‘Robin Goodie’ – Zhenya Strigalev’s Smiling Organizm

Robin-Goodie

THERE’S FREQUENTLY a ‘loose cannon’ unpredictability and zanyism (or zhenyism?!) to the music of Russian-born saxophonist Zhenya Strigalev which is endearingly reminiscent of the great Roland Kirk – one only needs to take a look at the unfathomable naivety of his hand-scribbled sleeve art to this latest release, Robin Goodie, for an inkling. This is no stretch limousine of glossy, forgettable soft jazz, but rather an impassioned outpouring of the sax man’s quirky, raw, yet ultimately tuneful creations as composer and instrumentalist.

But don’t mistake any suggestion of apparently rough-hewn music for a lack of musicianship or inventiveness as, between them, he and his Smiling Organizm sextet serve up a programme of heady grooves, fervent ensemble playing and blistering improvisation. Joining Strigalev (on alto) is the illustrious team of Ambrose Akinmusire (trumpet), Taylor Eigsti (piano), Tim Lefebvre (electric bass), Larry Grenadier (double bass) and Eric Harland (drums). Strigalev says he is taken with the themes of “nature, humour, strong personalities, rebelliousness and stupidity” in the folklore tale of England’s heroic outlaw (Robin Hood and Boogie Woogie = Robin Goodie). Whatever his theory, these quoted characteristics certainly come to the fore in this second album, the leader’s desire for both acoustic and electric bass in this line-up producing a distinctly gritty edge to his eleven compositions.

The capriciousness of this musical romp contributes significantly to its enjoyment – so not too many spoilers here. But the powerful punkiness of opener Kuku reveals much about the character of this band, Lefebvre’s high bass delivering a funk drive, combined with Grenadier’s acoustic, over which hard, mainstream horns (sounding like four not two) give it everything they’ve got… until they step up higher to outrageously frenetic solos. Horizontal Appreciation‘s piano and electric bass groove coaxes some terrific chops, not least the flamboyance of drummer Harland; and the comedic Sharp Night (shades of Yakety Sax) rattles along at an astonishing pace, unison phrases, bass electronics and Strigalev’s superb squawkings doing nothing to dispel that Kirk notion – fabulous fun to listen to and, no doubt, to play.

It’s not all bustle and brashness, as Urgent Ballad (despite its oxymoronic title) provides the space for more reflective alto and double bass extemporisation; but you can’t keep these guys down for long, as the brilliant combination of complex, wacky grooves and high-flying straightahead jazz in closing Renduta takes off – and with so much going on here, it’s a shame for it to finally peter out (perhaps not so soon in a live setting).

So, if Zhenya at some point steps up to the mic. with a strangely familiar one-man, dual/contrapuntal saxophone display, I’ll realise the Rahsaan reincarnation is absolute! But seriously, it’s great to known that this same spirit of adventure, mischievousness and hard-pushing resourcefulness – to deliver sit-up-and-listen contemporary jazz – is alive and well. Crank it up…

Released on 2 February 2015, Robin Goodie is available from Whirlwind.

 

Zhenya Strigalev alto sax
Ambrose Akinmusire trumpet
Taylor Eigsti piano
Tim Lefebvre bass guitar
Larry Grenadier double bass
Eric Harland drums

zhenyastrigalev.com

Whirlwind Recordings – WR4665 (2015)

‘Pembroke Road’ – Leo Appleyard

LeoApplyard

WHAT BETTER ENDORSEMENT of a debut album than the encouraging words of jazz guitar legend John Etheridge: “Imaginative and beautifully crafted compositions and performance with a strong emphasis on great sound quality.”

Currently in his mid-twenties, London-born electric guitarist, composer and sound engineer Leo Appleyard has already enjoyed an active and varied start to his career, frequently appearing at major UK and international venues and festivals. Now, recording with long-time colleagues and mentors Duncan Eagles (tenor sax), Max Luthert (bass) and Eric Ford (drums) – trio Partikel in another guise – and guest Neil Yates (trumpet, flugelhorn), Appleyard has created a bustling sequence of originals for quartet/quintet which genuinely capture the imagination. He has written specifically with these musicians in mind (judiciously employing echoes/effects) in the knowledge that the band’s collective understanding and affinity might produce improvisatory fireworks – and it’s not long (track 3, to be precise) before the full excitement and character of this set is emphatically ignited.

