Classical Music Sensibilities

The standout name this month would seem to be William Butterworth, who brings a string of mid-month dates, at The Fleece (Stoke-by-Nayland), Anteros Arts (Norwich) and Jazz East (Felixstowe). 

Just a few years ago a reviewer chided that this remarkable pianist didn’t ‘get out of London enough’; perhaps implying that a safe metropolitan bubble exists for what is being called ‘new jazz’. Butterworth has a decade and more on many London-based musicians in this circle, with a prior classical upbringing, but he shares with his younger contemporaries a re-evaluation of jazz.

In my second column, last April, I took up the mantle of the blues and jazz debate.  I accepted that the more Euro-centric chamber-jazz issued by ECM records and others to a great extent leaves the blues heritage behind in favour of classical music sensibilities.  So it is that a trawl of reviews and comment finds the William Butterworth Quartet described as having ‘classical music running through his veins’: beautiful melodies and rich harmonies, and sturdy foundations.  This new jazz largely leaves out (though no doubt could play) the principal root of blues, as well as distances itself from some jazz-standards conventions, but it claims a consistency with the language of jazz.  Reviews note this quartet’s ‘exploitation of space and subtle changes of rhythmic emphasis’ and adventurous play with time.  What’s ‘in’ here is what’s apparently called metric modulation, layering meter over meter; not the evermore complex rhythms of progressive jazz (of Return to Forever) but about jarring pulses, often with hypnotic effect.  

Firm melodic sequences and meditative percussive patterns is what struck me about the trio with drummer Phelan Burgoyne in Aldeburgh late last year.  I recall the tick-tock clock and Reich-like cycles in some pieces.  A review of his trio with saxophonist Martin Speake and guitarist Rob Luft calls it a ‘tight sphere of motion’, with the close-knit and accomplished interplay that characterises chamber-jazz.  But there’s much more here: the music evokes landscapes and memories, not classical-pastoral as such but more brooding and gothic.  The Phelan Burgoyne Trio launched their album at London’s Vortex and played Felixstowe’s club last month (see Grapevine online), and will hopefully appear here again soon. 

This contemporary jazz is not the pleasing patterns of a Michael Nyman or Arvo Pärt CD; this is not easy-music.  Quirky rhythms and meter in jazz trace back to Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins, and two current American influences are pianist Brad Mehldau (adopting Jarrett’s percussive séances) and saxophonist Chris Potter (a guide for Butterworth’s Seb Pipe among many).  ‘This is Jazz Today’, hails a left-field online review (  Whether it is the shape of jazz to come or not, and it might not be that immediately sought by mainstream straightaheaders or traditionalists, it does pursue a musical language more in common than that spoken by classicalist enthusiasts.