REVIEW: ‘Totem’ – Ferdinando Romano feat. Ralph Alessi

AS MUSIC DEVOTEES, we must all have enjoyed the experience of a new recording which ‘follows us around’. Whatever comes and goes, that one album begs to be heard again and again over a period of time, and for good reason. Italian double bassist and composer Ferdinando Romano’s Totem has landed very firmly in this category.

In his first contemporary jazz release as leader, Romano’s core quintet of alto/soprano saxophones, vibraphone/marimba, piano, double bass and drums is frequently augmented to sextet or septet by flugelhornist Tommaso Iacoviello and acclaimed trumpeter Ralph Alessi. Together, they produce some of the most luscious and melodious ensemble performances I’ve heard for some time, the bassist’s eight compositions captured with typically crystalline clarity at Artesuono studio. His overarching theme and album title is described thus:

“A totem is a symbol that represents a natural or spiritual entity which has a particular meaning for a single person or even for a large group of people. In an artistic sense, each of us has [our] own totems, they are our references, our lighthouses and also the people we met and whom we shared musical and artistic experiences with. However, the single totems can give life to a much bigger one, something that is much more than the sum of the parts and that represents the creative synthesis of our musical personality, giving birth to something new.”

There are so many exquisite moments and interactions in this near-hour’s listening that create atmospheres which, arguably, only music can offer; and this ensemble demonstrates faultless intuition in integrating and continuing textures. The Gecko’s apparently straightforward bass-and-marimba groove is clearly approached with relish by each player, with interwoven horns and shimmering vibraphone. Romano’s sleeve notes explain the background to each piece, and stealthy flugel and soprano in Wolf Totem pictorialises its described inspiration with mystery, then triumphant vitality.

The ballads are especially pellucid, with Romano’s expressive bass improvisations in Curly carried on bell-like rivulets of piano and vibes; and Memories Reprise is an emotive stand-out. I understand that sometimes the soprano sax is maligned for being shrill or narrow, but in Simone Allessandrini’s hands, it glides so smoothly (listen to this track at 4:42 where his sustained melody is seamlessly carried forward by Tommaso Iacovelli’s flugel). Longer outings come in the form of eleven-minute Mirrors – a freer, immersive exploration; and Sea Crossing (parts 1 & 2) is a suitably wild, turbulent voyage which benefits from the undoubted mastery of Ralph Alessi’s bright, limitless improvisations, though the whole band basks in the joint ebullience.

The concept of ‘life’s dance’ is never far away in this recording, with Romano referencing Mattisse’s familiar 1910 oil painting ‘The Dance’. There’s certainly an eloquence to these original sounds which, through vibrant rhythm or iridescent calm, speak to our humanity. In that sense, right now, the value of beauty in Totem feels inestimable.

Released on 24 April and available as CD, vinyl or download at Bandcamp.

 

Ralph Alessi trumpet (tracks 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8)

Tommaso Iacoviello flugelhorn (tracks 1, 3, 7)

Simone Alessandrini alto sax, soprano sax

Nazareno Caputo vibraphone, marimba

Manuel Magrini piano
Ferdinando Romano double bass

Giovanni Paolo Liguori drums

ferdinandoromano.com

Losen Records – LOS 242-2 (2020)

REVIEW: The Gaz Hughes Sextet – ‘The Gaz Hughes Sextet plays Art Blakey’

UNTIL NOW, young Manchester-based drummer Gaz Hughes has, perhaps, best been known as the cool, atmospheric rhythm-maker behind the music of trumpeter and Gondwana Records owner Matthew Halsall, in recordings such as On the Go and Fletcher Moss Park (also appearing on recent three-album release Oneness).

For his debut release as leader, Hughes honours the music of one of the true jazz drumming ‘greats’ in a glorious sextet with Alan Barnes, Bruce Adams, Dean Masser, Andrjez Baranek and Ed Harrison. The art of ‘Jazz Messenger’ Art Blakey (1919–1990) – described by fellow drummer Max Roach as ‘Thunder’ – is captured superbly by Hughes, right down to that retro album-cover design, in an album brimming with joyous, bebop fervour. From the first strains of A Bitter Dose, the feel-good is there – this band’s easier-swinging interpretation is refreshing, with Bruce Adams’ piercing trumpet improv a stand-out. The entire ensemble sparkles as one; and whilst classic jazz numbers are just that, it’s great to hear them portrayed by today’s players and with the depth and clarity of modern recording techniques (it often seems that the pianist lost out in the 1950s and early 1960s!).

Ping Pong (Wayne Shorter) pops and bounces fluently, even cheekily, to Alan Barnes’ bari, while full horns sizzle together. Hughes’ leadership is focused, with heady rhythms and erupting splashes clear in the mix, yet never dominating. Ten-minute-medley homage – Together Again, Lover Man, Easy Living – is sublime, Masser’s and Barnes’ lush, romantic expression especially moving; and Blakey’s spirit is alive and well in Freddie Hubbard’s swaggering Crisis (jazz-heavenly nods of approval imagined!). The sextet’s hypnotic swell in Wheel Within a Wheel (interestingly, at times, reminiscent of Hughes’ work with Halsall) is illuminated by fine individual solos passed around; blithesome One By One (from Blakey’s Ugetsu) is celebrated with infectious abandon; and strutting, Middle-Eastern (almost mariachi-hued) Arabia completes the album in fast-swinging style.