The leader’s command of both chordal and solo dexterity (think Jez Franks, Kristian Borring) is introduced in curtain-raiser The Homeless Wizard, sharing unison lines with tenorist Eagles as well as duelling in improvisation. Appleyard isn’t afraid to switch tempi and mood (one of the joys of his writing), and Eric Ford’s solid, bright percussion bolsters the snappier sections. Trumpeter Neil Yates augments the line-up in Mass, its swooning, echoic horns gliding high above expectant, cinematic bass-and-drums impetus; and The Cleaver excellently showcases the accomplished soloing creativity of both Appleyard and Yates, the swinging verve of this extended piece becoming increasingly infectious, including an effective udu touch from Ford.

Anywhere South sparkles confidently – a real winner of a quartet number which, again, indicates Appleyard’s compositional maturity, tempering its high energy with brief reflections (walk into a jazz bar with this at full tilt, and you’d be hooked); guitar soloing here is exceptional, both in terms of pace and inventiveness. The contrasting, subtle blues tranquillity of Mantra is tangible, Eagles’ gorgeously mellow tenor weaving lazily in and out of exquisitely-coloured guitar chords; and title number Pembroke Road (a reference to the tucked-away Welsh studio which gave birth to this recording) is an assured full quintet episode, gleaming with individual extemporisation and radiating an openness which perhaps reflects the influence of that rural Pembrokeshire landscape.

The pliant strings of bassist Max Luthert announce Walsio, a breezy, carefree gambol with the occasional, intriguing hint of reservation. Appleyard’s desire for an initial theme of childlike simplicity is evident, though the quartet soon enhances this with pleasing rhythmic and harmonic divergence. Familiar Victor Schertzinger standard I Remember You closes the set – couched in soft watercolour impressionism, its miniature status certainly creates the desire for more.

Partisans guitar supremo (and former tutor) Phil Robson concisely sums up Appleyard’s aptitude and future potential: “Leo is a fab guitarist and composer, definitely a real natural! This debut CD should firmly establish him as a new voice on the scene.” On the strength of these performances, it’s easy to concur.

Pembroke Road is issued on the F-IRE label and available from Proper Music.

 

Leo Appleyard guitar
Duncan Eagles tenor sax
Max Luthert bass
Eric Ford drums/percussion
with
Neil Yates trumpet/flugelhorn

leoappleyard.com

F-IRE – F-IRECD 75 (2014)

‘Next Beginning’ – Samuel Eagles Quartet

SamuelEagles

BALANCE IS EVERYTHING… and this fine debut album, Next Beginning, from young London saxophonist and composer Samuel Eagles and his quartet achieves that assured, measured clarity and cohesion. Tutored and mentored by jazz sax illuminati including Mornington Lockett, Jason Yarde, Mark Lockheart and Jean Toussaint, this release suggests Eagles has got what it takes, both as an instrumentalist and writer, to make a big splash on the contemporary jazz scene.

Joining him are Ralph Wyld (vibes), Fergus Ireland (double bass) and Eric Ford (drums) in an insouciant programme of originals which, laudibly, have been developed and honed on the live circuit before committing them to the recording studio – perhaps this explains the extended nature of all eight numbers here, importantly affording time and space for uninhibited improvisation. Declaring Stateside influences such as Logan Richardson and Ambrose Akinmusire, the quartet’s style is wholly accessible, revealing an empathy – and a certain warmth – which comes from strongly-forged musical bonds.

Key to the band’s openness is the vibraphone limpidity of Ralph Wyld, demonstrated in ten-minute opener Remembering Myself which, with weightless bass and percussion, offers a sax tune so eloquent and amiable that it feels pleasingly familiar. The Place I Live swings apace to Eric Ford’s frisky, ricocheting drums and Fergus Ireland’s sprinting bass; the liquidity of Eagles’ extemporisations, gliding over this babbling momentum, are easily comparable to those of Jean Toussaint, or even Scott Hamilton – and again, Wyld sparkles, particularly in a trio episode with Ireland and Ford. The affable 50 Pound Friendship further displays the band’s parity in a glassy-smooth late-nighter; and Outsider rattles to Ford’s distinctive drum crispness, Eagles’ hard-edged rapid-fire riffs radiating an impressive maturity.

