Concert date: Friday 16 February 2024

Zeffirellis must surely be counted as one of the finest venues for live jazz in the north of England. Situated in the heart of the Lake District and boasting a fine restaurant serving up the best vegetarian food, and regularly serving up the best UK jazz too.

Last weekend there was not just but one, but two excellent bands on offer on consecutive evenings. Julian Costello’s Quartet bagged the Friday night slot, and the Gaz Hughes Trio were billed to appear on the Saturday.

Faced with a choice of being able to attend one, but not both concerts a choice had to be made. With apologies to the excellent Gaz Hughes and his Trio who I had heard perform a couple of times recently and also reviewed the exceptional new album Nuclear Bebopalypse, I plumped for the equally impressive Julian Costello who I had not heard live before.

Playing away from home, as it were, the London based Costello was unable to bring his regular band (if there is such a thing, he currently leads two!) and instead brought along fellow Londoner Patrick Naylor on guitar, and Northern based Steve Berry on double bass and drummer Johnny Hunter.

With little time for rehearsal and a gig the previous night at Manchester’s Matt and Phred’s Jazz Club, the quartet delivered a fine performance of original material interspersed with a couple of standards that produced some truly inspired playing from all. It could therefore be argued that the lack of rehearsal and being presented with original music that the musicians had not played together much previously, kept everyone on their toes.

The opening number kicked things off with some wonderful hand drumming from Johnny Hunter and Costello’s cavernous yet lyrical tone on the tenor saxophone, and this was immediately followed by ’Sunflowers’ (which also has lyrics, incidentally) by the saxophonist that featured an excellent solo from Steve Berry.

What was interesting about the concert was that it wasn’t the standards that the band members knew so well that produced the most exciting music. An easy swinging ‘Come Rain or Come Shine (or CROCS as Julian was found of calling it), and an up tempo ‘Caravan’ were most welcome, as was an excellent run through Kenny Garrett’s ‘Sing a Song of Song’ (from the altoist’s Songbook album released in 1997) that had a great feel and groove; but it was Costello’s originals that really grabbed the attention.

Somewhat unusually, the saxophonist did not have a new album to sell at the gig, but he did have one to plug and this is where much of the original tunes heard were to come from. Earlier in the first set, Julian and the quartet gave us an excellent rendition of ‘Connections’ from his album of the same name. Based on an Indian raga and depicting the notions of musicians moving freely around the world sharing ideas. From the solo tenor opening joined by Hunter’s gentle drumming before the bass and guitar entered to set up the groove. There was a particularly superb and hard-hitting solo from guitarist Patrick Naylor propelled by Johnny Hunter’s inventive drumming. Always seemingly at the heart of the music, the drummer then entered into a stunning duet with Costello in a dialogue of real quality.

The original compositions by Julian then looked to his forthcoming album, And All The Birds Were Set Free scheduled for release on 33jazz in April. These included the lovely ballad ‘Song For Anna’ that featured another lovely bass solo from Steve Berry, and ‘The Gecko’ that created wonderful tension and a great dynamic within the quartet as tenor and drums entered into another intense dialogue. The composition also drew out a couple more fascinating solos from Johnny Hunter and the guitarist who also gets in an expressive and impassioned outing on ‘Dippy the Diplodocus’.

Throughout the evening, Julian Costello proved a charming host, introducing the audience to some fine original compositions, and tenor playing of a gentle authority; full of passion, lyricism and invention all delivered with a full and vibrant tone. No soprano on this occasion due to the logistics, as Julian explained to me, of having to travel part way across London on foot and public transport with his tenor and luggage for the trip up north and not able to carry another horn with him.

Quite why he felt the need to sacrifice the soprano for a change of clothes is beyond me, but at the end of the day the quality of his tenor playing ensured that the straight horn was not missed in a couple of sets of fine music making that had a genuine sense of adventure and interplay between the quartet.