‘Crimson!’ – Delta Saxophone Quartet with Gwilym Simcock

Crimson!

THE VERY THOUGHT might well make prog rock fans see red… but the connections with and reinterpretations of King Crimson in new piano and saxophone quartet work Crimson! are not as distant, nor as incongruous, as you may first imagine.

Delta Saxophone Quartet are immersed in commissioned, contemporary classical environments which include the typically propulsive music of Steve Martland, Steve Reich and Gavin Bryars, as well as the work of jazz composers such as Mike Westbrook; and they have previously arranged and recorded Soft Machine (their Aubade and Tale of Taliesin transcriptions – from original 1976 album Softs – are especially fascinating). But a chance encounter between pianist Gwilym Simcock and Delta’s baritone saxophonist Chris Caldwell (at the home ground of Stoke City FC, beloved of both musicians) netted this new project centred around seminal prog band King Crimson’s albums Starless and Bible Black, THRAK and Beat. A notable link for Simcock is that he joined the line-up of ex-Crimson drummer Bill Bruford’s Earthworks project, which included saxophonist Tim Garland (and I recall a live gig which certainly threw the pianist’s fledgling career into the spotlight).

So, how does a saxophone quartet (not just any old sax quartet, I might add) and a jazz pianist adapt, say, the dry vocals and punchy electric bass playing of John Wetton and specific guitar/electronics style of maestro Robert Fripp? Well, it’s quite a revelation, especially when it’s accepted that this is not a straight covers album – far from it. Recognising the powerful, unrelenting riffs and restless, dark colours associated with King Crimson, Gwilym set about identifying pieces which might best translate into this new arena, for quartet with or without piano, choosing to reimagine rather than copy. The key to its success has to be the combined vigour of all five players: Delta for their precision and dynamism; Simcock for his characteristically percussive, rhythmic energy across the piano keyboard.

As a prelude to five expansive arrangements, Simcock’s own A Kind of Red folds lyrical beauty and sprightliness into driving momentum, with upwardly spiralling soprano sax and leaping piano grooves cavorting together across lithe chordal sax textures (the writer alludes to the challenge of writing for only “four notes at any one time”); a masterly piece of contrapuntal composition thrown into sharp focus when the horns go it alone. Hitting the ground running, with recognisable shadowy mystery, Vrooom and Coda: Marine 475 swap the menacing Belew/Levin electric guitar/bass landscape for baritone-throbbing promenading and Simcock’s jazz inflections (with even a whiff of Henry Mancini’s Baby Elephant Walk); and the original wistful vocals of The Night Watch are translated into lush sax harmonies and buoyant piano, shifting in so many directions.

Dinosaur possesses an audacious swagger (Simcock particularly bluesy), as opposed to the urgent siren-like drive of the original, and portrays its central serenity quite magically; and Two Hands, quietly popping to mechanical sax ‘percussion’, feels so lyrically far-removed from Crimson territory, yet owns a delightful jazz delicacy. To close, perhaps the show-stopper – Starless and Bible Black‘s unmistakable The Great Deceiver at full tilt, reinterpreting the familiar ’70s electric riff and vocal with panache. OK, it’ll never replace the original, but that’s not the intention – its Crimsonesque verve, wailing sax improv and pianistic sparkle are infectious.

Whether or not you were ‘there’ through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, Crimson! is a stylish and rattlingly good experience. Released on Basho Records on 26 February 2016, the album can be purchased from Jazz CDs.

 

Delta Saxophone Quartet:
Graeme Blevins soprano saxophone
Pete Whyman alto saxophone
Tim Holmes tenor saxophone
Chris Caldwell baritone saxophone
with
Gwilym Simcock pianoforte

deltasax.com
gwilymsimcock.com

Basho Records – SRCD 50-2 (2016)

 

‘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)

‘Christmas With My Friends IV’ – Nils Landgren

CWMFIV2

‘IT’S COMING ON Christmas’… so thoughts turn to seasonal musical fare to accompany the annual twelve-day celebration.

