‘Drama’ – Colin Towns Mask Orchestra

Drama

BEFITTINGLY, Colin Towns’ latest production, Drama, is lavish, expansive and thrilling. Drawn from the composer/keyboardist’s extensive, high-profile projects for the theatre – an environment which he has more than successfully navigated for many years – this double CD combines original music from an impressive range of stage productions with jazz-focused reinterpretations.

The Mask Orchestra was formed by Towns back in 1990 – and for this seventh release, he welcomes back a host of seasoned, big-name jazz artists to collaborate with new-generation players (all listed below) to create a dynamic 21-piece wall of sound. The scale of the undertaking is epic – so much so that these two and a quarter hours might initially feel somewhat dizzying. But then, out of the seemingly relentless rush, the detail begins to emerge as Colin Towns’ considerable jazz, rock, TV and stage soundtrack experience is distilled into a gripping collection of skilfully crafted portraits which draw on a variety of genres, whilst incorporating and encouraging jazz’s inherent improvisational excitement.

To ‘tread the boards’ appropriately, the band were required to digest the synopses of the fifteen storylines – from Macbeth to Hysteria, The Cherry Orchard to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Whatever level of understanding you may or may not have of these great theatrical works, there’s a hair-tingling exhilaration to the musical realisation of each; Towns’ description of his compositions (with their origins in shows from 1986 to 2014) being “simply maps, and the musicians are the magicians who turn them into 3D kaleidoscopes.”

As the house lights fade, this ‘supergroup pit orchestra’ launches into a raucous pictorialisation of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, a fascinating hybrid of Russian dance and New Orleans street jazz, briefly tempered by Julian Siegel’s lyrical tenor and then excitingly driven into its conclusion by Chris Montague’s electric guitar flamboyance and Stephan Maass’s elaborate percussion. The barren, windswept landscape of Shakespeare’s Macbeth becomes increasingly agitated as it evolves into big band grandeur, brimming with rippling horn riffs and Andrew McCormack’s propulsive piano energy; and the languid jazz expression of Long Day’s Journey Into Night reflects the relentless weariness and bitterness of Eugene O’Neill’s script, beautifully portrayed by close-knit harmonies and sumptuous tenor trombone and sax soloing.

Tom Stoppard’s Shakespearean tragicomedy Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is sneerily quirky and spiky, and The Bard’s own King Lear eerily captured in Towns’ choral synth miniature, with eloquent tenor solo from Nigel Hitchcock. Peter Shaffer’s troubled equine tale, Equus, darts and leaps with especially effective, sinister trumpet neighs and exciting brass and baritone chasing sections; disquieting Ghosts (Henrik Ibsen) floats mysteriously to Henry Lowther’s lithe trumpet lines; and closing ‘Act One’, Terry Johnson’s impressions of Dali and Freud, Hysteria, are portrayed on a grand scale by Towns’ inventive, saturated orchestration, including sumptuous tenor work from Tim Garland.

Opening ‘Act Two’, the Peruvian hues of Peter Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun are enhanced by a buoyant passing around of its progressive, anthemic tune, swelled by saxophone-led improv and Joji Hirota’s huge, Japanese percussion; and vivid orchestration in The Cripple of Inishmaan (Martin McDonagh) cleverly evokes Irish pipes and fiddle. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest‘s energetic fourteen minutes (interpreting Dale Wasserman’s stage adaptation of Ken Kesey’s famous novel, then movie) become crazy, challenging, mesmerising… and downright entertaining (its fullness almost beyond categorisation), whilst the inquiring nature of Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen is reflected in the fantastic, pressing urgency of Towns’ big band thriller. And emotionally romantic Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë) is captured by the misty, slow-waltzing soprano sax of Simon Allen.

Towns’ vast musical depiction of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (at virtually twenty minutes, almost too broad to take in) is volatile and impassioned, offering a spectacular window into the composer’s major contribution to British theatre. And before a triumphal, final reprise of The Royal Hunt of the Sun, the liberated themes of A Doll’s House (Henrik Ibsen, Frank McGuinness) are presented in exuberant, showy, jazz big band style, Montague’s guitar adding a contemporary, rasping edge – truly edge-of-the-seat stuff!

