The beauty of having been gifted a membership to Cafe Oto is that it reduces ticket prices to such a ridiculously cheap level that I am minded to take a chance on things I’m unfamiliar with.
It’s a chilly Friday night in the middle of January, and I’ve paid £8 to watch Alexander Hawkins and Roberto Ottaviano perform together.
What piqued my interest is that most of the gigs I’ve been to thus far as a member has been electronic or guitar-based. Hawkins is a jazz pianist who has performed with Evan Parker, Shabaka Hutchings and Mulato Astatke. That takes us from improvisation to Ethiopia via the new British jazz scene, so I guessed he’d be an intriguing musician. Ottaviano is an Italian saxophonist whose associations are pretty incredible. Something is going on when someone has collaborated with Dizzy Gillespie and Chet Baker, amongst a long list of stellar musicians.
They were advertised as playing songs by Mal Waldron and Steve Lacy. Again, two composers and performers aren’t really on my radar. I know Waldron’s Free at Last was the first record released on the ECM label. I’m sure the Steve Lacy that we’re talking about is not the one funk musician currently making a big stir with his Gemini Rights LP.
All things considered, I was flying pretty blind.
It was a really enjoyable evening. Hawkins and Ottaviano were appearing for the first time in the UK. As well as capturing some out-there interplay (clicks and buzzing and things going bump), there was plenty of what people would recognise as harmony, melody and rhythm. Hawkins often kept things swinging with his left hand, carving out something at the recognisable end of jazz, whilst Ottaviano had plenty of fun with this as a backdrop. He circled his soprano sax away from the mic, looking like he was having a ball. They never lost sight of the head of the tune, permanently anchoring whatever they were doing in a very satisfying melodic structure. You always felt like you would get some payback for the improvisational fireworks that strayed from the tunes at the heart of the pieces performed.
This short clip from last night illustrates the careful blend of the seat-of-the-pants performance, whilst also serving the tune perfectly.
A fantastic example of this was Mal Waldron’s What It Is, with a powerful repeating piano bass riff that the sax double the melody. In the meantime, we get plenty of blue and bent notes to add some funk to the proceedings. Here’s Waldron’s original. This is performed in a piano quarter so he’s got the advantage of a bass and drums rhythm section to drive things along.
Hawkins and Ottaviano still got that same drive with a much more spartan rhythmic base. It’s quite something when you’ve heard the two back to back.
I’m now going to go hunt for more of their music. They did an album of Charlie Mingus songs in 2022 and some of the Lacy/Waldron songs appear on 2014 Forgotten Matches, which I’m now checking out.
What a great night out for less than the price of a couple of drinks or a Pret baguette and coffee. I’ll be taking a few more chances with this Cafe Oto membership.