REVIEW: ‘Rickety Racket’ – Martin Pyne Quartet

ANOTHER RECORDING which ‘winks’ at me to be heard over and over (‘more than happy to oblige) is Rickety Racket from the Martin Pyne Quartet (MPQ) – and it’s certainly proved to be neither rickety, nor a racket!

Prominent as a vibraphonist in performance and recordings, as well as to be found behind various percussion set-ups, Pyne frequently leans more towards free improvisation projects such as MPH; and as a songwriter, he is also pivotal to vocalist Laura Zakian’s EP, Minor Moments. But in the combined role of composer, bandleader and drummer, this new album of original material is his most straight-ahead instrumental jazz release to date.

It could partly be due to the pianoless nature of MPQ’s line-up – with saxophonist Philippe Guyard, electric guitarist Russell Jarrett and double bassist Marianne Windham – that there’s a distinct sense of light and space in these seven well-crafted numbers. In fact, it’s a glorious synergy of wafting, melodic tunes (with the blithe immediacy of 1960s recordings) and impish free-spiritedness that, especially in more animated episodes, even sans keyboard instrument, can summon the sound world of Thelonious Monk. The impudent title track does just that – a snappy, angular fairground ride of discordant guitar-and-sax riffs to reverberant bass and precise drumming. Percussive detailing is also a feature of delightfully buoyant Pony Express, Jarrett’s lithe guitar improv pushing the momentum forward – and that considered balance of rhythm and freeness is further demonstrated as Guyard’s soprano teasingly gyrates across its midway oasis.

Martin Pyne’s more contemplative or romantic pieces are sublime. The affectionate longing in Miss You Already (song for Cheryl), dedicated to a sadly departed musical colleague, is beautifully portrayed through the most elegant tenor melody. Here, Guyard’s mellow tone, with a slight edge, is so attractive, as is the all-round integration of MPQ’s instrumentation and arrangement. Wistful descending-bass bossa nova Desert Rose feels ready-made for TV, and again, the individual sparkle and dynamic of each musician elevates it. Pyne’s music can be inspired by literature, with A Stillness of Appomattox referencing historian Bruce Catton’s account of the final year of the American Civil War; and it’s Jarrett‘s lucid, countrified guitar strains that pave the way for the tranquil, almost weary footfall of this gorgeously homey tune.

Sixes and Sevens, originally conceived with vocals for Laura Zakian, swings irresistibly to ticking, crackling snare and throbbing bass, Jarrett’s melodic runs reminiscent of Jim Hall. And closing Beneath the Smile may yet become another song for Zakian, Guyard’s tenor pointing the lyrical way before the quartet promenades into the warm afterglow – a charming conclusion.

When music beckons us back, it’s a sure sign we’re onto something good. There’s much in jazz and classical repertoire which has that enduring effect – and the feel-good, mischief and effortless musicianship of Rickety Racket is, quite simply, blissful.

Released digitally on 3 April 2020 and available (on a remarkable, artist-supporting ‘name your price’ deal) at Bandcamp.

 

Philippe Guyard tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone
Russell Jarrett guitar
Marianne Windham bass
Martin Pyne drums, composition

Tall Guy Records / Martin Pyne at Bandcamp

Tall Guy Records (2020) 

 

REVIEW: ‘A Million Conversations’ – Rachel Sutton

“I REMEMBER TIMES… when love was new.” This opening line, delivered with romantic phrasing reminiscent of the late, great Karen Carpenter, was all it took – all it took – to encourage further exploration of A Million Conversations, the debut release from vocalist Rachel Sutton with pianist Roland Perrin, bassist Michael Curtis Ruiz and drummer Paul Robinson.

To fall under the spell of the human voice is by no means automatic but, rather, a distinctly personal experience. In the case of Rachel Sutton, her background as a dramatic actress clearly feeds into the expressive detailing that illuminates the seven songs on this album, the majority of which are, musically and lyrically, self-penned. And it’s no surprise to read that Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Billy Joel and Judy Collins are amongst her long-time inspirations. But it takes more than a copyist to tug at the emotions as effectively (and, personally speaking, as involuntarily) as this.

Balladic When Love Was New possesses a timeless, yearning aura which encompasses both jazz and musical theatre – and, immediately, it’s apparent that this is a vocalist who instinctively paces the progression of a song, with mellow, lower resonances as attractive as her controlled vibrato. A Million Conversations has the classic feel and timbre of 1970s Carly Simon or Don Henley/Glenn Frey (“So won’t you join me as we go back through the years… to a halcyon time?”), with restrained country-rock piano to accompany sung melodies which fix in the mind as well as heart.

