‘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)

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‘Ana’ – Emilia Mårtensson

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MUSICAL DISCOVERIES are, I believe, waymarkers on a lifetime’s journey of appreciation and enjoyment of the artistic creativity that those blessed with a talent bestow upon us. Once experienced, they stay with us forever, evoking memories of the first unexpected rush of exhilaration that touched our soul.

In 2010, I chanced upon a debut release (Kairos Moment) by hitherto unknown contemporary jazz ensemble, Kairos 4tet. Led by indomitable saxophonist Adam Waldmann, their originality spoke loudly and clearly to me – and amongst the instrumental energy, a jazz vocalist delivered a single heartfelt ballad, Unresolved. Transfixed by its depth and beauty, I went on to discover this solo artist’s own debut album (And So It Goes… with pianist Barry Green) as well as appearances on subsequent Kairos albums and intimate piano-accompanied performances in London and Manchester.

Unsurprisingly, Emilia Mårtensson is rapidly making a name for herself on the London jazz circuit and beyond. A grounding in the folksongs of her native Sweden and standards of the leading ladies of jazz, combined with an admiration for a singer-songwriter genre that includes Paul Simon, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell, has resulted in a meltingly gorgeous voice characterised by sincerity, warmth, dynamic control and endearingly crisp Anglo-Swedish diction.

Masterminded by producers Rory Simmons and Alex Bonney, this second solo release features a particularly inventive instrumental line-up, the spacial detail of which complements and colours Mårtensson’s sensitive approach so appropriately. As before, Barry Green’s expressive and intuitive piano is the perfect match for Emilia’s velvety tones. Rhythmic and ornamental zest is provided via a refreshing range of timbres from Brazilian percussionist Adrian Adewale; and bringing a deep sense of equilibrium is bassist Sam Lasserson. Finally, fashioning the most wonderfully interwoven textures on half of the album’s ten tracks are the Fable String Quartet, whose precision and integrality with this project are outstanding.

Illustrating all of this is opening number Harvest Moon, written by Jamie Doe, Emilia’s soft vocals floating above a gently bubbling momentum. In profound dedication to her grandmother, Ana is communicated with love (Soft, at night, her hand on mine, she says, “Close your eyes before you open up your mind”), Barry Green decorously enhancing the affectionate mood over Sam Crowe’s delicate string arrangement. Barnaby Keen’s Learnt from Love is a standout, the distinctive chord progressions and melody of the chorus, in particular, still lodged in my mind from a live first hearing last July; and Emilia’s voice also displays a brighter, stronger edge.

Tomorrow Can Wait is perfect for Mårtensson, the heart-on-sleeve poignancy of writer Emine Pirhason’s verses emphasised by the initial sparseness of solo piano, and Emilia’s digitally-layered harmonies are used to great effect here, suggesting her folk roots. Traditional Swedish folksong is represented by bass/percussion-accompanied När Som Jag Var På Mitt Adertonde År; and Black Narcissus Music, Joe Henderson’s familiar tune set to Emilia Mårtensson’s skilfully-intoned words, is interpreted breezily courtesy of a great Rory Simmons string arrangement which melds perfectly with the instrumental trio.

Paul Simon’s Everything Put Together Falls Apart comes so naturally to Mårtensson before Green and co. run with it in a jaunty, bluesy direction. Moffi’s Song confirms her own songwriting prowess, its string-led arrangement imbuing this tribute to her grandfather with the feel of an old jazz classic; and to close, a folksy unaccompanied miniature, Vackra Människa – the translation, ‘beautiful person’, so very fitting for this accomplished singer.

Released on 7 April 2014 (in Babel Label’s 20th anniversary year), Ana is available here … a musical discovery awaits.

