Darren Hayman’s Occupation: Piano ballads with trumpets and trombones

The Vortex, London

For this, his third show in his monthly residency at The Vortex jazz club in east London, Darren Hayman takes us back to 2009, and his album of sparse, reflective ballads, The Ship’s Piano.

The album, with its delicate piano-led songs occasionally complemented by touches of trumpet and drum machine, was borne out of trauma: following a gig in Nottingham, Hayman was assaulted, leaving him with a fractured skull and other injuries.

After the attack, Hayman says, he yearned for ‘simplest, quietest music’, and the record’s arrangements reflect this, sometimes seeming so fragile as to be on the edge of collapse, like a dandelion clock about to be scattered by the breeze.

These songs are less ethereal when played live, Donal Sweeney’s bass adding welcome solidity and giving a spongy warmth to the spidery descending piano chords of ‘Old House’. “My heart’s with the keys by the door”, sings Hayman as Steve Pretty loops and layers delicate trumpet curlicues across the surface of the song.

He doesn’t mention the assault tonight, having spoken about it extensively in the past. There are other anecdotes though, about the renaming of the Canine Defence League (“you’d be surprised how many people in Britain don’t know what ‘canine’ means) and the inspiration for the album’s title song (Annie Proulx’s Accordion Songs, if you’re interested).

The performance mixes songs from The Ship’s Piano with others from Hayman’s repertoire, the only criteria being whether he could arrange them for the piano. ‘Little Arrow, Little Squirrel’, Hayman’s heartfelt tribute to two canine pioneers of the Russian space programme who not only survived a trip into orbit, but made it back down to earth again, is a highlight.

Hayman kicked off proceedings by introducing a short set by free improvisers Gail Brand and Mark Sanders. Like Stewart Lee, Hayman is another figure of the 90s indie subculture who has been turned on by the thrilling astringency and freewheeling open endedness of the improv movement. “This music makes me happy”, he explains.

Brand and Sanders bring the noise, combining intricate lattice of percussion with brassy burps, slides and howls that jump from comedy to melancholy in a split second. Admittedly, free improvisation and piano ballads are an incongruous mix, and the overall impression is of a game with two very definite halves.

Hayman’s encore is an attempt to bring those two disparate sections together,  an emotional prose poem about his step-grandfather culminating in his recital of the 1979/80 FA Cup-winning West Ham team accompanied by Brand’s melancholic parps and Sanders’ waves of drifting, shimmering percussion.

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