‘Can of Worms’ – George Crowley


Y’SEE WHAT ‘APPENS when y’open a Can of Worms?!…

Overflowing with writhing, jostling spontaneity, but with sufficient compositional structure to keep a lid on things, London-based saxophonist George Crowley’s new two-tenor quintet recording is a veritable powerhouse of creativity. His debut release, Paper Universe (Whirlwind, 2011), remains long in the memory as a jazz quartet recording of mature, unfettered exploration. Now, together with sparring tenor partner, the ever-chipper Tom Challenger, he constructs the formidable and foreceful front line of an energetic five-piece completed by Dan Nicholls (piano/Wurlitzer), Sam Lasserson (double bass) and Jon Scott (drums).

Crowley reveals that this band came into being for the purposes of a 2013 live gig, leading to the desire to develop and document the project’s clear success in a studio album – a shrewd and worthwhile decision, given the resulting sense of excitement, anarchy and strong musicality on show here. As composer of all seven substantial pieces, the leader never settles for the obvious, nor any half measures – he and his colleagues go all out for unwavering improvisation whilst recognising the strength of tight ensemble playing. And it’s fabulously earthy, ‘unputdownable’ stuff.

The Opener‘s agitated ten-minute expanse bristles to Jon Scott’s trademark clattering-yet-incisive drum rhythms, bolstered by Sam Lasserson’s babbling bass and Dan Nicholls’ typically brash, animated piano; and in amongst all this, tenorists Crowley and Challenger (one in each ear!) breathlessly duel it out – the combination of the written and the abstract quite thrilling. Nicholls’ uneasy ‘music box’ Wurlitzer announces Whirl, a broad, impudent affair featuring Challenger’s gruffness and Crowley’s screeching – yet the precise framework is always apparent.

Ubiquitous Up Tune in 3, with tricksily-timed sax riffs, is certainly ‘up’, and it’s a tribute to the directness of the engineering/mixing that its raw, live feel translates so well into recorded sound. The jarring major/minor blues of Rum Paunch is a joy, the two tenors either in unison (or thereabouts) or otherwise taunting each other, whilst Nicholls’ sneering, rippling piano almost encourages them in their outrageous discord.

Hard-swinging but nevertheless anarchic I’m Not Here To Reinvent The Wheel rolls deliciously to Lasserson and Scott’s fast pace, the reedsmen clearly revelling in its abandon (confirmed by the group cackles that follow its abrupt finish!). Terminal shuffles mysteriously to Scott’s intricacy at the kit and Nicholls’ magnificent Wurlitzer weavings, Lasserson’s relentless bass underpinning the broadness of the tenors’ extemporisations – such a glorious (and at times, cheeky) sound world; and, to close, T-Leaf rumbles particularly freely, though the fractured improvisations finally come together in absolute unanimity… lid well and truly sealed!

A triumph for George Crowley and his team. Released on 23 March 2015, further information, audio samples, promo video and purchasing can be found at Whirlwind.


George Crowley tenor saxophone
Tom Challenger tenor saxophone
Dan Nicholls piano/Wurlitzer
Sam Lasserson double bass
Jon Scott drums


Whirlwind Recordings – WR4666 (2015)


‘Porgy & Bess’ – Fini Bearman


GEORGE GERSHWIN’S 1930s American folk opera, Porgy & Bess – a tale of against-all-odds love set against a backdrop of prostitution and drug addiction – is known to many for its popular songs such as Summertime, It Ain’t Necessarily So and I Loves You Porgy.

In 1959, iconic jazz trumpeter Miles Davis and renowned bandleader Gil Evans together issued a recording, on Columbia, of their own interpretations of songs from the opera, which became one of the most enduringly favoured Davis albums from what has become a considerable discography. The inherent blues/jazz feel of the original was what particularly drew them to their new nine-piece band explorations (not just ‘jazz treatments’), leading Evans to divulge, “The three of us, it seems to me, collaborated in the album.”

Some fifty-odd years later, it’s that landmark Davis/Evans recording which has provided the inspiration for London-based singer, songwriter and composer Fini Bearman to present this new album of eight numbers/impressions from the original score, backed by an impressively adaptable line-up: Ross Stanley (Hammond, Wurlitzer), Matt Calvert (guitars, plus piano), Jon Cox (double bass) and John Blease (drums, percussion). All arrangements are by Bearman, Calvert and Blease and are transformatively compelling.

For example, in Bearman’s hands, Davis’ New Orleans-style funeral march interlude of Gone, Gone, Gone breaks into a strong-beat Sixties single, courtesy of Ross Stanley’s evocative Augeresque organ playing and Matt Calvert’s lively, tremulant guitar (interesting to consider Miles’ recording was made on the cusp of a decade that was to be characterised by this sound). Fini Bearman’s voice is strong, soulful and, if emulating this period, utterly convincing. The despair of My Man’s Gone Now, as heard in Gershwin’s vocalised original (though more smoothly swinging in Davis’ world) is beautifully weighted in its solid, sustained, major/minor bluesyness; and, in stark contrast, the plainly optimistic (usually baritone-sung) I Got Plenty of Nuthin’ skips in countrified abandon, Bearman getting into its cheeky, resigned character.

