Live at LICA review: Apollo Sax Quartet

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Photo provided by Lancaster Institute of Contemporary Arts

From raucous improvised solos to smooth melodic vocality, everyone has heard and can relate to the sound of the saxophone. What is a rare experience though is seeing players who are able to achieve and appreciate the complete capabilities of the instrument. Fortunately, that rare experience was within reach in this term’s Live at LICA programme. As the sweet, crisp sound of a soprano saxophone crept into the Great Hall, anticipation and excitement filled the room as Lancaster University welcomed the Apollo Saxophone Quartet to the stage.

Formed at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester in 1985, the quartet has been highly admired on the UK contemporary music scene for over 25 years and so it really was a treat to have such experience and proficiency come to Lancaster. Although the line up has changed slightly throughout the years, currently the group consisted of Rob Buckland on Soprano, Carl Raven on Alto, Andy Scott on Tenor and Jim Fieldhouse on Baritone. What is so special about any quartet of instruments is that the music simply wouldn’t be the same if one of them wasn’t there, and so the audience were able to really value the contribution and skill of each of them individually as well as in a group that produced a mind blowing sound.

Back here for the first time since 2005, the groups’ aim of the evening was to give us a broad overview of the 6 CD recordings they’d been involved with over the years. After the four of them stylishly entered from the back of the hall playing their first item “Kaval Sviri”, the first half began taking us through a variety of colours and textures that saxophones are collectively and individually able to produce so well. What was evident right from the off was that the group hadn’t picked the easiest pieces in the world; overlapping melodies, polyphony and syncopation were all dominant features across all the pieces, leaving the saxophonists very little space to breathe you would imagine. Fortunately, each piece was performed to an extremely high standard which to them seemed effortless. The communication and skill that was involved particularly in Barbara Thompson’s “Saxophonic Movements” was the main source of fascination for the audience, as everything from cadenza type passages to percussive features on the keys of the sax were flawlessly achieved by the quartet.

After an interval spent wondering how on earth they could take their virtuosity any further, the audience were buzzing when the saxophonists returned to the stage to bring us quite a contrasting second half. The main focus here was the groups’ contribution to the visual arts, after being commissioned by Phoenix Arts in Leicester in 1998 to write a new series of works for silent film. A very unique and experimental set of music was presented to us, as we sat back and enjoyed a comical viewing of Georges Melies’ Trio of Cinema Wonders. The accuracy and live timing of the groups’ music against the film was outstanding and seeing the film behind them gave us a real idea of the images they were trying to represent when scoring for it. It has to be said, titles like “The Dancing Pig” and “The Acrobatic Fly” had the subject of animal rights running through people’s heads, but despite the slightly disturbing nature of some of the clips, the music that accompanied them was thoroughly entertaining. The Great Hall became an arena of laughter when it came to the showing of “Dream of a Rarebit Fiend” scored by former member of the quartet Will Gregory, as the musicians explored the versatility of the saxophone yet again by producing hilarious sounds that illustrated over indulgence with food! A superb performance that proved the potential of the saxophone is unlimited, as were the quartet’s abilities. Their final item was Chick Chorea’s

“Children’s Songs”; a set of twenty piano miniatures of which the group performed seven to the audience’s delight. Again, clear imagery was painted here through pure clarity of sound and technique that astounded everyone so much that the talent of the Apollo Sax Quartet was of course called back for an encore. The evening was rounded up with Will Gregory’s “Highlife” which really summed up the energy and passion of this wonderful group of musicians.

It would be simply unjust of course to not mention the pre concert gift of Nick Webb, a third year Music and History student here at Lancaster. Nick got us all in the mood for the evening by firing up some jazz standards including the classics “Autumn Leaves “ and “Satin Doll”. His creative improvisatory skills and passion for the saxophone were put clearly on display and enjoyed by all. I’m sure everyone would like to wish Nick all the best, for it seems he promises to be a real jazz star of the future.

A truly inspiring evening that had jaws dropping at the amazing expertise of four faultless musicians and I think we can all say it was an absolute pleasure to host their performance at our university. They really proved that the sound of the saxophone knows no musical bounds, and nor do they.

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