Full disclosure: California saxophonist, Bob Reynolds is a personal hero of mine. As always, my thoughts on the music featured in this piece will be as objective as they can be. I did, however, meet one of my heroes on Thursday night, so this article is going to be framed by personal experience, not by critical analysis from an unbiased observer. That being said, from a musical perspective, this performance by the Bob Reynolds Group at Manchester’s Band on the Wall was exhilarating and would have been regardless of my personal admiration for Reynolds himself.
I’d had a pretty miserable day on Thursday before I arrived at Manchester’s famed jazz venue, Band on the Wall. My morning was coloured by an anxiety inducing exam, the thought of which had kept me up for most of the previous night, followed by lunch that had left me bloated, nauseous and lethargic. To make things worse, my train from Liverpool to Manchester was cancelled at the last minute, leaving me with no option other than to cram myself onto a train which was full to twice its intended capacity on one of the most humid days we’ve had for a while. It’s safe to say that by the time I finally arrived in Manchester, I was ready for the day to be over.
Thankfully, from that moment on, things began to improve exponentially. Following a pleasant walk through Manchester, my friend Micha and I arrived at the venue with a few minutes to spare before the gig began. For those who have not been before, Band on the Wall appears at first sight as a rather unassuming venue, but when the doors to the larger room containing the stage open, the club reveals its charm. It’s not a particularly large space, but there was enough room for those closest to the stage to sit comfortably, whilst a significant crowd of standing audience members piled in behind (and above on the delicately lit balcony). Micha and I managed to snag a couple of spots on a comfortable bench right at the front, on the far right of the stage and in full view of the drum kit (a decision I expected my ears would come to regret).
The two of us originally got to know each other when we played together in our old school’s jazz band; he played trumpet and I played sax. It was a tight-knit, small group, and we had bonded over a shared love of Snarky Puppy, a band with which Bob Reynolds often plays. With that in mind, we probably shouldn’t have been surprised when the bass player of our old band, Gili, walked into the room, but we were and excitedly beckoned him over to come and sit with us. This show was a pretty big deal for all three of us. Micha hadn’t had much experience going to gigs before, so he was definitely excited. Myself and Gili were there to see two musicians we’ve looked up to for quite some time.
Reynolds and his band were in Manchester as part of their European tour, in promotion of their new album, Quartet, aptly named for the band who recorded it. Three quarters of that band were present on stage in Manchester: Bob Reynolds on tenor saxophone, Janek Gwizdala on five-string bass and Chaun Horton on drums. Pianist, Ruslan Sirota was unable to attend, choosing instead, as Reynolds explained, to spend his Thursday at a wedding in Florida. In his place the band was joined by British pianist, Oli Rockberger – the man with the best facial expressions in contemporary jazz.
The first half of the set kicked off with a lively sax solo that led into one of Reynolds’ more well-known, older tunes, ‘Can’t Wait for Perfect’, and it was instantly clear (even more so than on the new album) that this show wasn’t about Bob Reynolds. It was about the band as a unit. From the get go, I was utterly gripped by the way the quartet gelled and grooved together. They’re all very tactile, visceral players, with every press of a key, pluck of a string and drum hit feeling earned, necessary and totally physical. Their natural, physical command of rhythm and groove meant that even the calmer, less driving tunes, like ‘Closer’, were electrifying.
For the uninitiated, Bob Reynolds’ music is an eclectic mix of jazz, R&B and pop, that occasionally ventures into the rhythmic and harmonic space of art rock bands like Radiohead. Above all, his music revolves around groove (you can read more about it here), which was the band’s main priority throughout the show. This was immensely prominent in the brand-new tune, ‘3 Up 3 Down’, which was perhaps the funkiest of the whole set, and a chance for bassist, Janek Gwizdala, to really show off his abilities. After a fun filled opening featuring meaty keyboard chords, punctuated by pointed key changes and sax stabs, the rest of the band dropped out and let Gwizdala build an insane new groove from loops, extended techniques and his array of effects pedals. The band slowly began to play their way back in, riffing off of the various layers contained within Gwizalda’s groove, and building to a jubilant frenzy before returning, triumphantly, to the tune; bringing the whole crowd with them.