Porgy, I’m Your Woman Now is touchingly delicate, the spacial arpeggioed guitar arrangement here illuminating the beauty, and even modernity, of Gershwin’s writing; and the richness and feeling in Fini Bearman’s delivery carries the song so well. Lively blues to the fore, It Ain’t Necessarily So rings to the crashing, gritty precision of Calvert’s guitar and Stanley’s truly authentic chordal and soloing organ tone – sensational stuff from the whole quintet. I Loves You Porgy, a well-covered classic (and here, as in Miles’ version, a first take) is winsomely engaging – Bearman feels the emotion of the lyric, and echoic guitar and brittle percussion provide a certain weightlessness, whilst Ross Stanley’s bright melodic tone is quite magical.

The chirpy beat of Davis’ There’s A Boat That’s Leavin’ Soon is delightfully remodelled as an easy-going groove, held up well by bassist Jon Cox and drummer John Blease, which Bearman clearly revels in; it all sounds remarkably fresh, shimmering to guitar and Rhodes soloing. And to close, Prayer – a freely-improvised, less obvious impression of Summertime – perhaps suggests the misty poignancy of the previous number as it ebbs and washes to vocal and instrumental overlays, idealistically heading out to New York.

David Ewen, Gershwin’s first biographer, reputedly stated of the man and this opera that he “never quite ceased to wonder at the miracle that he had been its composer. He never stopped loving each and every bar, never wavered in the conviction that he had produced a work of art.” Its longevity, although due in part to the popularity of the mainstream ‘hits’, is testament to that belief – and thanks to the vision of artists including Miles Davis, and now Fini Bearman, his work can continue to be appreciated through contemporary interpretations. And that, happily, is one of the wonders of a living, breathing, creative genre such as jazz.

Released on the ‘F-IRE presents’ label on 28 October 2014, Porgy & Bess is available from ProperMusic and usual outlets.


Fini Bearman voice
Ross Stanley Hammond organ, Wurlitzer
Matt Calvert guitars, piano
Jon Cox double bass
John Blease drums, percussion

(original credits: music by George Gershwin; libretto by DuBose Heyward; lyrics by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin)


F-IRE presents – F-IRECD 76 (2014)

‘Thymos’ – Matt Ridley Trio


THIS DEBUT RELEASE from double bassist and composer Matt Ridley has been fascinating me for a number of weeks, as I repeatedly return to its charming blend of sophistication, mystery and vitality.

Ostensibly a piano trio album with John Turville (piano) and George Hart (drums), ‘Thymos’ begins with that same highly-charged energy that we have come to experience with the likes of e.s.t., Phronesis and Vijay Iyer – yet this is different. Firstly, it becomes clear that Eastern musical influences are being explored here (to great effect, I might add), and then there is the masterstroke of judiciously augmenting the trio on some numbers with the considerable talents of Jason Yarde (sax), Attab Haddad (oud) and Vasilis Sirkis (percussion). The result: an exciting and diverse programme – written or arranged by Ridley and led by his distinctly melodic bass technique – which pleasingly achieves his own vision of “a sound encompassing the exotic flavours and emotions of Middle Eastern music with the jazz sensibility of improvisation on complex structures”.

Following a freely improvised opening, the trio immediately display their connectedness on the strong, bass-driven Siamese Twins which unfolds into heady splendour, George Hart’s hard-hitting drum improvisation over a repeated piano and bass phrase heightening the fizz of this seven-minute opener. Theme and Variations – a touch of baroque in 9 – displays Ridley’s liking for a transparent bass melody, John Turville’s piano contributing the same clarity; and Hart simply shines with his equal show of strength and dexterity. It’s impressively balanced, right through to the delicate close.

Homage to Kenny Wheeler opens with Jason Yarde’s molten soprano flowing and skipping effortlessly to Hart’s changing rhythms… and, again, Ridley is so melodically lucid, Yarde needing no prompt to take flight (imagining KW’s flugel) in this soaring, upbeat tribute. The Middle Eastern flavour of the album is unlocked with Siddhartha, the trio spinning expertly through a repeated descending motif, Turville and Ridley sharing complex lines as well as independently improvising (Matt Ridley frequently engages melodically even when fulfilling more of a supporting bass role!). Again, George Hart’s drumming is key to the overall sparkle here, as he then leads percussively into The River, eventually paring it down to a luscious, spacial, heartfelt piano/bass ballad with shimmering cymbal decoration and an achingly beautiful high bass lead (especially magical through high-quality earbuds).