There’s also showmanship aplenty, as sassy, Broadway-style Pick Myself Up proves, brimming with chromatic joie de vivre and deliciously mobile fretless bass. The smouldering bossa/swing rhythms and hiatuses of Kiss My Baby Goodbye reveal a swagger to Sutton’s resigned delivery (“Now it’s gone, I have to forget you”); and a dark, theatrical mood akin to Lionel Bart is present in The Space, her emotion playing out well in its forlorn, aching storytelling. 

Alongside these original songs are two classy interpretations. Brother Can You Spare a Dime (Al Jolson, Bing Crosby) can easily be oversung, but Rachel’s discipline is well suited to this 1930s blues of the Great Depression, accentuated here by the trumpet break of guest Stuart Brooks; and Evil Gal Blues (Dinah Washington, Aretha Franklin) has a sprightly, impetuous step – the final laugh confirming the joy of the performers!

Rachel Sutton’s voice sparkles, as do her own, memorable compositions. So it’s easy to imagine collaborations with larger ensembles and big bands, as well as maybe venturing into larger-scale compositional projects. Catch those opening words for yourself… and you may well hear why I delight in this discovery.

A Million Conversations released on 19 January 2020 and is available from 33 Jazz Records, Rachel Sutton’s website, Amazon and Apple Music.

 

Rachel Sutton voice
Roland Perrin piano 
Michael Curtis Ruiz
bass
Paul Robinson
drums
with
Stuart Brooks trumpet

rachelsuttonmusic.com

33 Jazz Records – 33JAZZ282 (2019)

REVIEW: ‘Trio’ – Felix Jay (3CD)

FOLLOWING the singular creative path of Felix Jay has been illuminating, and proves how limitless our discoveries can be. A varied career has seen the multi-instrumentalist collaborate with artists including Hans-Joachim Roedelius, working for NME and striking a friendship with Brian Eno, while his recording acquaintance with jazz trumpeter Byron Wallen is long-standing.

Trio isn’t a ‘jazz piano trio’ recording, as one might surmise, but a three-album work of sessions which cover a double decade, from 1999 to 2019 – two featuring Wallen and guitarist Rob Luft – and much of it recorded at his music room on the River Eye, in the serene rurality of the Cotswolds. It seems Jay has always preferred improvisational collages, yet his music is generally accessible and certainly increasingly absorbing. Personnel details and instrumentation for each album are listed further below.

Riverseyeside Recordings weaves a sinuous route, Calabash and Song for Ch(arli)e featuring muted trumpet (echoes of Miles) over rivulets of Fender Rhodes and wavering, phased electric guitar; and its Jay’s marimba and other percussion which provides mysterious depth in Bush of mists. Electronics are effective in pieces such as Sacred flutes, creating a breathy ostinato for bass clarinet to crawl through; and Shisya’s joyful conversation between scampering guitar runs, bass flute and a clapping rhythm is attractive (one of Jay’s earlier recordings, Cardamom & Coriander, demonstrates his skill with fluttering, harmonic bass flute). Fils de fils de Kilimanjaro taps into Luft’s affection for an African vibe; grooving Where’s Jack? feels like it could run and run; and expansive Must it be? It must be! views the afterglow with steel guitar shooting star trails soaring above delicate soprano sax melodies.

Jay’s connection to Indonesian ensemble music features strongly in second album, Jazz Gamelan, which is mostly his three-way dialogue with Wallen and Luft. In a slendro way quietly chimes, perhaps in reverence to Joe Zawinul; and there are delightfully mesmeric tuned percussion solo episodes such as Jasmine and Kempulus. This hour’s sequence genuinely feels like an exploration in and out of different rooms, the prepared piano and clarinet of Samburan more akin to classical chamber music, then countered by softly bass-funked, trumpet-improvised On what corner? Luft’s sitar impressions against hammered gamelan tones in Ripples (1 & 2) are inspired; and exotic, guiro-scratched Lull leads into another meditative space – In a suling way – becalmed by high, Southeast Asian-suggested soprano recorder.

Third album, Prepared/Unprepared, is a thread of Jay’s spontaneous improvisations at a prepared electric grand piano. Arguably more challenging to take in, these extended experiments seem to combine pianistic and percussive ideas, though maybe the solidity of an acoustic instrument would be more sympathetic.

For an alternative, tributary experience of predominantly improvised music, I recommend pursuing this unique collection (especially for the first and second albums) which reveals new textures every time. It was the enthusiasm of Rob Luft which prompted Jay to resurrect and complete these archive recordings, and it’s right that they have now found the light of day and are also entirely relevant to the current jazz/improvised scene. 

Recently-released Trio isn’t available through the usual channels (burningshed.com is yet to make it available). But it is on sale, directly from Felix Jay, at ebay.