Most definitely not your average jazz release – but, especially for those with a theatrical proclivity, this is an ambitious project which delivers on so many levels. Released on 2 October 2015 on the Provocateur label, Drama is available from online and record store outlets, and at iTunes.

 

George Hogg, Graham Russell, Henry Lowther, Rory Simmons trumpets/flugelhorns
Barnaby Dickinson, Tom White, Harry Brown tenor trombones
Roger Williams bass trombone
Peter King, Simon Allen alto/soprano saxophones
Tim Garland, Alan Skidmore, Nigel Hitchcock tenor/soprano saxophones
Julian Siegel baritone/bass clarinet/tenor/soprano/clarinet/flute
Stephan Maass percussion/electronic percussion
Andrew McCormack piano
Arnd Geise bass
Chris Montague guitars
Ralph Salmins drums
Colin Towns keyboards
with special guest Joji Hirota percussion

colintowns.com

Provocateur Records – PVC1044 (2015)

‘Time Pieces’ – Kyle Eastwood

Kyle

OK… I need to cut to the chase…… this album has me in raptures!

New release Time Pieces, from multi-bassist and composer Kyle Eastwood, fizzes to the joyous hard-bop spirit of the classic 50s/60s Blue Note era. And, interspersed with a couple of vibrant interpretations (Herbie Hancock and Horace Silver), it’s the pacey, original compositions here which beam particularly brightly. Long-term colleagues Andrew McCormack (piano) and Quentin Collins (trumpet, flugelhorn) are joined by Brandon Allen (saxes) and Ernesto Simpson (drums) in a quintet which is slick and intuitive, yet still coruscates excitingly throughout these ten numbers.

The make-up of Kyle’s jazz identity runs deep (as eldest son of legendary actor/director Clint Eastwood, the annual family outing to Monterey Jazz Festival would introduce him early on, and backstage, to greats such as Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald), and so his own music is imbued with that same vitality and passion. Take, for example, fast-swinging Caipirinha which opens the set, its Brazilian flavours coloured by Eastwood’s bass extemporisations – walk into a live room with this blazing, and I swear you wouldn’t glance once at your smartphone or contemplate leaving, such is the verve served up equally by all members of the band!

Horace Silver’s Blowin’ the Blues Away rattles along breathlessly to dazzling trumpet and tenor improv, plus typically effervescent piano from the brilliant Andrew McCormack; and a beautifully contemporary reading of Herbie Hancock’s Dolphin Dance (from Maiden Voyage) is illuminated by Eastwood’s melodic fretless bass, with Quentin Collins’ flugelhorn phrasings so pleasingly reminiscent of Freddie Hubbard. Prosecco Smile seems to be Hancock-inspired, rocking out to the tight, zingy fourths of trumpet and tenor, as well as Eastwood’s upright bass dexterity; and McCormack’s Vista burns slowly and mysteriously, its steady, crescendoing expansion allowing space for thoughtful soloing.

A mark of genius comes in the leader’s Peace of Silver, in memory of Horace Silver who passed away at the time of these sessions. Rather than an elegy, it suitably honours the great man’s memory and musical character in sprightly ’60s-feel, 5/8-dominated style (though also with a sensitive solo middle section from pianist McCormack, which seems to pay personal homage) – all in all, with an overriding feeling of ‘jazz standard’, it’s a winner.

Easily imaginable as a Kenny Wheeler big band arrangement, Incantation‘s ominousness is perpetuated by an ostinato piano-and-bass undercurrent, precisely embellished by Ernesto Simpson’s percussion; and, reminded of Eastwood’s accomplishments with big-screen soundtracks, the balm-like oriental solitude of his piano and fretless bass arrangement from movie Letters from Iwo Jima is quietly affecting. Nostalgique reflects wistfully with breathy flugel and sax against delicately picked electric bass and decorative piano before breezy closer Bullet Train swings with all the stature and vigour of a Johnny Dankworth special.

Released on 20 April 2015, Time Pieces is ‘up there’ with the best. Touring this Spring/Summer, including four nights (20-23 May) at Ronnie Scott’s, London, the album is available from JazzVillage (check out the samples there), iTunes and all good jazz retailers.

