The last time drumming ace Simon Phillips brought his progressive fusion group to Ronnie Scott’s – in May 2016 – he was accompanied by guitarist Andy Timmons, Steve Weingart on keys and Ernest Tibbs on bass. Now back to promote his fourth album under the Protocol banner, only Tibbs and Phillips himself remain from that incarnation.
Joined by guitarist Greg Howe and Otmaro Ruiz on keys, Phillips and co play the new album Protocol 4 front to back. Perhaps the decision to focus so squarely on the latest release reflects the changed roster, and where Weingart seemed content to provide colour and texture, Ruiz more than holds his own, duking it out against Phillips and Howe in the solo department.
Nimbus, the opening track, sees Phillips uncork thundering runs around his colossal drum kit to set the room buzzing. Pentangle is built around a funky lick from Howe, with solos from both the guitarist and Ruiz that sail away from the melody before navigating their way back home, while Phillips plays a technically demanding drum break as he manipulates subdivisions, grinning all the while. Passage To Agra eases back the intensity just a little as the band bring some Indian flavours to the proceedings. Solitaire sees Howe venture into some weird funk, with Ruiz channelling a twisted Stevie Wonder groove. Phillips plays on and against the accents while the imperturbable Tibbs keeps the pulse beneath the fireworks.
They end the first set with Interlude/Celtic Run, which Phillips introduces as “Something mysterious, strange and wonderful.” Starting with a sparse piano melody, it grows into a monster that finishes with Phillips unleashing a ferocious double kick drum shuffle.
After the requisite jazz club intermission, Protocol resume with All Things Considered, built around a fat, funky groove and Howe’s slinky, fluid lines. Phantom Voyage conjures the spirit of Jeff Beck in fusion mode, with slow, smoky runs from Howe and jazzy piano from Ruiz. This flows into an open drum solo from Phillips, expanding from an ostinato played with mallets around the tom-toms until he’s flying around the kit in full, uninhibited flow.
The second set closes with everyone going hell for leather in Azorez, before the band encore with the only track not from the new album – Catalyst from Protocol III.
“We’re going to finish off with something daunting,” jokes the drummer, and they don’t hold anything back. Howe is pure fire, but Ruiz matches him every step of the way, and Phillips drips with sweat before they’re done.
It’s a blazing conclusion to a thrilling display of virtuosity.