‘Unit[e]’ – Alexander Hawkins (2CD)

Alexander Hawkins —Double CD Digipak-v1.3

BEHIND THAT intensely black, nondescript cover… well, perhaps even the initiated might only hazard a guess at the mercurial ninety minutes of original music presented in this double CD – Unit[e] – from Oxford-based pianist and composer Alexander Hawkins.

Previous albums such as Song Singular, Step Wide, Step Deep and Alexander Hawkins Trio have identified a distinctly explorative musician whose avant garde approach to jazz and improvisation is fed by many influences, suggesting the left-field vociferations of Ornette Coleman or Jamaaladeen Tacuma, and most certainly the classic, genteel swing of Duke Ellington (Hawkins describes The Duke as possibly the most basic element of his DNA). The recording is split into two sessions – the sextet of CD1, [C]ALL; the larger ensemble of CD2, HEAR[T] (personnel listed below) – and Hawkins refers to his use of square brackets in each piece’s title as an intentional ‘add or subtract a letter’ couplet device, for example: [W]here (‘here’ is one answer to ‘where’) and [S]how (‘show’ is one answer to ‘how’).

The seven tracks of [C]ALL find Hawkins’ piano in dialogue with violin, guitar, bass clarinet/tenor sax, double bass and drums – and an overarching reference to jazz tradition seems infused throughout, opening with For the People‘s perpetual, blustering, unison riff which invites Tom Skinner’s excited percussion and Shabaka Hutchings’ characteristic tenor squawks, as well as contrastingly mellow electric guitar lines from Otto Fischer. [C]all (parts 1 and 2) stomp proudly to an unusually beautiful, almost naive dance groove (in the right mood, a wonderfully cacophonous seven minutes to get into); and overlapping instrumental voices in [T]each ruminate freely to Hawkins’ sparky, leaping piano before eventually and quietly admitting defeat. The heritage jazz foundation of Hawkins’ work becomes more prominent in [K]now, where ‘MC’ Otto Fischer delivers his calmative, abstract narrative over an oblique lounge ensemble (the Ellington link accentuated by Hawkins’ delicious, semitonal chords). The fiddle and double bass of Dylan Bates and Neil Charles, in [W]here, introduce searching guitar and bass clarinet improvisations over angular piano and drums; and [S]how‘s relative spaciousness seems to beckon the listener inside, to join its subterranean roaming.

With Hawkins directing from the piano, HEAR[T]‘s thirteen-piece ensemble treads a freer, less structural path through five tracks which frequently groan and exclaim with a bewildering mesh of sounds. [Forge[t] is boisterous, irascible and anarchic, whilst the palpable trad swing of fifteen-minute-plus See[k] > Hear[t] includes splendid horn combinations and distressed flute, underpinned by Stephen Davis’ colourful percussion and enhanced by intriguing live electronics (a multifaceted experience worth staying with!). Idea[l]’s pandemonium recalls the cosmic, orchestral colour of David Bedford’s ‘Star’s End’; the awakening of [Sun[g] > Star[k] might summon Aaron Copland’s broad, restful landscapes (and its crescendoing trumpet-led progression perhaps akin to his ‘Rodeo’); and title track Unit[e]‘s nebulous instrumentation, carried on thinly-sustained strings, hints at dark-sky activity, complete with effusive, empyrean swing-band celebration.

Alexander Hawkins’ creativity may be challenging… but his jazz credentials and true, unfettered expression make it one hell of a ride!

Released on 7 July 2017, Unit[e] is available as a double CD from Discovery Records or digital download from Bandcamp.

 

CD1: [C]ALL
Dylan Bates
violin
Neil Charles double bass
Otto Fischer
guitar, voice
Alexander Hawkins
piano
Shabaka Hutchings bass clarinet, tenor saxophone
Tom Skinner drums

CD2: HEAR[T]
James Arben flute, tenor saxophone
Dylan Bates violin
Neil Charles double bass
Stephen Davis drums, percussion
Otto Fischer guitar
Alexander Hawkins piano, conductor
Laura Jurd trumpet
Julie Kjær flute, alto flute, alto saxophone, bass clarinet
Nick Malcolm trumpet, flugelhorn
Hannah Marshall cello
Percy Pursglove trumpet, double bass
Alex Ward clarinet
Matthew Wright live electronics

alexanderhawkinsmusic.com

Self-released – AH1002/3 (2017)

‘Alexander Hawkins Trio’ – Alexander Hawkins Trio

AHT

RELEASING a year or so on from his solo and ensemble recordings Song Singular and Step Wide, Step Deep, Oxford-born avant-garde pianist and composer Alexander Hawkins’ new album approaches arguably that most classic of jazz line-ups – the piano trio – with colleagues Neil Charles (double bass) and Tom Skinner (drums, percussion).