 

Kyle Eastwood electric, acoustic and fretless electric basses
Brandon Allen tenor and soprano saxes
Quentin Collins trumpet, flugelhorn
Andrew McCormack piano
Ernesto Simpson drums

kyleeastwood.com

JazzVillage (Harmonia Mundi) – SP JV 9570034 (2015)

‘First Light’ – Andrew McCormack

FirstLight

‘MODERN CLASSIC’ is the recurring impression, each time I listen to this latest piano trio release, First Light, from Englishman in New York, Andrew McCormack.

The trajectory of McCormack’s jazz career has been fascinating to monitor since his 2007 debut album, Telescope, through to the more recent digital-only Live in London of 2012. In between, his musical partnership with saxophonist Jason Yarde (in two impressive duo recordings, as well as captivating live performances), revealed much about his personality and musical drive – and a relocation across the Atlantic to immerse himself in the American jazz scene has now, excitingly, increased his compositional/improvisational creativity and technical accomplishment to the heights that are to be discovered here.

Along with NYC rhythm section Zack Lober (bass) and Colin Stranahan (drums), the pianist delivers a precise set of eight contrasting originals, plus a closing interpretation of Thelonious Monk – and, pleasingly, the overarching feel is one of an intelligent and inventive trio at ease with their connective artistry, which makes for the most heartwarming chamber jazz experience.

Bustling Prospect Park launches the album, perhaps suggesting the freedoms of Brooklyn’s urban oasis, McCormack’s morning-light piano seemingly dancing and cascading in the sun. The brisk, jaunty bass and drum tempo is particularly finely weighted, neither of the three players overshadowing the other, which enhances the sense of openness – and it’s a joy to experience McCormack’s exquisite keyboard touch throughout. Gotham Soul probes and twists to McCormack’s misterioso opening left-hand motif, gradually building in intensity but then pulling back to reveal a delicate double bass extemporisation against the combined subtlety of piano and drums – the communication lines here are most definitely clear, as the pianist closes with contrapuntal finesse. There’s a certain Monkish impudence and unpredictability to Leap of Faith, the trio’s jabbing punches transforming into McCormack’s effortless, melodic rolling across the keys to Lober’s steady, city-walking bass and Stranahan’s drumming intricacy.

Title track First Light summons the cerebral sound world of Bill Evans, such is the measured lucidity of all three musicians – but, specifically, it’s the incredible detailing of Andrew McCormack, from held-back droplet melodies, through rapid high runs and chordal saturation, and then back to final, sustained simplicity which vividly paints that very first, quiet glimpse of daybreak. Lober’s opening chromatic bass edginess in Reluctant Gift contrasts well, eventually breaking into more confident ground until the whole trio flies at impressive speed, inviting a hard-hitting show from Colin Stranahan until its unexpected… STOP! Reflecting the cityscape impressions of the cover art, Vista quietly patters through shifting major/minors, building and fading as if to emulate the changing patterns of a day in the US capital, pitching tranquillity against the heavy hydraulic hiss of sprawling traffic.

The River is more improvisatory in feel, ebbing and flowing to individual creative thoughts and a great combined bass and piano bass pulse, yet always cohesive. Its tense, jarring motifs are quite different to the earlier, reflective numbers; and elaborated live possibilities – hinted at by Stranahan’s colourful percussion – can easily be imagined. A brief interlude, Faith Remembered, recalls themes from the earlier Leap of Faith, expertly reinterpreting them into a pensive, perhaps melancholy, late-night piano solo. And then, to close, Thelonious Monk’s Pannonica, McCormack and his trio exchanging the writer’s trademark piano ‘clumsiness’ for a suitably bright’n’breezy evening walk in the park – full circle: first light to twilight.

Released on 7 July 2014 by increasingly successful British label Edition Records – superbly recorded/produced and packaged – First Light is available in digital and CD formats from their Bandcamp store. Certainly the mark of a consummate pianist/composer with a maturing, distinctive voice… and an album to treasure.

