REVIEW: ‘Momento’ – Dave Milligan

I SOMETIMES WONDER if ‘charm’ – that genteel expression of beauty that can often be lacking in our present age – is at risk of becoming consigned to the ‘lost words’ chest. But, for all the right reasons, Dave Milligan’s delightful new piano trio album, Momento, with double bassist Danilo Gallo and drummer U.T. Gandhi, has enchanted me endlessly over the last few weeks… to the point of not being able to leave it alone!

The Scottish pianist’s career, across the last decade or so, has seen him focus on projects with artists including Scott Hamilton, Trilok Gurtu, Colin Steele and Karine Polwart; and, as musical supervisor, he collaborated with Mark Knopfler on the stage adaptation of Local Hero. So the finalisation of this first album as leader since 2008 only gained impetus due to the artistic hiatus created by the Coronavirus pandemic. The recording of these seven tracks – part of a longer session captured with typical clarity by Stefano Amerio at Italian studio Artesuono – actually goes back to 2015.

It’s a great mix. Going Nowhere, one of Milligan’s five original pieces here, was written down in a departure lounge between flights; and described as a ‘sketch’ which didn’t request a specific melody, its quiet, Escher-like progression evokes resonances of Tord Gustavsen. With similar opening delicacy, (There’s) Always Tomorrow – from a suite inspired by letters between Robert Burns and Agnes McLehose, and reduced from big band arrangement to trio intimacy – increasingly coruscates with lively pianistic improv and cymbal flashes, while They Said It Was About You (‘For Ella’) actually displays a precise, Italianate piano charisma akin to Giovanni Guidi, buoyed by Gallo’s prominent bass colorations.

Dave Milligan’s national roots are represented by dancing Parcel of Rogues (trad., first printed in 1792) and evocative, north-of-the-border Freedom (John McLellan, 1875–1949), whose marching origins (not without a hint of ‘Loch Lomond) are cleverly refashioned with lush, ebullient chordal rhythms and percussive momentum. Quietly affecting piano solo Sandy’s 70th easily brings to mind Erik Satie’s ‘Gymnopédies’ – but perhaps more so, the moving serenity of the adagio from Ravel‘s Piano Concerto – in a particularly elegant birthday tribute ‘For Dad’. Finally, inspired by a tune from a book of collected fiddle music, Milligan’s Made In The Border features sternly-planted ‘riffs’ and a ‘Scotch snap’ folk melody (Gallo in whimsical Arild Andersen mode) before Gandhi swells its arresting, extended race to the finish.

After a few cycles of listening, at around the midpoint of these 43 minutes came the realisation that I had discovered what can only be described as the heart of the recording. In that moment, the overall flow of the pieces fell into place, shedding a brighter light on the whole – and therein, the spell was smilingly cast. A word of caution, though – do not attempt to sample or listen to this fine album on a ‘tin box’ (ie smartphone speaker), otherwise its musical richness is likely to be obscured. 13 tracks remain ‘in the can’, so rumours of more seeing the light of day are keenly anticipated.

Initially released in digital format on 28 August 2020 (though a physical CD release is also indicated for perhaps later this year, complete with Milligan’s background notes), Momento is available from Bandcamp and Amazon.

Video: (There’s) Always Tomorrow

 

Dave Milligan piano
Danilo Gallo double bass
U.T. Gandhi drums

davemilligan.co.uk

Big Bash Records – BBRCD018 (2020)

REVIEW: ‘The Fire Still Burns’ – Alan Braufman

THE RAW ENERGY across this quintet/sextet recording is on another level!

When the promo informed that it’s Brooklyn-born saxophonist and flautist Alan Braufman’s first album recording for 45 years – since Valley of Search, his 1975 debut with pianist Cooper-Moore – The Fire Still Burns just demanded to be heard… and it doesn’t disappoint. A man with a jazz story or five (seeing Sun Ra and Coltrane in the 1960s, playing in Carla Bley’s band, etc.), his curious blend of original, blithe, accessible tunes and fiery free jazz is driven with gusto, throughout, by drummer Andrew Drury, while the approach of Braufman and the rest of his team is similarly impassioned.