 

RIVEREYESIDE RECORDINGS
Felix Jay all percussion, basses, Rhodes, piano, prepared piano
Rob Luft guitar
Byron Wallen trumpet, ngoni
Nicola Alesini bass clarinet, soprano saxophone
Susan Alcorn, BJ Cole pedal steel guitars

JAZZ GAMELAN
Felix Jay all percussion, bass, piano, prepared piano
Rob Luft guitar
Byron Wallen trumpet
Jan Steele clarinet, soprano recorder

PREPARED/UNPREPARED
Felix Jay prepared Kawai electric grand piano

Hermetic Recordings – HERM 7, 8 & 9 (2019)

REVIEW: ‘Life is the Dancer’ – Rob Luft

THE CONCEPT that ‘you don’t live your life but life lives you’ (quoted from Eckhart Tolle’s book The Power of Now) is behind Rob Luft’s sophomore album as leader, and aptly describes a characteristically joyful and optimistic approach heralded in 2017’s debut, Riser.

At this relatively early stage of his career, Luft is already forging a style all of his own which certainly amounts to more than his simple ‘guitar’ credit – a many-hued sound world and technique with a distinct, bubbling, aqueous attraction. His prowess as leader, composer and prolific sideman has placed him on the current roster of BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists, and a key role in Big Bad Wolf (a real crowd-puller at Manchester Jazz Festival) produced their feel-good release, Pond Life. More recently, he is prominent in the line-up of trumpeter Byron Wallen’s Portrait recording and has shown a natural affinity for improvising over the jazz and gamelan-inspired auras of multi-instrumentalist Felix Jay’s 3CD album Trio.

For Life is the Dancer – a programme of mostly self-penned material – Luft’s quintet again comprises tenorist Joe Wright, organist/pianist Joe Webb, bassist Tom McCredie and drummer Corrie Dick, with Byron Wallen and vocalist Luna Cohen guesting. Heard recently in conversation with Jess Gillam at BBC Radio 3, the guitarist’s warm personality and eclectic musical interests clearly shine through both his playing and interactions with others. Such vibrant, dance-imbued, sun-soaked strains are a welcome tonic in our uncertain times; and he’s unquestionably a groover, as Anders Christensen’s Berlin immediately signals through its pulsating, increasingly rock-driven progression.

It’s easy to fall under the spell of Luft’s writing and his band’s interpretations, the vocal-enhanced title track evoking the balmy, summertime haze of Sergio Mendes and Pat Metheny/Lyle Mays. The album thrives on the rapid, electronic-suggested (though entirely acoustic) rhythms of Corrie Dick and Tom McCredie’s fluent bass – ‘fast city’ fervour in One Day in Romentino is a prime example as Joe Wright’s tenor screeches above Luft’s pointillistic decoration. Co-written with Enzo Zirilli, Synesthesia pulls off audaciously tricky ‘push-pull’ time signatures, enough to raise a smile each time, amidst its rapturous energy; and the countryfied soul-blues of Sad Stars, accentuated by Joe Webb’s Hammond, is beautifully blithesome. Rob Luft’s message that “the past is in your head and the present is in your hands” is captured in the closing, gentle ebb of Expect the Unexpected, elevated by wordless chorus, muted trumpet and the never-failing bliss of those mellifluous guitar improvisations. 

Dance, smile and enjoy, you will.

Life is the Dancer is released on 17 April 2020 and available as CD, vinyl or digital download at Bandcamp.

 

Rob Luft guitar
Joe Wright tenor saxophone
Joe Webb Hammond organ, piano
Tom McCredie bass
Corrie Dick drums
with
Byron Wallen trumpet
Luna Cohen vocals

robluft.co.uk

Edition Records – EDN1152 (2020)

REVIEW: ‘Stillefelt’ – Stillefelt

IN THE STILLNESS of the night, this is an enthralling place to inhabit.

Stillefelt (translated from Norwegian as ‘quiet field’) is the eponymous debut release from improvising trio Chris Mapp, Percy Pursglove and Thomas Seminar Ford; and their ‘nattmusikk’ drew an immediate, emotional reaction at a late hour… and then called me back to listen more deeply.

Misty, often brooding landscapes are created from the relative simplicity of electric bass, trumpet/flugelhorn and electric guitar – but the digital manipulation of these otherwise traditional tones expands the creativity in a subdued wonder reminiscent of e.s.t.’s final studio experiments (Leucocyte and 301). The album’s progression – in six tracks, named perhaps for distinction only – has the remarkable, continuous effect of eliciting sometimes indeterminate feelings. But, warm or cold, they arrive. So, in a quiet space, the music can become personal to the listener; and that, in essence, is the profound alchemy of improvisation. 

From the thriving Birmingham jazz scene, Stillefelt is described as a ‘dynamically quieter response’ to Mapp’s band, Gonimoblast (which features vocalist Maja SK Ratkje and trumpeter Arve Henriksen). Their explorations are prompted by ‘short cell-like ideas’ from the bassist, provided simply as starting points; so, in live performance, the landscape is ever-changing. Ostinati and riffs might suggest the root of each piece, but it’s their complete evolutionary and immersive nature which stands so effectively.