Jason Yarde’s playing is always so characterful, typified by the rebellious-then-sheepish growl just seconds into his introduction to Ridley’s arrangement of Sari Gelin – a slow-burning take on a traditional tune which also finds Attab Haddad and Vasilis Sirkis skilfully interweaving mystical oud and percussion. Title track Thymos picks up the momentum first heard at the head of the album to create another lively, snappy, trio performance – it’s such a gripping vibe, I’d swear there were more than three of them in there!

Hijaz (Matt Ridley’s arrangement of a piece by Attab Haddad, whose oud provides its atmospheric intro) raises the heat still further – an intoxicating, pulsating showstopper in which Turville and Yarde respond magnificently to the intensifying bass/drums/percussion-led frenzy. Then, finally, over a calming, bell-like percussion drone, Matt Ridley eases things down with typically intricate bass… leaving us to ponder the thrill of the journey.

Certainly now (for me) an on-loop favourite, ‘Thymos’ was released on 1 October 2013 by Whirlwind and can be sampled here, along with further information and video.

Matt Ridley
double bass  mattridleybass.com
John Turville piano  johnturville.com
George Hart drums  whirlwind/georgehart
Jason Yarde sax
Attab Haddad oud
Vasilis Sirkis percussion

Whirlwind Recordings – WR4643 (2013)

‘Spy Boy’ – Brass Mask


AN EARTHY, ALL-ACOUSTIC ENSEMBLE can be both refreshing and deeply affecting… and, indeed, Tom Challenger’s Brass Mask octet reaches right out and grabs you by the ears, heart and soul. With debut album, ‘Spy Boy’, this creative powerhouse delivers a distinctively venturous 13-track programme of exuberant (and, at times, emotional) strength.

Formed only last year, the standout grouping of horns and percussion offers intense, brash, rhythmic grooves as well as infectious, improvisational joy and freedom, drawing on a variety of influences such as the carnival atmospheres of Mardi Gras/New Orleans street bands, as well as Deep South spirituals/hymns and South African township music. Sax, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, tuba, drum and percussion pyrotechny is provided by current London jazz luminaries George Crowley, Dan Nicholls, Rory Simmons, Alex Bonney, John Blease, and Nathaniel and Theon Cross.

Challenger, primarily as a tenorist, is already a big name on the contemporary jazz scene (Dice Factory, Outhouse, Fofoulah), and here he magically weaves together a tapestry of imaginative self-penned compositions and brilliantly leftfield arrangements of traditional tunes, resulting in a blaze of colour (Dan Nicholls’ sleeve art interpreting this well!). As well as the thrilling invention of the writing, Challenger clearly relies on the skill, intuition and pluckiness of his colleagues – and how it pays off. Take, for example, Francis P, a short, rebellious number which encapsulates the raw abandon of this eight-piece; sax and trumpet sections blasting a strong unison line over irreverent tuba and deliberate clattering drums, tenor breaking off to improvise grittily.

Thank You Jesus immediately appeals with its slow, hard, bluesy edge. The lazy, swaggering, discordant Indian Red possesses a similarly charismatic gospel feel, seemingly taking to the street and then ending in glorious up-tempo celebration – irresistible! And the first of these three traditional tunes, Shallow Water, displays the band’s trademark bold unison melodies and effective overlapping of parts.

Rain, Rain, Rain dances lightly before increasingly building its strength and complexity, the impudent, crunchy tenor and trombone solos here a dream. The deep tuba, trombone, bass clarinet and percussion rhythm of Wizards provides a superbly mysterious ground for saxes, trumpets and clarinets to blend as well as fly improvisationally – and with razor-sharp brass stabs and high trumpet lines above escalating heavy drums, this proves to be nine and a half minutes of creative excellence. The foreboding of closely-meshed reeds in Israfil is made all the more intense by an incessant cymbal rhythm which then menacingly stops short of the conclusion, creating a tangible tension; and from a similarly troubled opening, Don’t Stand Up becomes impressively driven by rapid bongo-led percussion, pacey instrumental soloing and the occasional, characteristic tuba (“whOOh!”) outburst!

Brass Mask play tightly, as one, yet also enjoy what appears to be considerable free reign – the entire album maintaining a spirit which, once you are ‘in’, is so incredibly satisfying. This is certainly ‘jazz out of the comfort zone’ and, for that reason, hugely exhilarating. But hearing is believing – check out the excitement at Bandcamp.

Released on Babel Label, 14 October 2013.