As the first half came to a close the three of us took a moment to process what we had just witnessed, before Micha and I headed up to the bar to get some water. It was at this point that something surreal and truly awesome happened – I met Bob Reynolds. I’ve been following the saxophonist ever since I started to get serious about my interest in jazz – admittedly this wasn’t that long ago (around four years), but since then music, to a significant extent, has taken over my life. Hearing his solo on the Snarky Puppy song, ‘Outlier’, was a huge moment for me back in 2014, and meeting the guy in person was really surreal, especially since he remembered who I was from the article I wrote about his last album, Hindsight. A lot of people tell horror stories about how disappointed or upset they were upon meeting their heroes, but in all sincerity, if the people you look up to are as friendly and down-to-Earth as Bob Reynolds is, then you have nothing to worry about.
The second half was even more thrilling than the first, with the band performing lively renditions of ‘Sway’, ‘Hush’ and the insanely catchy ‘Down South’, all from the new album. All four musicians remained energised and wonderfully creative the whole way through. Oli Rockberger’s daring reharmonisations were particularly satisfying (his bizarre facial expressions and excited shouts kept those of us who couldn’t see his hands amused during his solos), and Gwizdala’s supportive, animated bass playing was a real driving force behind the sustained enthusiasm of the other band members and the audience. Speaking of which, I can’t recall a jazz gig outside of a large festival like Love Supreme where the audience has been this responsive and excited throughout. It was also really heartening to see so many young people there; it’s been a while since I’ve been to a jazz gig where I wasn’t the only person present under the age of 40.
The three most powerful moments of the show happened one after the other at the end of the second half. First was the band’s performance of ‘Stray Voltage’, a completely improvised piece with a wonderful story behind it. I wouldn’t describe it as free improv – it was still broadly in the style of the music we’d already heard over the course of the evening – but it was beautifully atmospheric and left the crowd in a moment of stunned silence before we all came to our senses and started applauding. Nobody else will hear ‘Stray Voltage’ as we did, and that made it feel particularly special.
Following this was ‘Hush’ a high energy tune, meant to close the show, which gave way to one of the most explosive performances of the night. Chaun Horton’s drumming was consistently impressive throughout the show thanks to his sensitivity and ability to provide complex rhythmic variety without forcing himself into the centre of attention. His moment however, truly came during ‘Hush’ where he was allowed to let loose and delivered one of the most exciting drum solos I’ve ever heard. The rest of the band backed off to the other side of the stage, watching with glee as the mayhem unfurled before them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Horton’s solo received the loudest single applause of the night, and it was well deserved.
The band then left the stage to thunderous applause, which continued until they conceded and returned to the stage for one last tune, ‘622’ from Reynolds’ 2013 album, Somewhere In Between. I don’t think they’d planned to do an encore because Oli Rockberger clearly hadn’t played the tune with the band before, but for me personally, this was the highlight of the concert. Reynolds’ sax playing had not even remotely disappointed during the show. His thrilling, rhythmically informed improvisation (something that sets him apart from his saxophone playing contemporaries) made appearances during nearly every tune, throwing in expertly timed growls, overtones and wispy high notes for maximum effect. His solo on this final number, however, was his most passionate, every note delivered with purpose and drive. I was totally gripped, completely sucked into the rhythmic pocket the rest of the quartet had carved out for him. It was truly astonishing.
I’ve been to a lot of great gigs, but every so often, one comes along that is so affecting that it’s impossible to be objective about it – the experience is too personal. As we walked out of the venue at the end of the night, I knew pretty much instantly that this was one of those, joining performances by Punch Brothers, Becca Stevens and Antonio Forcione as one of the most unforgettable musical experiences I’ve ever had. If you live in Europe and can get to one of their shows, I can’t recommend enough that you go and see the Bob Reynolds Group play. You won’t regret it.