Video: The Making of Ana
Video: Harvest Moon


Emilia Mårtensson
 voice
Barry Green piano
Sam Lasserson double bass
Adriano Adewale percussion

The Fable String Quartet
Kit Massey violin
Paloma Deike violin
Becky Hopkin viola
Natalie Rozario cello

Babel Label – BDV14126 (2014)

‘Tower Casa’ – Nick Smart’s Trogon

Trogon

DRIPPING WITH WARMTH, Afro-Cuban rhythms and sprightly melodies, Nick Smart’s Trogon* presents a lively, listenable programme of originals and arrangements, all led by the crisp, agile tone of Smart’s trumpet and flugel.

I’ve been listening to this debut release for some time, its resolute, upbeat spark – both in terms of writing and playing – gradually seeping into my consciousness… and possibly helping to drag me through the final throes of a messy winter! There’s an appealing depth and range to this sextet’s collaborative sound – hardly surprising, given the stature of the personnel. Much-in-demand, versatile electric guitarist Chris Montague reveals his mellower side (away from the punky crackles of Troyka); electric bassist Denny Martinez supplies a fabulously deep, resonant groove to combine well with the sunshine-laden piano of Kishon Khan; and the drums and percussion of Dave Hamblett and Pete Eckford ensure these seven tracks shimmer and glisten with a palpable joy.

Nick Smart is renowned in UK big band circles as player and director (Kenny Wheeler, Stan Sulzmann, Troyk-estra), alongside his role as Head of Jazz at the Royal Academy of Music, and brings his considerable experience to this vibrant outing. His own title composition, Tower Casa, revels in its obvious Latin flavour, Khan’s characteristic octaves and chords and Eckford’s embellishments colouring Smart’s trumpet improvisations. A particularly buoyant arrangement of Kenny Wheeler’s familiar Kind Folk finds guitar and trumpet intertwining with remarkably similar timbre, Montague’s typically fluent chordal and solo extemporisations also impressing. Kishon Khan’s writing adds a considerably funky edge to this recording, bass and percussion clearly savouring the piano rhythm of the tambura-introduced Todi or Not Todi; and Smart’s ebullient, gritty trumpet lead encourages the wiry, playful side of Montague’s nature, the whole number just teeming with light and vivacity.

Traditional tune, Candela, is arranged as a wistful, delightfully-measured flugel ballad; and Stan Sulzmann’s Round the Round It All (sounding quite different to Sulzmann’s sax-led Neon Quartet version) dances excitedly to Smart’s tune, thanks to Dave Hamblett’s and Denny Martinez’s determined pulse, decorated variously by Pete Eckford’s percussive brightness. Everybody Else’s Song (Wheeler/Smart) shuffles amiably, guitar and trumpet again accurately doubling as front line, as well as displaying their individual melodic capabilities. Finally, Kishon teams up with the leader in penning Mo Tilda, an insouciant carnival sundown tune (featuring some great guitar and piano gyrations) which might well party long into the night.

The rich, eclectic and international feel of ‘Tower Casa’ ensures a brisk, accessible forty minutes’ worth of sun-kissed splendour in the company of six accomplished jazz musicians. So… bring on the Summer!

Released in Babel Label’s 20th anniversary year (2014), ‘Tower Casa’ is available here.

*Trogon (as illustrated on the album art) is the national bird of Cuba.


Nick Smart
 trumpet/flugel
Chris Montague guitar
Kishon Khan piano
Denny “Jimmy” Martinez electric bass
Dave Hamblett drum kit
Pete Eckford percussion

Babel Label – BDV13129 (2013)

‘Song Singular’ – Alexander Hawkins

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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)

 

‘What Do You See When You Close Your Eyes?’ – Moss Project

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MOSS FREED’s ‘What Do You See When You Close Your Eyes?’ was launched earlier this year, but only recently has this album-as-book fallen into my hands. I find it a recording of stunning creativity and originality.

Read the full review at LondonJazz News….