Having received various commissions in recent years (including the BBC), Alexander Hawkins is increasingly establishing his name on the circuit, both as leader and sideman. But here, for the uninitiated, the distinctly minimalist CD sleeve offers no clue as to the sound world which lies within, save perhaps for the qualities of openness and experimentalism which form the basis of Hawkins’ projects. And, although his many influences include Mingus, Ellington and even Nat King Cole, this is not such a familiar, steady-tempoed, tonal landscape. Indeed, the pianist explains that he had previously “shied away from the trio format because there’s so much luggage that comes with it”; but whilst there may be an initial, perceived randomness to these eight works, he is an authority on the history of the piano trio format and favours the traditional attributes of his companions – a bassist who plays low and woody, and a drummer whose principal focus is rhythm.

Subtle Ellingtonian big band auras fleet like glints of sunlight across this recording, heard in opening Sweet Duke which rattles to Tom Skinner’s lively ‘I’m an Old Cowhand’-style drums and the swagger of Charles’ bass, whilst Hawkins’ bright, hard-hewn chords buck wildly. Song Singular (Owl, Canon)‘s dramatic breadth seems to capture the essence of this trio: acres in which to improvise freely, yet always attuned to a holistic purpose – bluesy riffs, ostinato phrases and skittering percussion all contributing to its grandeur. Lurching tricksily and accurately, One Tree Found employs the band’s frequent unison deportment to great, even frivolous, effect; and Perhaps 5 Or 6 Different Colours enjoys greater freedoms, Hawkins’ jarring chords and glissandi combining well with the abruptness of bass and drums – and, as the title suggests, the variegated episodes here add to the fascination.

Resembling animated conversation, 40Hb finds all three players interacting closely, Hawkins’ piano voice taking a ‘brassy’ lead, dedicated as it is to cornetist (his colleague in The Convergence Quartet) Taylor Ho Bynum; and sparse, misterioso Ahra – mostly a piano solo, but then with delicate augmentation from Charles and Skinner – is quietly an album highlight. Hawkins’ dendrological interest continues with sprawling Baobabs (Sgra), a ten-minute slow-maturing of shifting ideas which is entrancing in its intricacy. And Blue Notes For A Blue Note (Joy To You) appears to meld Ellington and Monk in its straining-at-the-leash exuberance, Hawkins offering luscious chords amongst Skinner’s thunderous drum-led close.

It’s not impossible that Hawkins’ surface atonality might prove difficult for some. But I sincerely recommend the challenge here of gradually unlocking the seemingly abstract to discover and appreciate this fresh piano trio expression comprising order, collaboration and abandonment. Patulis auribus!

Released on 13 April 2015, the eponymously-titled, self-released Alexander Hawkins Trio is available from Bandcamp and all good jazz stockists.

 

Alexander Hawkins piano
Neil Charles double bass
Tom Skinner drums, percussion

alexanderhawkinsmusic.com

Alexander Hawkins Music – AH1001 (2015)

‘Beyond These Voices’ – Nick Malcolm Quartet

NickMalcolm

BRIMMING with intelligent and zesty exploration, this second release from the Nick Malcolm Quartet (plus guest Corey Mwamba) charts a truly absorbing path ‘twixt the written and the free, between rhythmic intensity and spacial tranquillity, sparking and igniting the deep creativity of the varied individual characters within a remarkable jazz blend. 

