Charlotte Keefe is a trumpeter and flugelhorn player who continues to push the boundaries of the jazz genre – her accomplished tone, understanding of extended techniques, and technical ability allow her to experiment with improvisation more than most. ‘Charlotte Keefe Quartet Live’ is a collection of recordings released in 2020 but taken from a live performance by Keefe’s Quartet at Jazz in the Round back in March 2019. Although these performances are categorised as free jazz and free improvisation, they are by no means inaccessible to the average listener – combining moments of wholeness and unity with moments of disparity and disorientation, Keefe’s Quartet play with our expectations as an audience, and create soundscapes which are both pleasing and challenging for the listener.
‘1200 Photographs’ opens the live set with Keefe on flugelhorn, Long on double bass, Handysides on drums and Freed on guitar – the piece feels melancholic and yet has a sense of continued movement because of the improvised rhythms provided by the drums and bass. The flugel melody is easy to follow as a listener, making the piece more accessible as it is simultaneously undermined and challenged by the improvisations from the rest of the band. Thinking about the live aspect of the performance, the Jazz in the Round venue is such a perfect setting for this type of playing – the audience are watching from every side as each player is listening intently to the others, in order to sensitively respond to the musical ideas they are hearing for the first time. After moments of wholeness in which the band play together, the guitar doubling the flugel melody and the drums leading the quartet, the piece then slowly deteriorates into a more disorientating, ‘free’ feel. Long uses a range of techniques on the double bass including different bow techniques in order to create a more challenging and interesting soundscape. The piece slowly fades out as the band play in a way which feels more at random, left up to chance, and yet still deliberate.
‘A Horse Named Galaxy’ follows, opening this time with a more upbeat feel and moving into a trumpet and guitar melody which moves between straight rhythm and a lazy swing, supported by the drums. This piece feels much more cohesive than the last, as the players are in time more often even though they’re still experimenting. There is a tasteful guitar solo from Freed which provides a sense of calm before Keefe’s solo takes off and soars over the other players. Although this piece is still very free, and fades out just as ‘1200 Photographs’ did, it has a much sweeter feel to it – the melody is warm, and the harmonic choices make for a satisfying listen. The slow fade out which features throughout these live recordings leaves us with a sense of having experienced a moment in time, rather than a whole or cohesive composition – this is the very nature of free improvisation, and of creating a space for this type of freedom in playing.
‘Sweet, Corn’ ends the set of recordings, opening with immediately disorientating trumpet phrases and chromatic guitar chords. Following this, Long and Handysides collaborate in a very avant-garde section of the piece, where the drums are erratic yet decided, and the double bass is bowed and picked seemingly at random. Suddenly the band play together in a slow build, creating a sense of anticipation before Keefe enters with a loud, confident trumpet melody. The rhythmic guitar playing alongside the drums creates a sense of release, before this is undermined by the chromaticism and darkness of the trumpet melody. Again, the piece dissolves into a ‘freer’ and disorientating texture, where the layers of harmony and rhythm are stripped away until we are left with each player’s separate ideas being interwoven in a strange and unusual pattern. Keefe’s Quartet are so interesting because they manage to contrast these moments of wholeness and unity with moments which seem like disarray, yet are still accomplished and very deliberate musical interactions. The moments of unity feel so much more satisfying when contrasted with these moments of disorientation as a listener – and the final fade out again creates a dissipation which leaves us wanting more.
‘Charlotte Keefe Quartet Live’ is a live performance captured beautifully through a set of recordings. At times, the sounds wash over us and create new unexpected connections; at others, the sounds truly challenge us and make us think. This collaboration between four accomplished, open musicians is a really interesting listen, and definitely worth checking out if you’re into free jazz, or if you’ve never heard any before. At a time where we’re all really missing live music, it’s also the perfect set of recordings to dip your toe into and feel the energy of a live performance again.
Review by Evie Hill