Moss Freed
guitar, backing vocals
Ruth Goller bass, backing vocals
Alice Zawadzki violin, vocals
Marek Dorcik drums
Shabaka Hutchings bass clarinet, tenor saxophone

The writers (poems and stories):
Naomi Alderman – ‘The Bubble’
Colum McCann – ‘Anniversary’
James Miller – ‘What Do You See When You Close Your Eyes?’
Lawrence Norfolk – ‘Caravans’
Joe Dunthorne – ‘Freud and Jung Ride the Tunnel of Love’
Hanan al-Shaykh – ‘The Angel’

Babel Label – BDV13114 (2013)


‘Spy Boy’ – Brass Mask

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AN EARTHY, ALL-ACOUSTIC ENSEMBLE can be both refreshing and deeply affecting… and, indeed, Tom Challenger’s Brass Mask octet reaches right out and grabs you by the ears, heart and soul. With debut album, ‘Spy Boy’, this creative powerhouse delivers a distinctively venturous 13-track programme of exuberant (and, at times, emotional) strength.

Formed only last year, the standout grouping of horns and percussion offers intense, brash, rhythmic grooves as well as infectious, improvisational joy and freedom, drawing on a variety of influences such as the carnival atmospheres of Mardi Gras/New Orleans street bands, as well as Deep South spirituals/hymns and South African township music. Sax, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, tuba, drum and percussion pyrotechny is provided by current London jazz luminaries George Crowley, Dan Nicholls, Rory Simmons, Alex Bonney, John Blease, and Nathaniel and Theon Cross.

Challenger, primarily as a tenorist, is already a big name on the contemporary jazz scene (Dice Factory, Outhouse, Fofoulah), and here he magically weaves together a tapestry of imaginative self-penned compositions and brilliantly leftfield arrangements of traditional tunes, resulting in a blaze of colour (Dan Nicholls’ sleeve art interpreting this well!). As well as the thrilling invention of the writing, Challenger clearly relies on the skill, intuition and pluckiness of his colleagues – and how it pays off. Take, for example, Francis P, a short, rebellious number which encapsulates the raw abandon of this eight-piece; sax and trumpet sections blasting a strong unison line over irreverent tuba and deliberate clattering drums, tenor breaking off to improvise grittily.

Thank You Jesus immediately appeals with its slow, hard, bluesy edge. The lazy, swaggering, discordant Indian Red possesses a similarly charismatic gospel feel, seemingly taking to the street and then ending in glorious up-tempo celebration – irresistible! And the first of these three traditional tunes, Shallow Water, displays the band’s trademark bold unison melodies and effective overlapping of parts.

Rain, Rain, Rain dances lightly before increasingly building its strength and complexity, the impudent, crunchy tenor and trombone solos here a dream. The deep tuba, trombone, bass clarinet and percussion rhythm of Wizards provides a superbly mysterious ground for saxes, trumpets and clarinets to blend as well as fly improvisationally – and with razor-sharp brass stabs and high trumpet lines above escalating heavy drums, this proves to be nine and a half minutes of creative excellence. The foreboding of closely-meshed reeds in Israfil is made all the more intense by an incessant cymbal rhythm which then menacingly stops short of the conclusion, creating a tangible tension; and from a similarly troubled opening, Don’t Stand Up becomes impressively driven by rapid bongo-led percussion, pacey instrumental soloing and the occasional, characteristic tuba (“whOOh!”) outburst!

Brass Mask play tightly, as one, yet also enjoy what appears to be considerable free reign – the entire album maintaining a spirit which, once you are ‘in’, is so incredibly satisfying. This is certainly ‘jazz out of the comfort zone’ and, for that reason, hugely exhilarating. But hearing is believing – check out the excitement at Bandcamp.

Released on Babel Label, 14 October 2013.


Tom Challenger
sax, clarinet, percussion
George Crowley sax, clarinet
Dan Nicholls sax, bass clarinet
Rory Simmons trumpet
Alex Bonney trumpet
Nathaniel Cross trombone
Theon Cross tuba
John Blease drums, percussion
(additional percussion: Jez Miles, Hugh Wilkinson)

tomchallenger.co.uk
babellabel.co.uk
loopcollective.org

Babel Label – BDV13121 (2013)