‘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)

‘Portrait: Reflections on Belonging’ – Byron Wallen

DISPLAYING integrity and humanity, respected trumpeter/flugelhornist Byron Wallen’s Portrait – his first recorded release in thirteen years – drew me in at the very first listen… and hasn’t let go yet!

It’s a beautiful concept. Wallen’s original, storytelling compositions are carried on a kaleidoscopic, journeying wave of urban ‘field recordings’ and communal interactions from his native London. In these tarnished days of discrimination and hatred (countered, thankfully, by positive expressions such as #BeKind), it’s worth reading Byron’s heartfelt words… and then responding in gratitude by feeling his and his band’s uplifting, even healing, creativity:

“This album is a meditation and reflection on the powerful impact that music has had on my life. It was conceived whilst sitting in the central square in Woolwich, an area of South East London. I was struck by the community around me with its mixture of cultures and nationalities, from Nepalese elders to young Nigerian men, Somali mothers with their children, a new Eastern European contingent and descendants of families who used to work in the docks and at the Arsenal. Music paved my way to travel and see the world, meeting people from all different cultures and walks of life. The study of music and the process of striving to become a better musician furnished me with a deeper knowledge of self and a gift I could share on so many different levels. In Portrait I am meditating on identity, culture and what it means to belong. The compositions, workshops, performances, and social interaction born out of this project deepened my artistic and personal relationships with the people in my neighbourhood. The album pays tribute to the heart, soul and vibrant provenance of the community I call my home.”

Rising-star guitarist Rob Luft features alongside bassist Paul Michael, drummer Rod Youngs and percussionist Richard ‘Olatunde’ Baker – and together, the leader and his Four Corners band produce a rich swell of vibrant celebration, as well as atmospheres of introspection and reminiscence (sleeve notes provide background to several numbers).

It’s no surprise that Byron Wallen studied with Jon Faddis, Hugh Masekela, George Benson and Chaka Khan; and there’s also a semblance of Freddie Hubbard in his joyful, natural phrases and improvisations. Each For All and All For Each, as an example, presents a warmly-grooving South African vibe, plus a freer sense of looking back; and percussively-driven No Stars No Moon (its title referencing historic racial tensions) features a memorable, chromatic guitar riff supporting Wallen’s almost growling, dual-tracked lead.

Chordal and rhythmic arrangements are tightly executed, Luft usually at the heart, providing agile coloration quite different to that of a keyboard instrument. Reflective moments summon imagery, also – especially the eery, flugelhorn/mouthpiece repetition of Alert (for the workers at the Royal Arsenal) which seemingly pictorialises ships’ horns, seagull cries and gunfire echoing around the docklands of (former) heavy industry. Wallen’s miniatures, such as sweetly-dancing Ferry Shell and bold percussion solo Warren to Arsenal, are tantalisingly brief; and calming Fundamental, with jazz-country pedalled guitar textures, is described as ‘a meditation on what it is to be human’.

The educational aspects of Wallen’s career are fascinatingly woven into the fabric of this album, too, employing the choral exuberance of Plumcroft Primary School, in the heart of Woolwich. Young voices chant ’Spirit of the Ancestors (is calling)’ to a bass-and-drum groove as Wallen bluesily improvises across, connecting to the classes’ examination of family and ancestry; and calypsoing, “soft and squishy” Banana Man (for Bannockburn Primary School) highlights the importance of street markets. Harmonious joy, indeed – something further communicated through gyrating, sunshiny instrumental, Holler.

Byron Wallen tours Portrait in the UK from 2 February to 14 October 2020 – and the album, released on 17 February, is available as CD or download from Bandcamp.

 

Byron Wallen trumpet, flugelhorn, shells, piano, percussion
Rob Luft guitar
Paul Michael bass guitar
Rod Youngs drums
Richard ‘Olatunde’ Baker congas, talking drums
Plumcroft Primary School, classes 3G and 3H vocals

Illustration: Marc Drostle

byronwallen.co.uk

Twilight Jaguar Recordings – TJCD3 (2020)

‘Paradox’ – Andrés Thor

A SUBTLE ‘white album’ cover reflects one of the key attributes of this latest release from Icelandic guitarist/composer Andrés Thor and his quartet with pianist Agnar Már Magnússon, double bassist Orlando Le Fleming and drummer Ari Hoenig.

Though a cursory listen might indicate familiar, four-piece jazz territory, the nine original tracks of Paradox (the follow-up to 2016’s Ypsilon) offer levels of light and clarity not always so prominent in a guitar-led quartet. The coupling of Már Magnússon’s picturesque piano and Thor’s chordal/melodic sensitivity (with warm tremulant) easily visualises open, breathing landscapes; and together, Le Fleming and Hoenig work to provide a crisp, refractional foundation to this cognitively-themed album’s whole.

Eden ripples with sunlight as Thor’s agile-yet-unhurried improvisations meander up and down, through imagined woodland glades, attuned to the quartet’s shared, gentle finesse; and although pacier, Quantum still allows bright diffractions to filter through onto its purposeful path. The guitarist’s eloquence is emphasised in his precise, self-accompanied prelude to Tvísaga, while coolly-swinging 8.J.L. feels especially balanced across the ensemble; and sidewalk-strutting Schrödinger’s Cat certainly teems with snare-accentuated life. Both Dal and the bluesy shuffle of Avi are exquisitely measured, offering room for pondering solos, and there’s beautiful, positive luminosity in bass-riffed Under Stars and the 55-minute set’s concluding title track.

