"It's the end of a long, emotional journey," pianist and bandleader Maria Chiara Argirò tells the Vortex crowd at the launch of her debut album. But at this journey's end there's real reason to celebrate; The Fall Dance is an astonishing achievement. Her beautiful collection of original compositions ranges from the touchingly simple to the boldly cinematic and has been realised with help of a perfectly formed crew of five other talented young musicians – guitarist Tal Janes, drummer Gaspar Sena (both Middlesex graduates, like the bandleader), plus Sam Rapley on saxes and Andrea Di Biase on double bass. These London jazzers, with a notable Italian connection, make up the more familiar Maria Chiara Argiro Quintet. For this album and its release party, however, we are also treated to the singular voice of Paris-based Leïla Martial.
Diving into the thick of it, Argiro opens the evening with 'Dream R', an intoxicating scream at the world and the frustrating reality of politics in her home city of Rome. Its wonky lyrical rhythms and tolling bells provide fertile ground for some fine opening solos from Raply and Janes. Sadly, technical hitches in the opening minutes throw the team off balance. But their flow returns with a soulful free rhythm medley – a meditation on the question 'what is family?', which earned some almighty applause.
Later highlights included some feverishly cool soloing from Martial on 'Every Now & Then', a new piece overlaid with (occasionally hard to hear) Hungarian poetry and a climactic performance of the album's title-track that displayed just how successfully the group have managed to balance composition, orchestration and individual voice. Indeed, Di Biase explained these arrangements were reworked over the course of several years.
The group has impressive sonic range, from noisy warmongering to asymmetric rhythms to seductive folksy melody. Furthermore it feels natural and unshowy, especially in this live setting. The appeal is immediate and perhaps explains why some have been quick to state how their music has true crossover appeal. In terms of virtuosity there were very few moments of extravagance, but their strength is that such flamboyance often seems unnecessary.
The journey complete and, after a brief moment of concern, Maria Chiara relocates her glasses atop the Steinway. The packed upstairs room of the Vortex swims back into view, reality reasserted. Her smile and the crowd's standing ovation acknowledge the dreamy distance we've covered tonight.
– Tommie Black-Roff