective name for a batch of compositions that have welled up in the minds of Ottignon and pianist Stu Hunter during the COVID-19 shutdown. As many have discovered, the virus, for all its tragic and appalling implications, has also provided respite from the bustling madness of normality; space in which to contemplate and potentially compose. The upshot is a thrilling new body of work.

Matt Ottignon. Photos: Perce Woodbury.

The material was presented without breaks, and if there was a through-line it was a recurrent echo of South African jazz, perhaps the most under-acknowledged of the music’s great strains. The opening JS145 was underpinned by one of Hunter’s trademark, hypnotic grooves, and featured the first of several Cameron Undy bass solos of rare potency. Ottignon’s saxophone introduction to Shimmer had big, roaring blues implications, without the blues form, after which a groove emerged, riding on drumming from Miles Thomas that was as fitful as a boulder lurching down a shallow slope, and this was the catalyst for a tenor solo of almost uncontained elation.

Humming began with an atmospheric rubato that tingled with possibilities, these coalescing into firstly storming tenor and then, over soft, insistent, rather tribal drumming, a piano solo that had sharp shards of glass falling about your ears, and that reiterated Hunter’s singular ability to craft solos that don’t so much respond to their context as reshape it in their own image.

Assembled specifically to perform this music, this is an exceptional new band, with Undy giving the music such a vigorous spine, and Thomas continually daring to be different: sometimes the drumming so sparse as to be camouflaged by the other instruments; sometimes adding sudden drama, or chunky meat to the bones of the grooves. His main solo feature, played with mallets, conjured up a storm approaching, hitting full-frontally, and then passing on. If only the virus were like that.