‘Alphabets’ – David Ferris Septet featuring Maria Väli

BIRMINGHAM-BASED pianist David Ferris has already added his considerable skills to a number of recordings emanating from the West Midlands jazz scene including Tom Syson’s Green, Ben Lee Quintet’s In the Tree (also appearing on Live at the Spotted Dog), plus Tom Haines & The Birmingham Jazz Orchestra’s Live.

A 2015 jazz graduate of Birmingham Conservatoire, Ferris benefited from the tutelage of Dave Holland, Hans Koller, Jeff Ballard (amongst many others), and summer schools also brought him into contact with established artists such as Mark Lockheart, Nikki Iles and Martin Speake.

Larger ensembles and big bands seem to be enjoying an increasingly strong presence across Birmingham’s contemporary jazz landscape, and the David Ferris Septet debut release, Alphabets, brings his own compositional and leadership prowess to the fore in a programme of seven numbers mostly inspired by and set to literary works of Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, W B Yeats and W H Auden. Already familiar, emerging names – trumpeter Hugh Pascall, trombonist Richard Foote, saxophonists Chris Young and Vittorio Mura, bassist Nick Jurd and drummer Euan Palmer – combine to create original and lively jazz explorations from Ferris’ tight arrangements whilst taking advantage of their improvisational freedom. Guest vocalist Maria Väli illuminates the verse with dexterity and finesse.

The pianist references ‘song’ – from jazz standards through Rodgers & Hammerstein to The Beatles – as a particular source of inspiration in his writing, alongside the Art Blakey golden years; and his ability to meld melodies with existing poetry, as well as encourage individual instrumental creativity, is central to the overarching vibe. It’s a buoyant affair, teeming with fluctuating moods, lush harmonic episodes and zesty solos.

Heralded by close-knit horns, Chorale unpacks its hymnal foundation with rhythmic purpose and contrapuntal fervour, building to a grand groove; and the album’s only other purely instrumental number, Fred (acknowledging one of the composer’s heroes, Fred Hersch), joyously rolls to its memorable main ensemble riff and bright, open piano. The words of Ted Hughes’ Crow Hill are fashioned sublimely by Ferris (almost redolent of Michel Legrand’s The Summer Knows), Maria Väli’s vocal clarity supported by contrasting light-and-shade textures and Chris Young’s lyrical alto soloing; whilst in W B Yeats’ The Hawk, Richard Foote’s free trombone invention is married to Väli’s cascading phrases to create swirling, brooding atmospheres. Seamus Heaney’s work is twice represented: his eight-line poem, Song, becomes elegantly flecked with a lyricism reminiscent of Kenny Wheeler’s Mirrors suite; and Alphabets – a picturesque text on a child’s introduction to and love of the written word – takes a nursery-rhyme/folksong-like motif and develops it into a flowing, glowing jazz poem of beauty. To close, W H Auden’s The Willow-Wren and the Stare is treated to a lively, snare-rattling hoedown (with hints of “boop-boop dit-tem-dat-tem what-tem chu”!).

At this early stage in his career, David Ferris’ writing and playing already suggest maturity and imagination, with an interpretive assuredness which could find him a strong niche in contemporary jazz, theatre, etc.

Originally released in February 2018, with support from Help Musicians UK, the album is available as CD only (harking back to the exciting discovery experiences of pre-digital days) from the website of David Ferris.

Alphabets is very much worth hearing.

 

David Ferris piano
Hugh Pascall trumpet
Richard Foote trombone
Chris Young alto saxophone, soprano saxophone
Vittorio Mura tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone
Nick Jurd bass
Euan Palmer drums
with special guest
Maria Väli vocals

david ferris.co.uk

Self-released with support from Help Musicians UK (2018)

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‘In The Tree’ – Ben Lee Quintet

inthetree

MUSIC CONTRIBUTES IMMEASURABLY to our human existence, accompanying us through joy, grief, reflection, love… and dropping from the leafy cover illustration of guitarist/composer Ben Lee’s debut quintet album In The Tree comes unabashed vivacity in the form of one of this year’s most entertaining, occasionally whimsical jazz offerings.

Originally hailing from Devon, and now based in London, Birmingham Conservatoire jazz guitar graduate Lee is not only an accomplished instrumentalist, but clearly cherry-picks whatever sounds and genres please him in order to create his phantasmagorical world. And colleagues Chris Young, Richard Foote, David Ferris and Euan Palmer are up for it, too, in an unconventional line-up which enjoys the earthy sustenance of organ and boasts great dual-horn fervour.

It’s remarkable that, no matter how often these ten tracks are heard, they possess a joyful unpredictability and tremendous variety – yet they’re strongly rooted and beautifully constructed in jazz. The opening Folk Theme, for example, seems to draw on ’60s movie themes (Enio Morricone’s ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ comes to mind), encouraged by its sinewy guitar sound and undulating, tremulant organ (no need for a bassist); yet it blasts heady trombone and sax riffs over vibrant drumming. Title track In The Tree‘s playful demeanour is redolent of the folksy trio outings of Frode Alnaes, Arild Andersen and Stian Carstensen, its smilingly carefree, whistled melody improvised upon throughout with glee; and First Contact‘s slick, big-band weight also grooves infectiously to Lee’s country guitar (‘has to be heard!).