Jason Yarde’s guidance is tangible in Samuel Eagles’ supple soprano prowess on Smells Like Summer, its easy-going, sunshiny demeanour unfolding from an African-style hook that could easily be from the pen of Abdullah Ibrahim (and Ford’s circular cymbal patterns which welcome back the leader towards the close are a joy). The perky, inquiring chromatics of My Instigation set up a more furtive mood as bass and vibes gingerly tread a path for the busy percussion of Ford. Following, We Were Meant To Be provides a glimpse of this saxman’s obvious world-at-his-feet potential with a firecracker that sizzles to the frenetic energy of all; and, as Eagles uses the lower end of his alto register so effectively, it begs the question as to how compelling he might also sound as a tenorist. Title track Next Beginning closes the album – a beautifully upbeat, shuffling number which ‘final-curtains’ each member of the band, the leader proudly revelling in its ebullience.

Released on the F-IRE label on 10 November 2014, the album launches at the Pizza Express Jazz Club, Soho, London on 16 November as part of the 2014 EFG London Jazz Festival. More live dates are shown below, and the quartet will also be performing at Jazz in the Round, The Cockpit Theatre, London, on 23 February 2015 – check out previous live video clips here.

 

Samuel Eagles alto saxophone, soprano saxophone
Ralph Wyld vibraphone
Fergus Ireland double bass
Eric Ford drums

Recorded and mastered by Derek Nash.
Artwork by Alban Low.

2014 live dates:
16 November: LAUNCH – Pizza Express Jazz Club, Soho, London
28 November: Torfaen Jazz Club, Griffithstown
02 December: Sela Bar, Leeds
03 December: The Globe Jazz Co-op, Newcastle upon Tyne
04 December: WM Jazz Club, London
07 December: Southampton Modern Jazz Club, Southampton
18 December: The Bull’s Head, London

samueleagles.co.uk
f-ire.com

F-IRE – F-IRECD 72 (2014)

‘Weltentraum Live’ – Michael Wollny Trio

WeltentraumLive

SEVERAL MONTHS AGO, German pianist Michael Wollny released outstanding jazz piano trio album Weltentraum (Dream World), taking ‘lied’ as its theme. With a new line-up – Tim Lefebvre (bass) and Eric Schaefer (drums) – the studio recording was met with critical acclaim across the international music media for its intelligent, inventive sequence of song-based interpretations, as well as its excitingly fresh, flawless delivery (AP Review here).

Wollny has been on the scene with Siggi Loch’s ACT Music label for some ten years now, garnering countless awards for his burgeoning catalogue of recordings, not least (with Weltentraum) four stars in US magazine Downbeat and a place in the Top 50 pop album charts. In March, during the trio’s 2014 Jazznights tour, Loch decided to record their gig in the Chamber Music Hall of Philharmonie Berlin; and, citing Wollny as the “creative pillar of the ACT family” who inspired him to carry on after the tragic, untimely death of Esbjörn Svensson, the performances here exude, at times, a similar spine-tingling energy and spontaneity to that of e.s.t.’s inspired double Live in Hamburg release of 2007 (ACT 6002-2).

Featuring extended development of six tracks from the studio album – along with two scintillating new works by drummer Schaefer – the whole fifty-five minute Weltentraum Live experience is excellently captured and clearly appreciated by an enthusiastic audience.

Here, the nocturnal mystery of Alban Berg’s Nacht is afforded more space for improvisatory elaboration; and Hindemith’s Rufe in der Horchenden Nacht comes alive with an enhanced, glowing timbre, Lefebvre’s fluent, rasping bass matching Wollny’s range of skittering high lines and impressionistic iridescence. Phlegma Phighter (Schaefer’s vigorous, bustling eleven minutes’ worth) is a fantastic, contrasting showcase for the trio – one minute, thunderously heavy; the next, displaying a ‘deafening tranquillity’ before blazing red hot at the invitation of the writer’s snare fanfare. These ingenious twists and turns might invite comparisons with, say, The Bad Plus or Phronesis – but Wollny is his own man, whose distinctive pianistic character very much shapes this trio; his own pop-infused When the Sleeper Wakes shines all the brighter thanks to the crackling impetus of bass and drums, which Wollny clearly responds to.

Eric Schaefer’s beautiful, contemporary reworking of Guillaume de Machaut’s 14th Century Lasse! holds the breath with Gustavsen-like reverence (no doubt the Philharmonie gathering were similarly spellbound); and Wollny’s dark-edged Engel grooves to the gruff, distorted bass of Lefebvre, leading directly to Gorilla Biscuits (now, there’s a title!), an absolute masterpiece which pushes each player to the limits, carefully synchronised but also clanging with extreme and quite physical extemporisation (triggering huge applause). To close, the trio’s delectable, almost levitational reading of Jon Brion’s charming song, Little People – quietly irresistible, and all the more wondrous in this live setting.

