MUSIC contributes immeasurably to our human existence, accompanying us through joy, grief, reflection, love… and dropping from the leafy cover illustration of guitarist/composer Ben Lee’s debut quintet album In The Tree comes unabashed vivacity in the form of one of this year’s most entertaining, occasionally whimsical jazz offerings.
Originally hailing from Devon, and now based in London, Birmingham Conservatoire jazz guitar graduate Lee is not only an accomplished instrumentalist, but clearly cherry-picks whatever sounds and genres please him in order to create his phantasmagorical world. And colleagues Chris Young, Richard Foote, David Ferris and Euan Palmer are up for it, too, in an unconventional line-up which enjoys the earthy sustenance of organ and boasts great dual-horn fervour.
It’s remarkable that, no matter how often these ten tracks are heard, they possess a joyful unpredictability and tremendous variety – yet they’re strongly rooted and beautifully constructed in jazz. The opening Folk Theme, for example, seems to draw on ’60s movie themes (Enio Morricone’s ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ comes to mind), encouraged by its sinewy guitar sound and undulating, tremulant organ (no need for a bassist); yet it blasts heady trombone and sax riffs over vibrant drumming. Title track In The Tree‘s playful demeanour is redolent of the folksy trio outings of Frode Alnaes, Arild Andersen and Stian Carstensen, its smilingly carefree, whistled melody improvised upon throughout with glee; and First Contact‘s slick, big-band weight also grooves infectiously to Lee’s country guitar (‘has to be heard!).
Hygge pictorialises that Danish expression of candlelit conviviality and intimacy through lush chordal organ and mellow, Wes Montgomery-styled guitar; Beginning of the End‘s breathless ‘Brazil 66′-like animation, underpinned by David Ferris’ bubbling organ baseline, offers so much fascination inside five and half minutes, including the tight trombone and alto pairing of Richard Foote and Chris Young, as well as Lee’s no-holes-barred Jimmy Page guitar rockiness; and the buzzing, harmonic colour of Drone builds through anthemic, canonic layering. Swingin’ Scratching the Itch (which, Lee says, reflects his mildly addictive personality) wildly crashes and sears up and down the frets –and the overall band verve, carried by Euan Palmer’s fervent percussion, is electric.
Tuneful, Barbados-inspired Kickin’ the Chicken summons steel pans and sunshine as Chris Young’s warm, meandering alto glides across the feel-good rhythm; Nirvana‘s expansive, rasping energy melds indie rock with cinematic score (one of, frankly, many standouts); and twee, acoustic vocal/guitar endpiece Skateboarding On My Own, if nothing else, demonstrates Lee’s indubitable chordal precision.
Such an eclectic mix might well cause a few to scratch their heads – and, sure, it has its moments of almost naive levity. But when, without preconception, you slot in a new CD and it brings a smile, warms your heart, cranks up your spirit and ends up on repeat play… well, such reactions are the essence of good music.
Festooned with delights, and yours for the climbing (released 21 October 2016), In The Tree is available as CD or digital download from Stoney Lane Records’ Bandcamp store.
Ben Lee guitar, composition
Chris Young alto saxophone
Richard Foote trombone
David Ferris organ
Euan Palmer drums
Stoney Lane Records – SLR1892 (2016)