There is no crowd like an expectant crowd. Hailed by Gilad Hekselman as "one of the world's finest guitarists," Tom Ollendorff certainly had some billing to live up to as he kicked off the Irish leg of an international tour to promote Open House (Fresh Sound Records, 2023). Just his second album, following the impressive debut A Song For You (Fresh Sound Records, 2021), it may seem premature to burden the young English guitarist with such a loaded label, but in this short but brilliant set Ollendorff allayed any fears that this was a case of hype. If the shoe fits...
Ollendorff is no stranger to Magy's Farm. He played here with the Ari Hoenig Trio in October 2021, and again with his own trio in May 2022. Both those gigs featured bassist Conor Chaplin, who once again played rhythmic wingman, while London-based Norwegian David Ingamells occupied the drum stool.
Unusually, the performance was bookended by ballads, a bold gambit that worked a treat. The brief solo-guitar rendition of "My Foolish Heart" that opened the set, however, was more a bite-size melodic prelude to the Latin-tinged "Carnival," which swung and soared like a Pat Metheny/Charlie Haden excursion into jazz-filtered Americana. Ollendorff's solo, the first of a hatful of scintillating improvisations that peppered the set, flowed with impeccable precision and a heightened melodic sensibility. ECM-era Metheny (by way of Jim Hall), Kurt Rosenwinkel and Peter Bernstein seemed like touchstones, while Ollendorff's playing throughout was also marked by a refreshingly spare use of the pedal board. A traditionalist at heart.
But while Ollendorff seemed right at home in the bebop/post-bop traditions, ripping it up on a burning version of Sonny Rollins "Airegin" and a helter skelter romp through Charlie Parker's "Bongo Beep," it was his original compositions that spoke most profoundly. How could it be otherwise, one might ask, when his writing is inspired by his own real-life experiences? Travel, it seems, is his principal muse.
The gentle tempo of "Passing Ships" accentuated Ollendorff's refined harmonic language and his deeply felt lyricism. These attributes were also to the fore on the breezy "Three Bridges." Inspired by the splendid architecture of Scotland's capital city, this appropriately handsome tune was replete with spectacular, tumbling runs of sing-song melodicism. Whoever Ollendorff's influences may be, his wonderfully articulate flowing runs in the guitar's upper registers explored similar stylistic territory to the aforementioned Heksleman, and like-minded six-stringers Ant Law and Rob Luft - contemporary guitarists who place melody at the heart of their technique.
The only obvious occasion where Ollendorff employed a pedal loop was on "Istanbul." Straddling Europe and Asia majestically, the storied Turkish capital has brought many musicians under its spell, including Mozart, Dave Brubeck and Tom Waits. Ollendorff's melodically bright, rhythmically propulsive response to the city featured fine solos from the leader, followed by Ingamells, who tore around his kit over an extended guitar-cum-bass vamp. In a quietly beguiling coda, Ollendorff looped the pretty melody as he built a series of feathery arpeggios, with Chaplin's bowed bass providing a deeply resonant bed.
The scintillating ballad "Hollywood," all stirring brushes and shimmering chords, brought a hold-your-breath solo of aching beauty from Chaplin. A mainstay of Dinosaur since 2010, Chaplin somehow finds the time to play in both the Marius Neset Quintet and the Alex Hitchcock/Ant Law Quartet, not to mention also touring with Jacob Collier. The sense of space that was central to his empathetic comping, allied to an innate lyricism, called to mind maestros of the instrument such as Jay Anderson and Dave Holland. The trio's gentle landing was the perfect note on which to end the evening. A token, up-tempo encore, so often a dish too many, would only have broken the spell.
Exquisite, virtuoso musicianship that tugged at the heart strings as much as it thrilled. An early contender for one of the gigs of the year.