While nocturnal imagery is tangible through the album, slowly stirring aubade, opening, paints a springlike awakening through sustained guitar layers and breathy trumpet; and Pursglove’s mouthpiece sputters combine with radio-wave electronics to widen what seems like a heat-hazy portrayal of nature. Mapp’s bass regularly provides an effective (sometimes chordal) foundation, and the initial hint of Scandinavian folksong in a kind of day is tinged with an ominous, hollow jarring which becomes more urgent.

This sound world cleverly adopts a ‘three-dimensionality’ akin to photographic depth of field. The industrial hisses, gargles, squawks and whistles of expansive towards a rusty future can be unsettling, set against a subliminal ticking metre. But segueing into the more saturated quiet field, Mapp’s muted, pulsating bass takes the trio towards a hopeful horizon. Pursglove’s tone is now cleaner as it melds into half life, where open guitar, bass and skywards electronics create an otherworldly beauty only interrupted by the opening, free-jazz clamour of never…ending – until tentative calm is restored.

It’s an environment of invention and discovery; a broad canvas over which we might wander through our own imagination – and all sparked by this spontaneous artistry. A magical thing. 

Recorded live at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, Stillefelt is released on 3 April and available as a limited edition CD, or digital download, at Bandcamp.

Video promo.

 

Chris Mapp bass, electronics
Percy Pursglove trumpet, flugelhorn 
Thomas Seminar Ford guitar, electronics

Visual art / sleeve design: Tom Tebby

chrismapp.co.uk/stillefelt

Stoney Lane Records – SLR1883 (2020)

REVIEW: ‘While Looking Up’ – Jimmy Greene

LOVE at first ‘sound’. All it took was the brightly flowing and eddying preview track, April 4th. But that touch of ‘American cool’, with glinting soprano sax, flute and vibraphone, is just one facet of saxophonist and woodwind player Jimmy Greene’s latest release, While Looking Up.

Greene is clearly a man whose faith guides him through the best and certainly the very worst of times (the latter, specifically, an unimaginable family tragedy in 2012). And amidst the turbulence of our world, his pastor‘s words provided inspiration for the title: “If I’m not able to find strength or peace by looking inward, or if I’m not able to do it by looking outward to my immediate surroundings, I have to look upward”.

From a back catalogue including Grammy-nominated Beautiful Life, 2009’s Mission Statement marked a specific musical turning point for Greene and more recently reminded him of those musicians he hadn’t recorded with for some time. So as well as a core trio with bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Kendrick Scott, the majority of these ten tracks are also greatly illuminated by Aaron Goldberg (piano, Fender Rhodes) and Lage Lund (guitar), with piquant contributions from Stefon Harris (marimba, vibes). All are established bandleaders in their own right, which explains how assuredly their personal expressions meld in an album of exquisite beauty and positivity.

Arranging Cole Porter’s So In Love, Greene’s soprano displays the kind of playful agility associated with Wayne Shorter, chromatically darting above the joyful sway of its bossa rhythms. But his own compositions can hit a pressing complexity – for example, the smouldering, bluesy Fender Rhodes groove of No Words with discordant guitar and husky tenor and the fever-pitch morse-code pulsations of Always There, accentuated by Harris’s marimba – an outstanding sextet collaboration. In Good Morning Heartache (remember – Billie Holliday), Greene’s deliciously fluid tenor almost sings those ‘might as well get used to you hanging around’ lyrics, though it’s also tinged with a father’s grief; and it’s Goldberg’s piano riff again, on Overreaction, which sparks the breathless Weather Report/Moutin Reunion Quartet-style fervour. The title track, too, shares something of that feel, with lustrous guitar.    

In addition to charming April 4th (a poignant anniversary for Greene), there are other pure, airy moments of reflection such as optimistic Steadfast and the leisurely gospel-soul of Simple Prayer. But perhaps most unlikely is a luscious, balladic reworking of the Whitney Houston hit I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me), full of serene nostalgia and emotion; and, as ever, the gorgeous tenor technique is supported by the spacial sensitivity of this band.

Throughout While Looking Up, Jimmy Greene unequivocally confirms his absolute truth, recognised by empathetic musicians and listeners alike: “At its best, music transforms us and transports us to another place. We lose ourselves in it”. Amen to that.

Released on 3 April 2020 and available from Proper Music, Mack Avenue and Apple Music.

 

Jimmy Greene soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, flute, clarinet, bass clarinet
Reuben Rogers bass
Kendrick Scott drums
Aaron Goldberg piano, Fender Rhodes
Lage Lund guitar
Stefon Harris marimba, vibraphone

jimmygreene.com

Mack Avenue – MAC1154 (2020)