Released in the UK on 13 October 2014, the heights that the Michael Wollny Trio are currently scaling might pose a dilemma in choosing which of these two recent releases to own – studio or live? For the sheer magic of it all, I offer a single recommendation – BOTH!

Weltentraum
Weltentraum Live

 

Michael Wollny piano
Tim Lefebvre upright bass
Eric Schaefer drums

ACT Music – 8579-2 (2014)

‘Weltentraum’ – Michael Wollny Trio

WeltentraumII

THE ART OF the jazz piano trio has undergone something of a renaissance over the past couple of decades, advancing so much more on the traditional expectation of Real Book pianist supported by drums and bass rhythm section. One only needs to look at the trailblazing achievements of Django Bates, Kit Downes and Phronesis, the seminal work of Esbjörn Svensson and, more recently, the rising interest in newcomers GoGo Penguin to understand that the format is travelling in increasingly more creative, vibrant and exciting directions.

Enter Michael Wollny who, like his one-time ACT stablemates e.s.t., possesses the innate ability, and the vision, to take the concept of the piano trio to a distinctly higher level. The German pianist has been on the scene for a decade or so, gradually building an impressive catalogue of recordings and collaborations. With this latest release, however, and a new trio – Time Lefebvre (bass) and Eric Schaefer (drums) – he appears to have catapulted his ambitions into the stratosphere with a recording of exceptional dynamism, divergence and beauty. ‘Weltentraum’ (or ‘Dream World’) has been approached from the point of view of songs or ‘lied’, with Wollny finding inspiration in music which is equal in strength of both melody and words/poetry – and, in doing so, has crafted an album of instrumentals (save for the final track) which, citing his own wish-list, encompasses “tonality and atonality, fragility and force, melodic purity, romantic totalism, endless melodies, dark abysses, angels, dream logic, light and darkness, and gothic beauty.”

The provenance of the fourteen numbers could hardly be more ingeniously varied and considered, Wollny and Schaefer producing remarkable acoustic trio arrangements of numbers from The Flaming Lips and Pink to Paul Hindemith, Wolfgang Rihm, Alban Berg and Guillaume de Machaut, as well as a couple of originals from the leader – yet the entire concept holds together so brilliantly. And, for all its inventiveness and interest, the music contained within these fifty-five-plus minutes, regardless of its origin, is consistently accessible and, I find, profoundly engaging.

For example, Eric Schaefer takes a 14th Century motet – de Machaut’s Lasse! – and transforms it into a gently shimmering, ebbing contemporary tune. With a deliciously bendy bass intro, Peter Ivers’ song, In Heaven (from movie Eraserhead), becomes a wide, flamboyant blues; and Be Free, A Way exchanges its psychedelic electronica for driving jazz/rock with a smattering of Gustavsen-like restraint. Rihm’s Hochrot (usually for soprano or tenor voice) maintains the original’s unsettled beauty, again Lefebvre’s bass integral to the whole pellucid reading; and whilst the words and music of Jon Brion’s Little People are already too beautiful, the song transcribes magically for jazz piano trio. Amongst all this are Michael Wollny’s own compositions –  Engel, a dark, smouldering affair; and When the sleeper wakes, whose pop-song groove is illuminated by characteristically sputtering piano soloing.

And so the wonderful reinterpretations continue, the added spin-off being that they spark further personal discovery (Hindemith or The Flaming Lips might well be my next stop!) – and I positively recommend the whole ear-opening experience. The trio’s ensemble and individual performances are exceptional throughout, and the recording both bright and immediate.

Released on 10 February 2014, ‘Weltentraum’ is available from ACT Music, as well as iTunes and usual outlets; the trio begins a short UK tour on 29 April 2014 (see below).


Michael Wollny
piano (harpsichord on final track, God is a DJ)
Tim Lefebvre upright bass
Eric Schaefer drums
with special guest
Theo Bleckmann (vocals & electronics on final track, God is a DJ)


UK tour dates 2014

29 April: The Vortex, London (TBC)
30 April: Queen’s Theatre, Barnstaple
1 May: Watermill Jazz at Friends Provident Social Club, Dorking
2 May: Sheffield Jazz, Sheffield
3 May: Cheltenham Jazz Festival, Cheltenham

ACT Music – ACT 9563-2 (2014)