 

Andrew McCormack piano
Zack Lober double bass
Colin Stranahan drums

Edition Records – EDN1052 (2014)

‘Tate Song’ – Jean Toussaint (JT4)

JeanTousaintTateSong

IN A GLITTERING CAREER that has seen him working alongside such jazz icons as Art Blakey, Terence Blanchard, McCoy Tyner and Gil Evans (to name but a few), former Jazz Messenger and Grammy Award-winning, US-born saxophonist Jean Toussaint now releases his tenth album, ‘Tate Song’, on LYTE Records.

And what an effervescent blast of accomplished quartet creativity this is! Known as ‘JT4’ for this studio recording and accompanying tour, the personnel comprises Toussaint (now based in London) on tenor and soprano, high-flying British pianist Andrew McCormack (who currently resides in New York) plus bassist Larry Bartley and drummer Troy Miller, both much in demand on the London scene.

Toussaint’s own Mood Mode is an exceptional and lively post-bop opener, the perfect introduction to the magnificent richness of the leader’s tenor – so commanding, both in solidity and fluidity, and an absolute joy to hear. Bartley and Miller lock the tempo with precision, yet fill the air with so much interest and intracacy; and McCormack displays his natural and now quite distinctive flair for chordal and bassline imagination as well as a crisp solo high line. Mulgrew (presumably in dedication to late jazz pianist Mulgrew Miller) freely but respectfully portrays both the lyricism and exuberance of Toussaint’s fellow Messenger who passed away in 2013. And a third original composition, My Dear Ruby, strolls nonchantly from an ascending four-note tenor hook (maybe an inferred reversal, as suggested by the rearranged title, of Monk’s ‘Ruby My Dear’) – again, the detail offered by each instrumentalist here is worthy of close attention (McCormack, perhaps as ‘Thelonious’, just wonderful).

Rice (for C R Peppers) is an extended and ebullient swinger of a tune, teed up by the rapid unison bassline phrasing of Bartley and McCormack. Toussaint is unstoppable on tenor, as is McCormack at the piano, throwing in improvisatory idea after idea, and Blakey would no doubt have been impressed with Troy Miller’s aptitude for rock-steady rhythmic ingenuity. Title track Tate Song is a luscious ballad, Toussaint’s genial melodies so sensitively colour-washed by piano, bass and drums; and McCormack’s Tunnel Vision has all the accessible upbeat qualities of a Sixties standard, affording the pianist and his colleagues the space to showcase their spectacular skills.

The amiable, easy-going demeanour of the Strachey/Maschwitz favourite These Foolish Things is expertly balanced, as is Nascimento’s Vera Cruz, Toussaint warmly interpreting its South American flavour. Miller is particularly percussive here, creating a great vibe, and the gently-rhythmic yet sparklingly-chromatic piano is a highlight, buoyed by sturdy bass. To close, Andrew McCormack’s eight-minute, piano-based Vista finds Toussaint on soprano (reminiscent of the writer’s duo collaborations with Jason Yarde) – a brooding, slowly-building episode (not unlike Ravel’s ‘Bolero’!) in which the leader reveals an alternative aspect to his playing, improvising up through the key changes and increasing dynamic.

‘Tate Song’ is the latest in the fast-growing catalogue of jazz and other genres at LYTE Records – and, as always, crystal clear in its engineering and mixing. From a release date of 24 February 2014, the quartet will then tour fourteen UK dates, including Ronnie Scott’s, London (see below) – catch them, and the album, at a venue near you (also available from lyterecords.com, iTunes, etc.).


Jean Toussaint
tenor and soprano saxophones
Andrew McCormack piano
Larry Bartley bass
Troy Miller drums


Tour dates

14 March 2014: Walton-on-Thames – Riverhouse Arts Centre
16 March 2014: Colchester – Colchester Arts Centre
18 March 2014: London – Ronnie Scott’s
19 March 2014: Grimbsy – Grimsby Jazz
20 March 2014: Leeds – Seven Arts
21 March 2014: Sheffield – Millennium Hall
22 March 2014: Shrewsbury – The Hive
23 March 2014: Herts – Herts Jazz Club
24 March 2014: Cheltenham – The Everyman
27 March 2014: Cambridge – Cambridge Jazz Club
4 April 2014: Altrincham – The Cinnamon Club
5 April 2014: Gateshead – The Sage
6 April 2014: Bristol – Hen and Chicken
 


LYTE Records – LR022 (2014)

lyterecords.com