On a purely personal note, much of my Advent and Christmas listening is based on choral music and the 20th Century British classical tradition. But this series of albums, Christmas With My Friends, has caught my attention since its inception in 2006. Now on its fourth volume, respected Swedish trombonist and vocalist Nils Landgren once again gathers together colleagues from the ACT Music label to join him in this now-distinctive, collaborative selection of music for Christmastide which is both secular and spiritual, bridging genres (including traditional, folk, jazz, pop, choral, classical) with particular warmth, intimacy and harmony.

So, amongst the fifteen numbers: familiar English carol The First Noel, led by vocalist Ida Sand, is given an amiable jazz flavour with the soprano sax extemporisations of Jonas Knutsson; Duke Ellington’s Come Sunday makes it into the festive season with an upbeat, bluesy vocal against gently rhythmic guitar courtesy of Sharon Dyall and Johan Norberg, as Nils Landgren adds typically nimble trombone lines; and a jaunty Santa Claus Is Coming To Town jives to the winsome duet simplicity of the funkmeister’s trombone and Eva Kruse’s double bass. The original SATB precision of John Rutter’s Angels’ Carol is translated into a hearty popular ballad delivered by vocalists Jeanette Köhn and Ida Sand, complete with soft jazz sax break; and Johan Norberg’s evocatively chilly Icicles, played on kantele (similar to a dulcimer), is reminiscent of the ambiences of the Knutsson/Norberg album Skaren: Norrland III (ACT).

Renditions of popular tunes include What A Wonderful World and Wham’s Last Christmas, and enduring carols such as In The Bleak Midwinter (Holst/Rossetti) are bathed in a different, contemporary light. But, so often, it’s the revelatory interpretations of lesser-known treasures that magically become established in the holiday soundtrack – for example, Maria dutch ein Dornwald ging and Det grinner en stjärna for solo voice, embellished by the sensitivity of Landgren’s trombone and shimmering to watercolour kantele. Adolphe Adam’s O helga natt (O Holy Night) is enchanting in its measured delicacy, and the unassuming, closing interpretation of O du fröhliche glistens in vocal/instrumental new-age innocence.

On reflection, this may not be the strongest in the series, occasionally veering a touch close to ‘schmalz’ (though perhaps a vital ingredient for some). Nevertheless, it still makes a very welcome addition to Landgren’s delightful, continuing project – and volumes I-III are now wrapped up neatly in a limited edition 3-CD set (see below) or available singly. As December proceeds, all four are recommended to bring cheer – ‘singing songs of joy and peace’* – in alternative, heartwarming style.

Released on 3 November 2014, further information and audio clips are available at ACT Music.

 

Nils Landgren trombone, vocals
Sharon Dyall vocals, harmonica
Jonas Knutsson baritone and soprano saxophones
Jeanette Köhn vocals
Eva Kruse bass
Jessica Pilnäs vocals
Ida Sand piano, vocals, glockenspiel
Johan Norberg guitar, kantele

*Joni Mitchell’s River features on volume III

I-III_150

nilslandgren.com

ACT Music – ACT 9568-2 (2014)

‘Lion’ – Marius Neset, Trondheim Jazz Orchestra

Layout 1

IT WAS JUST THREE YEARS AGO that a young Norwegian saxophonist, Marius Neset, powered onto the wider European jazz scene, staggering audiences with his breathtaking, mind-boggling tenor and soprano wizardry. Here was a musician with the world at his feet, already leaving excited, jaw-dropped crowds funnelling out of venues, incredulous at what they had witnessed.

Following his album Golden Xplosion (Edition Records, 2011), hailed enthusiastically by critics, and a remarkable duo release with tubist Daniel Herskedal (Neck of the Woods – Edition, 2012 – reviewed here), Neset wasted no time in further broadening his outlook, releasing Birds (Edition, 2013 – reviewed here), which revealed as much about his compositional stature as it did his astounding playing. Although writing for, essentially, a quintet (with Ivo Neame, Jim Hart, Jasper Høiby and Anton Eger, plus guests), it was clear that he could express himself on an orchestral scale, laying down the written complexities of contrapuntal hooks and darting time signatures whilst also communicating and improvising with his colleagues on a profoundly visceral level.

