N.E.W. at The Vortex, 14/3/11

Steve Noble, by Scott McMillan

The Japanese trumpeter Toshinori Kondo was supposed to be at the Vortex this evening, but for understandable reasons, he couldn’t it make it. The venue offered refunds on the tickets, and some seemed to take them up on it, judging by the empty seats dotted around the place. Those people are fools. For in Kondo’s place, the superb improvising trio N.E.W. were given two sets. After his duo with Arthur Doyle at Cafe Oto, this meant I’d be seeing Steve Noble play drums for the second night in a row. That probably isn’t the first time that has happened to me. After all, Steve Noble and John Edwards (who is the E to Noble’s N in the trio’s name) are the two musicians I’ve seen in concert more than anyone else. I’d call them the country’s finest rhythm section, but that would be doing them a massive disservice – for what they do on their respective instruments is about so much more than rhythm, it is about dynamics, about feel, about listening, about texture. And, because even given that, what pairing can you point to anywhere in the world that is better?

John Edwards, by Scott McMillan

Having said that, I’ve actually never seen Noble and Edwards play with Alex Ward (the W) before, and I was really looking forward to it, Kondo or no Kondo. Ward is probably better known as a clarinettist, but in N.E.W. he plays electric guitar. And I’m not talking about your Grant Green-style jazz electric guitar here; this is the jazz electric guitar of Sonny Sharrock, of John McLaughlin in his wilder moments, or even of Thurston Moore – as much rock and noise as jazz. So, this trio promised excitement – and it duly delivered. Right from the off, Ward was hacking away at his guitar, jagged shards of sounds flying off in all directions, and Edwards was disrespecting his (amplified) instrument by attacking it with the end of his bow. Noble’s performance initially lacked some of the subtlety and variety of the previous evening, but then again he had to hammer at his kit here just to be heard. He dragged them into a succession of deep repetitive grooves, making this sound at times a little like a higher voltage version of another power trio, the Tony Williams Lifetime (trading the crunching stabs of Larry Young’s organ for the grind of Edwards’s bass). For a moment, I swear they even fleetingly – too fleetingly – flirted with Can’s “Mother Sky”.

Alex Ward, by Scott McMillan

The second set started quieter and noticeably better balanced (the bass up a little, the guitar a little down). Ward was scribbling away with the end of his bottleneck, while Edwards was just forcing his bow against the bass, producing splintering creaks. This enabled Noble to rummage through his arsenal, coming up with a succession of textural weapons – scraped drumsticks, rubber mallets, and upturned cymbals pressed against his drums. Finally, he settled on a pair of cowbells – one attached to the kit, the other used as a drumstick – for the final assault, propelling the trio into a no-nonsense boogie war, which actually had them grinning by the end. They hadn’t expected to be playing two sets tonight, but it looked like that particular groove could have carried them all night. And us. And, indeed, many more. Even given the circumstances, a band this good should never be playing to an under-capacity Vortex. If you were somewhere else, you missed out.