Listen to the segued contrast between sunshiny, flute-ornamented Morning Bazaar and screeching, uproarious No Floor No Ceiling to understand the range. Dual-horn strength and the leader’s own, blistering soloing matches Cooper-Moore’s strong piano foundation in Home, while the romantic soulfulness of Alone Again (easily imaginable with a lyric) still maintains an appealing hard edge, as does the impressively hard-blown title track with Braufman, again, giving it everything on sax. The township-style prelude to City Nights – with fabulously solid, shuffling groove – heralds neat arco-bass harmonics from Ken Filiano as the whole, unfolding climax becomes irresistible (and I could happily enjoy another couple of minutes of Michael Wimberly’s lively, closing percussion!). That’s the vibe to discover.

With eight tracks averaging around four and a half minutes each, it would be easy to feel short-changed on album length; but the breathless invention of it all – melodic or wildly improvised – dispels that notion, delivering huge satisfaction.

Released on 28 August 2020 in LP, CD and digital formats at Bandcamp (view the trailer).

 

Alan Braufman alto saxophone, flute
Cooper-Moore piano
James Brandon Lewis tenor saxophone
Ken Filiano bass
Andrew Drury drums
with
Michael Wimberly percussion (tracks 2 & 8)

alanbraufman.com

(2020)

REVIEW: ‘Epik, Didaktik, Pastoral’ – Samuel Hällkvist

‘EPIK’ IS THE WORD – but then, that’s the distinctive landscape which Swedish guitarist/programmer Samuel Hällkvist has inhabited in his post-rock-jazz albums such as Variety of Rhythm and Variety of Live. Just as intense as those earlier recordings, Epik, Didaktik, Pastoral blasts out solid walls of polyrhythms and electronics – but this time, there seems to be a greater sense of cohesion; a thread of overall structure, intent and chameleonic colour… if you can handle its unrelenting progression!

Rooted in Hällkvist’s deep, complex grooves – which are shared with his drummers and bassists – there are also contributions from sound designer and programmer Katrine Amsler, plus the smouldering trumpet improvisations of Yazz Ahmed, Noel Langley and Luca Calabrese. Pulsating, evolving stratum of venturesome sounds (the nearest comparison being Nik Bärtsch’s ECM albums) are supported by intriguing sleeve notes which significantly reference ‘self-dividing, self-replicating’, ‘nearly impossible yet entirely real’ and the pertinent phrase, ‘flood the senses’. And there is, indeed, an element of needing to positively submit to these crafted/processed, industrial/urban environments; the reward – an intoxicating, absorbing expedition.

Save for the introductory slide across the fretboard, Hällkvist’s guitars are typically integrated into the whole, demonstrated in opening Vägen Som Landet (The road like the land) as it bustles with funky, woven precision, incorporating reverse-bass riffs, big-band-style stabs and sultry, swirling brass. Utan Vilja (Without will) is rhythmically erratic and challenging, while intensifying movie tension is the dominant force in Hög (High), the first of three tracks under the collective title Dekorum; II and III – Medel (Average) and Låg (Low) – are similarly electrifying. The instrumental mélanges fascinate – Badboll Gles and Blåklocka, Ängsklocka especially for their Steve Reich-suggested impressions of tuned percussion, and 100 Takter Med Piano (100 beats with piano) for its spiky, morse code frenzy, complemented by spiralling trumpet. To close, unusually slow, ominous Omstart leads into Svedjebruk (Shifting cultivation), whose unyielding synth-pop strains find a blistering rock climax.

Dizzying, saturated, unsettling, mesmeric, rousing – any of these might be natural responses to Hällkvist’s ten, dynamic tracks which provide a pounding, sonic adventure almost like no other.

Released on 20 August 2020 (the artist’s 40th birthday), Epik, Didaktik, Pastoral and available in CD format from Burning Shed, as well as CD/digital at Bandcamp; and if streaming is for you – there, too.

 

Samuel Hällkvist guitars, MIDI programming, composition
Knut Finsrud drums
Dick Lövgren bass (tracks 1, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10)
Katrine Amsler sound design, programming (tracks 1, 7, 8, 10)
Anne Marte Eggen bass (tracks 2, 4, 9)
Yazz Ahmed trumpet (tracks 1, 3)
Luca Calabrese trumpet (tracks 2, 6)
Noel Langley additional trumpet (tracks 1, 3)

Cover art by Sophie Bass

samuelhallkvist.com

BoogiePost Recordings – BPCD031 (2020)

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 from 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)