Trumpeter and composer Nick Malcolm clearly has an eclectic musical persona, as well as a multi-faceted style, often found belting out riffs (along with drummer Mark Whitlam, also of this quartet) between the dusky, enigmatic vocals of Emily Wright’s song-based Moonlight Saving Time. Put into this particular mix experimental jazz pianist Alexander Hawkins (whose solo and ensemble album releases created ripples of excitement earlier this year) plus the inspired, improvisatory bass playing of Olie Brice… and the result is a sophisticated quartet/quintet team capable of a satisfyingly original collaborative output. Beyond These Voices follows the band’s 2012 début, Glimmers, and explores, intentionally and quite beautifully, an equal appreciation of sound and silence (which Malcolm describes as “the essential paradox of music”).

Take, for example, Grimes, an eight-minute improvisation which opens with brash and brassy intent, Malcolm bouncing off Whitlam’s wide-open drums before the steadying undercurrent of Hawkins’ lush, deep chords and Brice’s bass enter, only to develop more strongly. The contrast between the two forms is marked, yet the whole combined concept is realised perfectly. And then the ‘silence’ – the most limpid and emotionally-charged high piano extemporisation, with space taking equal importance, plus an affirming, sustained bass. There’s Lead In Their Pencils is great fun – a kind of dissonant Ellington boogie in which Malcolm blasts and neighs his way through the pulsating, rhythmic chaos, Corey Mwamba’s sparky, hard vibes adding vivid colour.

Views takes a gentler back seat, although this is no straight-laced ballad. Malcolm’s tone is lazily mellow, peppered with the occasional flutter, and the precise vibraphone playing of Mwamba is a joy. The shuffling momentum of A Very Blusterous Day, upheld magnificently by Whitlam and Brice, offers a broad canvas for the written and improvised thoughts of Malcolm and Hawkins, with Mwamba offering again his distinctive approach to vibes, eddying and gyrating (like a supercharged Pierre Moerlen) to the shimmerings of Hawkins’ piano – and an orchestral, Brittenesque trumpet flourish to close. It’s Alright, We’re Going to the Zoo is a cheeky, smouldering, fizzing affair, Malcolm improvising freely and brightly against Brice’s bass bounce; Sidereal (the album opener) develops and opens out to display more of that spontaneous quartet interaction, whilst the the two free improvisations that punctuate the programme further reveal their insightful and creative abilities.

To close, something quite affecting… Where, Beyond These Voices, There is Peace. Prompted by Alexander Hawkins’ quiet then increasingly anguished piano chords, the trumpet of Nick Malcolm chatters and squawks to the bowed scratchings of Brice and tempered percussion of Whitlam. And, for a final magical minute, Hawkins almost completely suspends animation with characteristic piano weightlessness.

If you’re searching for new experiences, and the fascination of free-yet-accessible improvisation, Beyond These Voices demonstrates the heights that British jazz is currently achieving – and this is certainly a ‘grower’ of an album. Most impressive.

 

Nick Malcolm trumpet
Alexander Hawkins piano
Olie Brice double bass
Mark Whitlam drums

Guest
Corey Mwamba vibraphone

nickmalcolm.co.uk

Green Eyes Records – GE15 (2104)

‘Step Wide, Step Deep’ – Alexander Hawkins Ensemble

AlexHawkinsEns

RELEASED SIMULTANEOUSLY with solo piano offering Song Singular (reviewed here), this absorbing album from the Alexander Hawkins Ensemble stops at nothing to deliver both compositional and free jazz which may challenge, astonish and/or delight. The sextet, led by pianist Alexander Hawkins, comprises Otto Fischer on electric guitar, Shabaka Hutchings on reeds, violinist Dylan Bates, double bassist Neil Charles and, on drums and percussion, Tom Skinner.

Read the full review at LondonJazz News…


Alexander Hawkins
piano
Otto Fischer electric guitar
Shabaka Hutchings clarinet, bass clarinet
Dylan Bates violin
Neil Charles double bass
Tom Skinner drums, percussion

Babel Label – BDV13124 (2014)

‘Song Singular’ – Alexander Hawkins

AlexHawkinsSolo

IMMEDIATELY DRAWN to a familiar title, Take The A Train, I discover an intriguingly brash, agitated and break-neck solo piano interpretation of the Ellington (Strayhorn) classic which imaginatively and impressionistically evokes the raw steam energy and bustle of an era long since gone. It’s a device which immediately grabs the listener’s attention and offers an irresistible invitation to investigate further.

Read the full review at LondonJazz News…


Alexander Hawkins
piano

Babel Label – BDV13120 (2014)