I’m not sure of the last time Bill Wells played a ‘proper’ gig. And Wells himself might struggle to recall too. Maybe around the time of the Scottish Album of the Year award for ‘Everything’s Getting Older’ with Arab Strap frontman, Aidan Moffat?
Since then the leader of the National Jazz Trio of Scotland has (as far as I’m aware) largely confined his live outings to, er, innings – house gigs, in front of a handful of people.
So this means that tonight’s set, even if only for an invite-only show, is quite the event. Not exactly one of those £100-a-head meet-and-greets with a glass of prosecco and an autographed photo as part of the deal, but still a very exclusive affair, twenty people crammed into a room at a community centre a short walk from the musician’s home.
Wells has over the past few years busied himself with studio work, with/as the National Jazz Trio, with Moffat and a selection of other guest vocalists, or with The Sensory Illusions – his highly unusual project with Danielle Price. Wells is by nature a collaborator, though always the arranger of whatever instruments he doesn’t actually handle himself.
The “highly unusual” part comes with the instrumentation tonight – guitar (Wells) and tuba (Price). Not something you hear in contemporary circles too much and even in the world of jazz it’s a curious combo. Aptly, Wells skips up and down his fretboard with a Django Reinhardt ease, while Price provides bassy, shuddering rhythms, which at times inspires wonderment at the fitness levels required to keep up such a regime.
The occasion is the release of The Sensory Illusions’ second album for Karaoke Kalk – when not on Domino or Chemikal Underground, Wells’ imprint of choice – the Cologne-based label clearly having a market for out-there sounds.
And yet, despite the unconventional set-up, the music is far from ‘difficult’. The pair run through the new album (‘Sensory Illusions II’) – the tuba is a constant presence, Wells switching guitar between a battered Stratocaster for rhythm and a hollow-bodied instrument for the virtuoso fingerstyle work. Which at once inserts unscheduled breaks into the running order, and causes amusement which frankly might not work in a less intimate / more impatient audience set-up, rather than what is largely a friends and family affair. The between-song chat informs us that – rather in keeping with the DIY ethic – the fact that this is a community hall means that a double-booking snafu has prevented the duo from getting time to set up and soundcheck. That and the fact that Price is on a flying visit from in Norway.
Aficionados of Wells’ work with the NJToS will appreciate much of the new material – atmospheric jazzy instrumentals like ‘Foiled By Copperhead’, which evokes ’60s detective soundtracks – and there’s a cover of the theme from comedy spy flick ‘In Like Flint’ later in the set. These contrast with at times whimsical jingles, like the opening ‘Four Chord Dream’, emphasised by the tuba’s almost comic properties. Meanwhile, ‘Flotsam Bodes’ gentle lilting melody sets Price’s instrument of choice in its best, most evocative light.
‘II’ is a short album – squeezing nicely onto limited edition vinyl (artwork by Jad Fair!) – so there’s some fleshing out of the set to the full hour of the hall’s booking, with ‘Hurricane Andrew Peters Out’ a reminder that, perhaps, tubas could be the new rock’n’roll. As Wells himself says: “It’s an unlikely combination, but it works.”