Famously mentored and inspired by Django Bates (at the Rhythmic Music Conservatory, Copenhagen) and influenced by a list of musicians and composers as long as one of Neset’s extended solos (Wayne Shorter, Jan Garbarek, Michael Brecker, Chris Potter, Pat Metheny, Frank Zappa, Radiohead, as well as Grieg and Stravinsky… to name but a few), he now makes his ACT debut with a release which widens his ambition to write for larger forces. Resulting from a commission to compose specifically for the renowned Trondheim Jazz Orchestra’s billing at the 2012 Molde Jazz Festival – including Lion, the ten-minute title track which heads up this recording – Neset decided also to re-visit a few numbers from his previous releases, pulling them all together in this impressive 64-minute outing. The Trondheim’s twelve-piece arrangements, here, often display the variety and openness of orchestral timbres, as well as the sectional horn solidity of a big band – hence the name and their particularly open and eclectic sound – and this, therefore, is the perfect vehicle to deliver the potential of Marius Neset’s vision.

From its disquieting but then stately entry, opening number Lion becomes a boisterous affair very much in the Neset style, brassy stabs leading to a freer environment of imitation growls and general foreboding before Erik Johannesen’s terrific trombone soloing reinstates big band grandeur; and, to close, the ‘king’ slopes into the distance to a more softly pulsating rhythm (tremendous imagery). Golden Xplosion kicks off with Marius’s trademark, hypnotic, ‘self-accompanied’ tenor, punctuated by rhythmically-teasing reeds. Listeners familiar with the original will surely be drawn to this increasingly voluminous, sparky arrangement, Neset extemporising magnificently over Petter Eldh’s pounding bass and Gard Nilssen’s flamboyant drumming. In The Ring appears to be ’round two’ of Boxing (from the Birds album), its hard-hitting drums appropriately packing a punch, and the balance of power, agility and space calculated perfectly (with Neset’s mouthpiece popping to some superb trombone and bari action) – and is that a sense of dazed resignation that follows, before the final knockout?!

A short tenor Interlude leads to Sacred Universe, another creative reinterpretation for this versatile jazz orchestra, Petter Eldh’s industrious, vocalised bass solo opening the floodgates for a real showpiece of ensemble writing and wide-ranging soloing. Weight Of The World rasps brusquely to Eirik Hegdal’s up-tempo baritone and Eldh’s characteristically percussive bass; once again, the diversity and lucidity of the performances need to be heard to grasp Neset’s mastery of arrangement, eventually blazing with brassy brilliance – a real standout. Away from that intensity, Raining is the most luscious of ballads, Jovan Pavlovic and Espen Berg offering homely accordion and piano before the scoring swells; and Daniel Herskedal’s distinctive cantabile tuba combined with Peter Fuglsang’s quietly folksong-like clarinet over muted piano string ‘raindrops’ is otherworldly. Finally, Birds is returned to its grander concept, building instrumentally, one by one, to a thrilling, cacophonous dawn chorus.

Released in the UK on 21 April 2014, Lion is certainly an album to get your teeth into.

Additional information and audio samples here.
Video of Birds at 2012 Molde Jazz Festival here.
Video of Golden Xplosion at Bergen JazzForum, 2013 here.


Marius Neset
 tenor and soprano saxophones
Hanna Paulsberg tenor saxophone
Peter Fuglsang alto saxophone, flute and clarinet
Eirik Hegdal baritone and soprano saxophone
Eivind Lønning trumpet
Erik Eilertsen trumpet
Erik Johannesen trombone
Daniel Herskedal tuba
Jovan Pavlovic accordion
Espen Berg piano
Petter Eldh bass
Gard Nilssen drums, percussion, vibraphone and marimba

Ingrid Neset additional flute and piccolo flute on Sacred Universe and Birds

 

ACT Music – 9031-2 (2014)