John Coltrane's influence on saxophonists lives on, even among those were born years after his death in 1967. Alex Mathias is no exception. The young Irish tenor player has steeped himself in the master's music, to judge by his outstanding tribute to Coltrane in JJ Smyth's last Sunday night.
JJ's was the last stop on a tour of Ireland by the quartet, which includes Tommy Gray (drums) and Dan Callaghan (double bass). The regular pianist, Leopoldo Osio, was unable to play last Sunday, due to an injury, so the indomitable Myles Drennan stepped into the breach at the last minute. Even on JJ's jangly upright piano he rose to the challenge of paying homage to Kenny Drew, Tommy Flanagan and McCoy Tyner.
The group opened with two numbers from Coltrane's 1957 album Blue Train: the title tune and Moment's Notice. Sure-fingered, with a big tone and a rich vibrato, Alex demonstrated how far he has come since graduating from Berklee College a few years ago. Coltrane reputedly practised night and day in an endless search for perfection, and it looks as though Mathias is following his example. But it's not just about technique, as was clear from his tender treatment of Naima. This was enhanced by Tommy Gray's restrained use of brushes on cymbals, as well as the sensitive support of piano and bass.
After the interval the quartet tackled more muscular stuff. The Coltrane version of Summertime is no lullaby, far from it. Mathias brought the same energetic intensity to Afro Blue, played on soprano sax. Changing back to tenor, and slowing the pace again, he led the group in the emotional Lonnie's Lament, from the 1964 album Crescent. This featured a rivetting double bass solo by Dan Callaghan which led straight into Resolution from A Love Supreme.
An encore, Bye Bye Blackbird, ended a night of tremendous performances all round.
Next Thursday night in the same venue, the regular group Isotope pays another tribute, this time to Miles Davis.