Tom Challenger
sax, clarinet, percussion
George Crowley sax, clarinet
Dan Nicholls sax, bass clarinet
Rory Simmons trumpet
Alex Bonney trumpet
Nathaniel Cross trombone
Theon Cross tuba
John Blease drums, percussion
(additional percussion: Jez Miles, Hugh Wilkinson)


Babel Label – BDV13121 (2013)

‘Anything But Look’ – Jason Rebello


A NEW solo studio release from Jason Rebello was always going to be something of an event, given his track record as one of the UK’s most respected jazz/rock keyboard players – and, with an album a year in the making, he’s certainly back with a funky, soulful BANG!

The excitement of ‘Anything But Look’ is due, in part, to so many of its ten originals having considerable commercial appeal (easily radio hits) – yet, delving deep into the detail, there is much to savour in terms of differing vocal performances, shifting time signatures and modulations, clever tricks, flicks and textures… all held together by Rebello’s multifarious, entertaining keyboard work. He has a terrific understanding of the ‘nuts and bolts’ of jazz (his Steinway-only interpretations of standards and folksong were brilliantly displayed in a recent acoustic trio gig at Kings Place with Stephen Keogh on drums and bassist Alex Davis). Here, he combines that mastery with his vast experience of touring over the years as keyboardist for the likes of Jeff Beck, Sting, Peter Gabriel and Joss Stone.

The hand-picked personnel of established and up-and-coming instrumental and vocalist friends provide a sumptuous programme, the result being an intensely joyous, positive and personal album which Rebello describes as “a musical kaleidoscope of jazz, soul, Latin, funk and rock, painting a picture of a soul’s journey into the unknown. We all are made up of light and dark, but we don’t usually want to acknowledge what we really are, due to a fear that we may discover something terrible… we will do anything, but look!”

The funkiest of electric bass and clav grooves open the show, celebrated soul singer Omar’s resolute tones delivering the catchy Know What You Need, Pino Palladino providing a fantastic ground for Rebello’s typically glittering piano and electric piano soloing. Sumudu Jayatilaka’s beguiling voice intertwines effortlessly with Rebello’s piano on The Man on the Train (with a hint, maybe, of Gordon Sumner in its sublime slower section) – and Troy Miller’s drums, the percussion of Miles Bould and Karl Rasheed-Abel’s acoustic bass provide the irresistible pulse. Bouncy 7/8 instrumental Without a Paddle, with cheeky contrary motion hook and Paul Stacey’s bristling guitar, is breathlessly compelling – so much going on, a real smile-inducer!

Solid bass and pitch-bent synth characterise the beautifully-measured chill-out title track Anything But Look before Alicia Carroll’s soprano voice brings theatrical urgency to the more sinister Dark Night of the Soul, an intoxicating multitracked masterclass in Rebello’s considerable piano and keyboard prowess – breathtaking to listen closely. With Immediate Effect flows along with all the amiability of a Lyle Mays/Pat Metheny favourite, backing vocals, guitar and synth soloing the key to this likeness. Sadness-tinged ballad Is This How? features the vocals of US jazz/R&B singer Will Downing and the adept, prodigious drumming of Rebello’s 14 year-old son George – a particularly beautiful, poignant and memorable chorus here; and young singer Jacob Collier’s precise wordless vocals are a perfect match for the bright keys of In The Thick Of It, jazz stalwart Tim Garland (on flute) adding to the lightness of touch.

Joy Rose’s vocal warmth and dexterity in the deliberate, soulful New Joy symbolise the sincerity of this release, Miller and Palladino again creating a fantastic rhythm, Rebello and Garland just magnificent – joy all round! Concluding, Xantoné Blacq presents the uplifting, perhaps even spiritual lyric of Lighten Up The Load, the Latin flavour of Bould’s percussion and Rebello’s piano octaves taking us on our onward journey.

Released on LYTE Records on 4 November 2013, the fervour and craftsmanship of ‘Anything but Look’ are stunningly evident. Indeed, Jason Rebello’s creativity, optimism and technical wizardry might well encourage us through the long, dark winter months – as the fade-out whispers, “See you on the other side”!……


Jason Rebello keyboards; bass, track 7; backing vocals, track 6
Troy Miller drums, tracks 1,2,3,4,5,8,9,10; guitar, track 7; percussion, track 4
Pino Palladino bass guitar, tracks 1,4,6,7,9,10
Karl Rasheed-Abel acoustic bass, tracks 2,3,5,8
Paul Stacey guitar, tracks 3,6,9
Jeremy Stacey drums, track 6
George Rebello drums, track 7
Miles Bould percussion, tracks 1,2,3,10
Tim Garland flute, bass clarinet, tracks 8,9
Joy Rose vocals, track 9; backing vocals, tracks 1,6,9,10
Omar Lye-Fook vocals, track 1
Sumudu Jayatilaka vocals, track 2
Alicia Carroll vocals, track 5
Will Downing vocals, track 7
Jacob Collier vocals, track 8
Xantoné Blacq vocals, track 10
Aja Downing backing vocals, track 7


LYTE Records – LR021 (2013)