Even comparatively hyped new artists can really struggle to fill jazz clubs outside our major cities, let alone an unknown tenor player on his very first headline engagement. Despite the chilly ambient temperature, caused by an overzealous aircon unit, there’s a warm welcome and a full house for Dan Cartwright.
There’s a mixed age demographic – the younger audience members look like friends and contemporaries of the 24-year-old leader, while the more seasoned attendees have the air of connoisseurs, drawn to chance their evening’s entertainment on the promise of promoter Andy Lavender and the implicit endorsement of the personnel now warming their hands onstage. Joining bassist and educator George Trebar are a pair of players who bring with them a considerable freight of reputation in their own right, but whom together constituted part of the last band led by that titan of UK tenor players, Bobby Wellins. From the opening bars of ‘I’ll Remember You” there is no mistaking the supple, driving but infinitely flexible groove that Spike Wells has been creating on drums for nearly half a century – nor the rich, creative voicings and subtle touch of pianist Mark Edwards.
With the band settled behind him, Cartwright has all the space and support he needs. His tone is clear and true with an attractively gruff edge – think early Sonny Rollins, though he’s yet to develop the master’s pinpoint precision – and there’s no flash or showboating, just a succession of unhurried, beautifully turned phrases. He’s sparing with the 16th note passages, resists exaggerated dynamics, but demonstrates the instinctive sense of space and timing that are at the heart of the music. ‘It Could Happen To You’ features a perfectly pitched, melodious solo from Wells on brushes and a logical, clear-toned and swinging statement from Trebar. Edwards’ solo on ‘Out Of Nowhere’ demonstrates the limitless fertility of his musical imagination. The seldom-played Frank Rosolino composition ‘Blue Daniel’ requires a brief onstage talk-through, demonstrating the ad hoc nature of the event, but it’s all about the spontaneity, and the relaxed togetherness of the band proves to be more than equal to the challenge. The evergreen ‘I Can’t Get Started’ allows Cartwright to really play to his strengths – beautifully turned phrases precisely played against the rhythm – and the band take up the baton and play up magnificently till Wells calls time at the exact right moment.
The second set has everyone really getting into their stride. ‘Recorda Me’ is warmly romantic, showing Cartwright’s affinity for an older tradition than that embodied by its composer. ‘Portrait Of Jenny’ is a highlight, a typically inventive solo by Edwards takes the tune somewhere else entirely with Wells and Trebar willing partners, while ‘Ask Me Now’ rises to a climax of percussion and rippling piano. Throughout Cartwright’s musicality, command of language and unaffected sincerity are apparent, his tone and approach reminiscent of the underrated Charlie Rouse’s contributions to Monk’s Columbia recordings. You might search in vain for the imprint of post-Coltrane harmonic language or contemporary polyrhythmic shifts in Cartwright’s playing, but why would you when the results are this swingingly sincere? The community’s backing felt thoroughly justified by the evening’s end.