Paradox has been out there for a few months, but the freshness and detail in this studio recording from Brooklyn, New York, is a treat.

Released on 5 April 2019 and available as CD or download at Bandcamp.

 

Andrés Thor guitar, composition
Agnar Már Magnússon piano
Orlando Le Fleming double bass
Ari Hoenig drums

Dimma – DIM 82 (2019)

‘Dream Feathers’ – Ron Caines / Martin Archer AXIS

THE DEPTH OF ORIGINAL MUSIC, newly created by artists and then fathomed further by our own imagination, remains a never-fading fascination – an opportunity to hear sounds for the very first time, and then continue to appraise and interpret them in relation our own experiences and circumstances. The possibilities are limitless.

Dream Feathers, presented by Ron Caines / Martin Archer AXIS, beautifully exemplifies that fact in a nine-track soundscape led by veteran saxophonist Caines (“composer”) and Sheffield multi-instrumentalist Archer (“studio enabler and magician”) where a multiplicity of melodies, textures, rhythms and field recordings abound. And whilst entirely accessible, both the freedom and blend of scored and improvised music takes this septet’s output far beyond a sequence of ‘jazz tunes’ and into an hour-long realm where the mind might freely roam the unexpected, eliciting visual and even visceral responses on a personal level.

Completing the line-up, pianist Laura Cole, guitarist Anton Hunter, double bassist Gus Garside and drummer Johnny Hunter – also proven masters of invention – paint canvases of acoustic and electronic colour which are enhanced with great effect by Hervé Perez’s field recordings, electronics and processing.

Throughout, Caines’ clear saxophonic tone/vibrato and ‘off-piste’ perambulations are a joy. In memorable, cyclic African Violets, piano and horns create a Coltranesque foundation for him to stretch out across Johnny Hunter’s shimmering cymbals and solid drumming impetus; and his easy alto lyricism in broad Uccello / 1934 (incidentally, a significant year in British classical music) becomes echoed by the most delightfully sparse electronic drones and electric-piano chimes. Free improv is prominent in mischievous, angular Mazeep; in prickly, unpredictable Harmonix; and in darker, mini-maelstrom Nico. But just as effective, and certainly more immersive, are the outer eleven-minute ‘movements’ – Rothko Veil / Dream Feathers and Almazon / 1934 Reprise – whose gently-shifting strata of extemporisation and complementary field captures seep into mind and heart, ultimately carried away through a canopy of woodland birdsong.

Challenging categorisation, Dream Feathers is a three-dimensional, headphones-on exploration of beauty and openness. The grooves may become pleasingly familiar, each time you listen, but the improvisatory spirit also sustains interest to return again and again to discover more.

Released on 13 November 2019 and available as CD or download from Discus Music at Bandcamp.

 

Ron Caines soprano, alto and tenor saxophones
Martin Archer bass clarinet, organ, electronics, horn section
Laura Cole acoustic and electric pianos, harmonium
Hervé Perez field recordings, electronics, sound design/processing
Anton Hunter guitar and electronics
Gus Garside double bass
Johnny Hunter drums

discus-music.co.uk
roncaines.co.uk

Discus Music (Discus 88CD) – 2019

‘Beyond Good and Evil’ – Eyal Lovett

“I DIDN’T REALLY MEAN to make this album”, Eyal Lovett declares on the sleeve of his latest release, Beyond Good and Evil. It’s an intriguing opening gambit that is clarified by the fact that, after recording in the studio over the last few years, the Berlin-based pianist decided to capture his current band’s live shows at Leipzig’s Horns Erben music venue over three nights.

Read my full review at LondonJazz News…

Released on 26 July 2019, Beyond Good and Evil is available from Amazon.

 

Eyal Lovett piano
Eran Har Even electric guitar
Aidan Lowe drums
Gianfranco Coppola double bass

eyallovett.com

Berthold Records (2019)

‘Finding Home’ – Kate Williams’ Four Plus Three meets Georgia Mancio

‘SECRET, SILENT MOMENTS. Sweet, familiar voices. Colour into colour. Wonder into wonder. Beautiful traces play inside my mind.’

Those words from the coda of Finding Home’s final track, lovingly referencing those who have gone before us, also speak to me of the imaginative approach to this meticulous and poignant collaboration between Kate Williams’ Four Plus Three (the strings of The Guastalla Quartet alongside her piano trio with Oli Hayhurst and drummer Dave Ingamells) and vocalist Georgia Mancio.

Read my full review at LondonJazz News…

Released on 1 June 2019 and available from georgiamancio.com

 

Kate Williams piano, arrangements
Georgia Mancio voice
John Garner violin
Marie Schreer violin – featured on The Key
Francis Gallagher viola
Sergio Serra cello
Oli Hayhurst bass
David Ingamells drums
John Williams guitar – on Caminando, Caminando and We Walk (Slow Dawn)

Illustration by Alban Low

kate-williams-quartet.com
georgiamancio.com

KW Jazz – kwjazz002 (2019)