Ben Powell at the Pizza Express Jazz Club Soho, 1/15/13

Ascendant British violin star debuts quartet on home turf

Jack Losh

Bridging his rigorous Classical background with a passion for jazz, the rising British violin star, Ben Powell, debuted his exceptional quartet in London recently in the atmospheric underground domain of the Pizza Express Jazz Club Soho. It was a return to home turf for the 25-year-old, following years of honing his craft at the illustrious Berklee College of Music in Boston and a six-month stint in Paris playing with the best of the Hot Club's gypsy jazz descendants. And what a homecoming it was.

The set, almost two hours in length, drew on many of the tunes from his latest release, New Street, an exciting and radical departure from his previous, more traditional work. The record has had some serious acclaim already; its live outing dazzled. The band opened with New Street's energetic title track - with all its fiery, chromatic notes in the violin, thick, post-bop harmonies in the piano, propulsive bass line and cymbal-laden drums. Interaction between Powell and his talented pianist Cedric Hanriot was tight, exploring their individual solos with adventurous spirit. Next up was 'Judith' (penned by Powell for his godmother) - a tender, intimate ballad with more than a nod to Bach in places. Powell's many years of studying Classical masterpieces were evident here as the violinist indulged in some exquisite phrasing and vibrato, shunning his prodigious technique for sheer expressiveness.

The third tune of the set - a tribute to Thelonious Monk - came in with a punch, knocking the audience out of any potential dough-induced reverie resulting from the menu's fine selection of pizza. The time-shifting 'Monk 4 Strings' had the quartet digging into that great pianist's trove of dissonant and oddball phrases. It's a joyful composition taken at full throttle and really allowing the band to immerse themselves in some irreverent soloing, all underpinned by Hanriot's fistfuls of Monkish chords, plunked down with reckless abandon. Before the break, the audience were also treated to a beautiful piano and violin duet of Stephane Grappelli's 'Souvenir de Villengen'.

Grappelli, the musical touchstone for pretty much all jazz violinists, has been no less of an influence on Powell. Born into a hugely musical family, Powell discovered the great man in his early teens after a Classical musical upbringing in the Suzuki method. He would spend hours playing along to records of Grappelli's swinging rhythm, capturing his nuances and learning the language. Powell's style has since been very much informed by a combination of this and his Classical background, and now bolstered by his forays into edgier, more progressive territory.

In the second set, the chemistry and musical instinct between the players was a joy to behold, particularly in the Grappelli number, 'Automne'. Powell's fluid solo here combined faultless technique with some outstandingly dissonant double-stopping in the grittier bluesy moments. 'Annie's Song', by John Denver, was a touching number amid the faster, more frenetic tunes where the rhythm section (with the celebrated Michael Janisch on bass and Andrew Bain on drums) provided some seriously potent fuel.

There’s no faulting Powell's more traditional material - it's impeccable - but the quartet's inroads into a more modern sound are hugely exciting. His latest showcase of material proves he's an important addition to today's canon of contemporary players, even future masters. Still just 25, Powell has already performed with some of the greats, from Herbie Hancock to Paul Simon and Steve Winwood, as well as such famous classical conductors as Sir Roger Norrington and Marin Alsop. If these early successes coupled with his Soho gig are anything to go by, it's the start of a stellar career.

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Jack Losh