Hygge pictorialises that Danish expression of candlelit conviviality and intimacy through lush chordal organ and mellow, Wes Montgomery-styled guitar; Beginning of the End‘s breathless ‘Brazil 66′-like animation, underpinned by David Ferris’ bubbling organ baseline, offers so much fascination inside five and half minutes, including the tight trombone and alto pairing of Richard Foote and Chris Young, as well as Lee’s no-holes-barred Jimmy Page guitar rockiness; and the buzzing, harmonic colour of Drone builds through anthemic, canonic layering. Swingin’ Scratching the Itch (which, Lee says, reflects his mildly addictive personality) wildly crashes and sears up and down the frets – and the overall band verve, carried by Euan Palmer’s fervent percussion, is electric.

Tuneful, Barbados-inspired Kickin’ the Chicken summons steel pans and sunshine as Chris Young’s warm, meandering alto glides across the feel-good rhythm; Nirvana‘s expansive, rasping energy melds indie rock with cinematic score (one of, frankly, many standouts); and twee, acoustic vocal/guitar endpiece Skateboarding On My Own, if nothing else, demonstrates Lee’s indubitable chordal precision.

Such an eclectic mix might well cause a few to scratch their heads – and, sure, it has its moments of almost naive levity. But when, without preconception, you slot in a new CD and it brings a smile, warms your heart, cranks up your spirit and ends up on repeat play… well, such reactions are the essence of good music.

Festooned with delights, and yours for the climbing (released 21 October 2016), In The Tree is available as CD or digital download from Stoney Lane Records’ Bandcamp store.

 

Ben Lee guitar, composition
Chris Young alto saxophone
Richard Foote trombone
David Ferris organ
Euan Palmer drums

Illustration: ningningli.com

benleeguitar.com

Stoney Lane Records – SLR1892 (2016)

‘A Moveable Feast’ – Mark Pringle

MarkPringle

WHO WOULD IMAGINE that quite such a breadth of engaging, meaningful jazz creativity might be realised inside 32 minutes?

24 year-old British pianist Mark Pringle has increasingly been making waves with his singular and adventurous approach to music-making. When he was just 19, about to embark on a scholarship at Birmingham Conservatoire, he appeared with his teacher, the splendid John Law, on duo album This Is; and earlier this year, he won a Peter Whittingham Jazz Award, as well as receiving an accolade to treasure from the sadly, recently-departed John Taylor, confirming him to be “an exceptionally gifted pianist and composer, and a remarkable improviser.”

Pringle’s inspiration for this debut album arose from his studies in Paris, drawing on cultural and naturalistic influences such as the work of Olivier Messaien and taking to heart author Ernest Hemingway’s memoirs of the capital: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

Remarkably, in his writing for 12-piece ensemble, the pianist appears to ingest and then musically express the varietal sounds of the city, not unlike the way Messaien interpreted birdsong; and there are also hints of Ravel’s jazz inflections. It can all be found in opening number A Real Bombshell, whose skittering, shunting impressions might well reflect the chaos of a Paris rush hour. With string quartet at its heart, it has an attractive big band dynamism, offering a fantastic weave of brass and reed textures (reminiscent of Mark Lockheart’s evergreen Ellington in Anticipation) as Percy Pursglove’s shrill trumpet rises out of the clamour. Ode to the Trees evokes a moonlit woodland exploration, its quietly bluesy piano groove prompting an almost alarming crescendo of hoots, chatters and squawks from an ensemble heading towards the stature of Count Basie (with frissons of Carla Bley).

Bookended by the quirkiness of two miniatures, Happy Plants I & II (first, the strings’ playful pizzicato, and then an intriguing New Orleans/calypso hybrid), Hasha’s Theme seems to draw on Gershwin and Ellington – and the maturity of Pringle’s arrangement brings out both lush and jarring major/minor horns, fronted by Chris Young’s fabulously nonchalant alto. The Writer (Hemingway perhaps) is mischievous, its tentative first steps emphasising how well the strings and woodwind integrate; and both this and following track Through the Grate further reveal Mark Pringle’s knack of slowly unfolding a dramatic, trembling landscape with flecks and fizzes of orchestral colour, as well as sudden changes of tempi and dynamics (neither recommended for an iPod playlist along a dark country track!). And the final snippet, a windband-like And That’s OK, settles the equilibrium…… or does it?

Here is a recording which, in terms of composition, improvisation and overall musicianship, is exquisitely formed; yet it also alludes to many greater heights yet to be conquered. Released on Stoney Lane Records on 18 September 2015, A Moveable Feast is available at Bandcamp and also at iTunes.

 

Mark Pringle piano
Percy Pursglove trumpet
Chris Young alto saxophone
Dan Sarjeant tenor saxophone, alto saxophone, flute
Alicia Gardener-Trejo bass clarinet, baritone saxophone, alto flute
Christine Cornwell violin
Sarah Farmer violin
Megan Jowett viola
Lucy French cello
Ben Lee electric guitar
James Banner double bass
Euan Palmer drums

markpringlemusic.com

Stoney Lane Records – SLR1954 (2015)