Throughout these 52 minutes, it’s clear that Gaz Hughes and his illustrious band are honouring the tradition – and the greatness of Blakey and his esteemed contemporaries – while breathing 21st-century fire into these evergreen classics (going back into the originals, they really are). An extensive UK tour, billed from February through to October 2020, already suggests they’ll shake things up with more Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers numbers – and this album forecasts a fabulous live experience.

Released on 1 February 2020, The Gaz Hughes Sextet plays Art Blakey is available as CD or download at Bandcamp.

 

Alan Barnes alto sax, baritone sax
Bruce Adams trumpet
Dean Masser tenor sax
Andrjez Baranek piano
Ed Harrison double bass
Gaz Hughes drums

gazhughesmusic.com

Gaz Hughes (2020)

REVIEW: ‘Street Talk’ – Saxophone Summit

WHEN THE JOY AND THRILL of music-making gushes out of your speakers with a life force such as this, you know you’re onto a good thing.

Saxophone Summit is not simply the meeting of renowned reedsmen Dave Liebman, Joe Lovano and Greg Osby, but a fervent sextet completed by the similarly luminous names of drummer Billy Hart, pianist Phil Markowitz and double bassist Cecil McBee.

Read my full review at LondonJazz News…

Released on 4 October 2019, Street Talk is available from Proper Music.

Dave Liebman soprano sax
Joe Lovano tenor sax
Greg Osby alto sax
featuring
Billy Hart drums
Phil Markowitz piano
Cecil McBee bass

daveliebman.com
joelovano.com
gregosby.com

Enja Records – ENJA 9769 (2019)

REVIEW: ‘Standard Time’ – Trio HLK

A MARKEDLY ATYPICAL debut trio album with a disciplined and almost industrial approach to rhythm, Trio HLK’s Standard Time declares a mission to ‘deconstruct classic tunes and rework them using contemporary classical compositional techniques’.

Read my full review at LondonJazz News…

Released on 11 May 2018 and available as CD, double vinyl and digital download at Bandcamp.

 

Rich Harrold piano
Ant Law 8-string guitar and effects
Richard Kass drums, percussion
featuring
Steve Lehman alto sax
Evelyn Glennie vibraphone, marimba

triohlk.com

Ubuntu Music – UBU0006 (2016)

‘Effervescence’ – Tommy Smith Youth Jazz Orchestra

effervescence

TAKE A LOOK at that cover art – a clue to the polychromatic flamboyance of this new release from the Tommy Smith Youth Jazz Orchestra.

Formed fourteen years ago by renowned Scottish saxophonist Tommy Smith, the TSYJO has consistently provided an important, ongoing, step-up platform for young jazz musicians. This third album is a real joy because, rather than reflecting any insecure naivety of youth, Effervescence emphatically displays the orchestra’s unfettered go-for-it creativity, all backed up by solid musicality. In fact, all eight of these sumptuous tracks fizz without any trace of inhibition, Smith’s choice of material showcasing the players’ versatility.

The breathless, strummed pace of Woody Herman’s Apple Honey sets the tone. Complete with feisty wah-wah trumpet section and rolling saxes, Liam Shortall’s brash trombone antics are met with appreciative band cheers; and Helena Kay’s whirling, spirited clarinet connects with the piece’s origins. Jerome Kern’s familiar phrases in The Way You Look Tonight (lavishly arranged by Florian Ross) swing with life-affirming positivity, summoning a delicious alto spotlight from Adam Jackson, whilst a tangible rhythmic reduction clears the way for trombonist Kevin Garrity’s sublime, held-back solo. Glitzy Blues March (Benny Golson) parades to snappy snare, with infectious piano swing at its heart; and Florian Ross’ expansive arrangement of Chick Corea’s Humpty Dumpty (more familiar in trio format) is imaginatively colorised by guitarist Joe Williamson and pianist Pete Johnstone, including an intricate feature for drummer Stephen Henderson.

From within the orchestra’s ranks, trumpeter Sean Gibbs’ composition Tam O’Shanter coolly saunters to crunchy, pitch-bent rock guitar and high-blasting trumpets before its switch to an effusive, driven, spy-thriller of a middle section; and the big-band swing of Nefertiti (Miles Davis, arr. Ross) is becalmed for Michael Butcher’s lush tenor solo, supported by smooth, sustained trombone voices. The rapidity of Things To Come is audacious (you can almost sense Dizzy Gillespie applauding Sean Gibbs’ display from the wings), whilst the orchestra’s sensitivity to crescendi and diminuendi is especially notable, underpinning a fluvial alto solo from Helena Kay – altogether an utterly convincing performance. And Christian Jacob’s tightly-swung arrangement of Chick Corea’s Bud Powell, featuring tenorist Samuel Tessier, is both sleek and snappy.

