Sunday, November 22, 2020

Cath Roberts and ...

Cath Roberts & Benedict Taylor - Duo Set At The Horse Improv Club, September 2018 (Self, 2020) ***

Cath Roberts & Corey Mwamba & Olie Brice - Trio Set At Lume, April 2016 (Self, 2020) ***½

Cath Roberts & Seth Bennett - Duo Set At V22 Louise House, August 2016 (Self, 2020) *** ½

Cath Roberts & Johnny Hunter - Duo set at BRÅK, November 2019 (Self, 2020) ****

By Nick Ostrum

Cath Roberts is a British baritone saxophonist who has been at it for nearly a decade, now. Over the course of here career, she has performed with many of the next emerging scene coming out of London, including more widely known figures such as Colin Webster and Alan Wilkinson as well as many I have not yet encountered, such as the musicians featured on these recordings. Covid, it seems, has given Roberts the chance (or maybe simply forced her) to step away from a busy performing schedule and curate a series of live recordings from the last five years, slowly rolling out the results on her Bandcamp site.

When I encounter a live recording that looks somewhat intriguing, my mind often runs the gamut from questioning why we need another live recording from what is likely a fine but hardly singular night, to acknowledging that modern recording and distribution technologies render such judgements irrelevant, to finally settling in to listen to the album I had already tried to dismiss. By now, of course, I have come to terms with the proliferation of live recordings and, indeed, review them with some frequency. I hardly need to work through this cycle every time. But, sometimes, I feel it puts me in the right headspace. I am listening to something new and minimally produced. I am ready for what it has to offer but am not expecting my mind to be blown.

And that is where these Cath Roberts and co. recordings come in. On first listen, they are quite enjoyable. Roberts has a thick, bluesy style that works with the instrument, rather than against it in a Mats Gustafsson fashion. She can clearly hold her own on it and improvise beyond basic jazz scales. She rarely goes out and she experiments with dynamics, though rarely extreme. Indeed, in her 2016 duo with bassist Seth Bennet, Duo Set at V22 Louise House, August 2016, she and Bennet volley walking lines and more rapid but restrained squawks and vamps. The two have collaborated for years, and it shows, in the ways melodies waft and entangle. Something similar can be said of her 2018 duo with violaist Benedict Taylor, Duo Set at The Horse Improv Club, September 2018. Somehow, however, Taylor’s pizzicato and dizzying glissando pull Roberts further out of the jazz and deeper into the free improv tradition. She clucks more and plays abandons the smoky, comfortable registers of the baritone for the more tentative explorations of the higher pitches and accidental noises. Here, it seems she and Taylor are drawing on a wider range of forebearers, and this release is that much more inspired because it.

Trio Set at Lume, April 2016 might be my favorite of the three. Consisting of Corey Mwamba on vibes and small instruments, Olie Brice on bass, and Roberts on her baritone, it seems the most fully formed. She is not playing quite to the level she is on Duo at the Horse, but she pushes further into that territory than on her duo with Bennet. This may be because the duo can be more challenging than the trio and she may have simply been filling the empty space with long tones in the latter. Then again, there is plenty of that here, as well, where at times she seems inspired to follow Coltrane, Noah Howard, or Sonny Simmons, albeit with less abandon than all three. For their parts, Brice tends to hold a steady bass, though he escapes at time into some more interesting territory Mwamba lays some nice licks on his vibes without falling into the fluffy ambient trap. All in all, the performance flows nicely and has just enough dissonance and, for Roberts, muscularity to keep it interesting and likely just enough sonority and swing to appeal to less adventurous listeners. It is a fine line, they walk.

These releases are just a smattering of Roberts’ Covid releases. And, they are quite good, especially when taken together. Alone, they sound, well, like live recordings (there is a hollowness and flatness to all three) of talented musicians stumbling onto something, but still feeling out what that something is, or where they should take it. Together, however, the releases give a fuller picture of artists, and Roberts in particular, in development, tentatively toying with some ideas early on and really leaning into the less straightforward possibilities of her instrument later on. Especially as we cannot go out every month or week and watch this process live on the bandstand, it is particularly interesting to be able to hear it unfold on headphones, and revisit some of the more compelling moments when Roberts and her bandmates hit their stride.

If one even needs to justify live recordings such as this – and likely the numerous Roberts has released since – in our current situation, I guess that is one way to go about doing it.

PS: After finishing this review, I decided to put my theory to the test. Her Duo set at BRÅK, November 2019 with Johnny Hunter on drums seems a big step in Roberts’ development, even just from her 2018 recording. Hunter is an interesting and resourceful percussionist. Roberts, however, drives that much harder, shows more dynamism, and more confidently explores the freer realms.

All four albums are available pay-what-you-want on Bandcamp.

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