Entertainingly feel-good, all the way, Tommy Smith and his players are to be congratulated on this exuberant release.

Effervescence is available from the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra website or Amazon.

 

Tommy Smith director, producer

Helena Kay alto sax, clarinet
Adam Jackson alto sax
Samuel Tessier tenor sax
Michael Butcher tenor sax
Heather Macintosh baritone sax
Tom Walsh trumpet
Sean Gibbs trumpet
Joshua Elcock trumpet
Christos Stylianides trumpet
Cameron T Duncan trumpet
Tom Clay Harris trumpet
Michael Owers trombone
Liam Shortall trombone
Kevin Garrity trombone
Richard Foote trombone
Joe Williamson guitar
Fergus McCreadie piano
Pete Johnstone piano
David Bowden acoustic bass
Stephen Henderson drums

Also available: Scottish National Jazz Orchestra’s Beauty & the Beast – an original work composed and directed by Tommy Smith, with guest saxophonist Bill Evans.

tsyjo.com
snjo.co.uk
tommy-smith.co.uk

Spartacus Records – STS024 (2016)

‘Evolution: Seeds & Streams’ – John Ellis

johnellis_evolution

THE OCCASIONS when art coincides with one’s own surroundings and experiences can be pretty special, even life-affirming; when music, in particular, somehow reveals its power to three-dimensionalise the here and now whilst also more brightly illuminating itself.

An unlikely setting for my recent experience of this was a softly sunny, three-hour southbound drive along the M6 and M5 – and the looped, Sunday morning soundtrack: John Ellis’ Evolution: Seeds & Streams. This new instrumental release began life as a 2015 Manchester Jazz Festival commission, the original music of the Manchester-based pianist, singer, composer, producer (and founder member of The Cinematic Orchestra) accompanied by visual projections from artist Antony Barkworth Knight.

Daniel Halsall’s intriguingly minimal cover art offers little insight as to what lies in waiting – yet inside, a ten-piece ensemble, with John Ellis’ piano at the centre, presents a compelling, unfolding soundscape. Perhaps now somewhat clichéd, music can often be described as ‘a journey’; but it was this inspired line-up (including kora players Cali Nyonkoling Kuyateh and John Haycock), offering a blend of jazz, world, folk and cyclic minimalism, which connected so markedly with the contrasting urban and rural fluctuations of that motorway passage, and have continued to enthral ever since.

One of the attractive characteristics of Ellis’ music is that it doesn’t rely on spotlight soloing to make such a deep impression. Instead, it achieves this through congruous shape-shifting textures and highlights from acoustic instruments and synthesiser which, despite an often repetitious basis, never become jaded. It’s as if composer and musicians paint their broad canvas so sensitively that they leave sufficient white space for the listener to contribute, thereby becoming involved emotionally; and its accessible, melodic hypnotism gradually pervades the air like a richly fragrant balm.

Flight‘s resonant, synthesised ‘womb’ ostinato gives rise to the ebb and flow of brass, reeds and cello, all coloured by subtle piano, flute, percussion and bird calls, with distinctive kora evoking a Toumani Diabete-like sound world – an unusual yet heavenly blend. Seamlessly changing scene, Sam Healey’s lyrical alto in the first of two interludes segues into Unidentical Twins, whose open, eastern calm strengthens to include the most rapturously phrased trombone improvisations from Ellie Smith; and Interlude Two‘s electronic cityscape momentum, tempered with cello and piano embellishments, feeds into The Ladder which possesses an echoic electric piano groove redolent of Soft Machine and reverberates with gently mesmeric, Steve Reichian overlaps.

Led by Helena Jane Summerfield’s clarinet, Poemander‘s homely, tuneful charm is again delicately enhanced by dual kora – but also note the luscious, close-knit brass and woodwind arrangements which swirl like a gentle but purposeful breeze. Electronic subtones in A Bigger Cake (and a keyboard motif which might even recall Supertramp) prompt Ellis’ delightfully chromatic, free-spirited jazz progressions; and Arrival‘s simple, folksong oasis features the haunting, wide portamento of Jessica MacDonald’s cello and an abundant instrumental summation of this whole, wondrous experience.

One of 2015’s most satisfying surprise packages, this album is now in the car glovebox as part of an essential ‘survival kit’.

Released on 11 November 2016, Evolution: Seeds & Streams is available from Gondwana Records, at Bandcamp, as CD or high-quality digital download (visual projection teaser trailers here).

 

John Ellis piano, keyboard
Pete Turner bass, synthesizer
Helena Jane Summerfield clarinet, tenor sax, flute
Sam Healey alto sax
Ellie Smith trombone
Jessica MacDonald cello
Cali Nyonkoling Kuyateh kora
John Haycock kora
Rick Weedon percussion
Jason Singh beatbox

johnellis.co.uk
antonybarkworthknight.com

Gondwana Records – GONDCD015 (2016)