‘La Saboteuse’ – Yazz Ahmed

YazzAhmed

THE SMOULDERING, exotic and aromatic layers of trumpeter, flugelhornist and composer Yazz Ahmed’s La Saboteuse have gradually been infusing my psyche for the past few weeks – and it’s precisely this slowly unfolding, intoxicating weave which makes it both alluring and satisfyingly difficult to pigeonhole. 

Ahmed’s credentials to date speak for themselves, having worked alongside such illustrious names as Courtney Pine, Toshiko Akiyoshi and Sir John Dankworth, as well as appearing on albums by artists including Samuel Hällkvist, Noel Langley and Radiohead; and following on from 2011 solo debut Finding My Way Home, the British-Bahraini musician describes this latest, sumptuous release as part of a long, spiritual journey: “the relationship between the optimism of my conscious self and the seductive voice of my self-destructive inclinations, my inner saboteur”. It quite ingeniously fuses a personal desire to delve more deeply into her childhood experiences – the culture of the Middle East and the sounds of its maqam and folk music traditions – with the already exciting cross-pollinations of the current jazz scene. The resulting assimilation by Ahmed and her sparkling players is a hypnotic, almost continuous work of extraordinary nuance and breadth.

Exquisite illustrations, calligraphy and the trumpeter’s own engaging sleeve notes about the music and each of her personnel instantly reveal a labour of love (also confirming the advantage of artistic completeness which the physical product will always have over digital download or streaming), preparing the ground for immersion in this fragrant, almost hour-long labyrinth. Jamil Jamal‘s alternating seven-then-eight percussive metre is set up by a Rhodes and electric bass pulse, embellished by searching improvisations from the leader’s flugel and bass clarinettist Shabaka Hutchings; and, as throughout the album, details such as echoic guitar and hazy electronics add significantly to the suffusion. Indeed, Ahmed’s mastery of textural effect is much in evidence, as in The Space Between the Fish & the Moon, a mystical expanse of bowed vibraphone, digital oscillations and crackles traversed by blissful flugel.

The fluctuating riches of this recording are magnificent – dark, spacial, contrapuntal and unison phrases in title track La Saboteuse become interspersed with muted Arabian annunciations, whilst Al Emadi‘s brassy effusiveness is carried on a wave of bendir and darbuka, with so many fascinating embellishments contributing to its cinematic mood. The vibes-introduced buoyancy of The Lost Pearl has a subtle redolence of the Modern Jazz Quartet, albeit with syncopated, effects-swirling electric bass rhythms; and all the while, Ahmed’s assured imaginings ripple above. In Bloom, Martin France’s rapid pop-groove injects light into the pervading mystery, its otherwise straight-ahead demeanour glinting with vibes and (at one point, politely screeching) flugel; and Beleille‘s complex network of tonal intrigue (including bizarre electronic manipulations of bass clarinet) makes this one of this album’s most absorbing listens. Delicate miniatures, segued between these expansive pieces, provide a sense of continuity which may well be elaborated upon when performed live – and celebratory Organ External, with a riffy hint of Michael Nyman, intelligently seems to throw everything into the mix with great results, the low timbres of flugel and bass clarinet especially effective.

Yazz Ahmed’s atmospheres are lush, inventive, enticing and an impressive, progressive distillation of her many influences. In short – spellbinding.

Released on Naim Records on 12 May 2017, La Saboteuse is available as CD, LP or digital download from Bandcamp.

 

Yazz Ahmed flugelhorn, trumpet, quarter-tone flugelhorn, Kaoss Pad
Lewis Wright vibraphone
Shabaka Hutchings bass clarinet
Samuel Hällkvist electric guitars
Naadia Sheriff Fender Rhodes, Wurlitzer
Dudley Phillips bass guitar
Dave Manington bass guitar (sponge bass on Bloom)
Martin France drums
Corrina Silvester bucket, bendir, darbuka, krakab, riqq, pins, gongs, waterphone, sagat, frame drum, ankle bells, drum kit

Produced by Noel Langley and Yazz Ahmed

yazzahmed.com

Naim Records – NAIMCD340 (2017)

‘Scratch and Sift’ – Michael Chillingworth

Scratch2

THE CURIOUS ASSORTMENT of characters above conceals a delicious preponderance of reeds in Michael Chillingworth’s debut septet album, Scratch and Sift.

Saxophonist and clarinettist Chillingworth is a mainstay of London’s contemporary jazz scene, working with artists such as Stan Sulzmann, Julian Siegel, James Maddren and Kit Downes. So it’s fascinating to discover the free thinking of his own writing, realised with colleagues Tom Challenger (tenor, clarinet), Josh Arcoleo (tenor), George Crowley (bass clarinet), Lewis Wright (vibes), Sam Lasserson (bass) and Jon Scott (drums).

Here is an album which rasps and sizzles so hard and so densely that it’s hard to ignore. Contrastingly sweet and sour, many of these eight, original compositions somehow seem to convey the arresting wit, irony and dark mischievousness to be found in classic, monochrome Ealing comedies. Right from the off, stealthy vibraphone and spicy horn ta-dahhs in Butterman lure the senses into an unusual world of theatrics and drollery, its agile melodies and close, spiky arrangements shadily tiptoeing around each corner; and Mint‘s syncopated blarings are matched by Jon Scott’s perky percussion, with some delightful individual improvisations widening into more open landscapes.

Yes, there’s a certain, honest Britishness to Chillingworth’s musical imagination. Overlaid tumblings in Brian Kuh give way to rapid, exuberant sax anarchy as the leader’s swirling alto is taunted by his assailants amidst challenging, irregular riffs (unpredictable, scampering unison passages here, which break into harmony, are especially effective… nay, smile-inducing). The furtive bass clarinet, double bass and vibes of clock-ticking The Wait (not to be listened to, alone, on a dimly-lit railway platform!) eventually screech to jittery alto and a cacophony of wailing sirens; so it’s quite likely that lumbering, irascible Capture is the resultant, bumpy, Black Maria journey!

Politely funky Grateful Lady is a joy, Lewis Wright’s repeated vibraphone chromatics providing the notorious ‘sax and clarinet boys’ with an opportunity to knock seven bells out of each other – so much vim and vigour, encouraged by Lasserson and Scott in the propulsive rhythm section, and concluding with wonderfully wheezy, out-of-breath textures in the reeds department. Through the opening flick of one eye, Numbers‘ initial quietude becomes utterly mischievous, its inquisitive alto extensions and trills breaking into communal boogie; and closing Righteous fools no-one – a chuffing, squawking hullabaloo which, though microscopically arranged, is as tireless and wild as the album’s earlier, madcap adventures – and Chillingworth’s hard-blown improv just as audacious.

Awright, mate [nudge, wink]… go get it!

Released on Two Rivers Records on 1 July 2016, Scratch and Sift is available from Bandcamp.

 

Michael Chillingworth alto saxophone, clarinet
Tom Challenger tenor saxophone, clarinet
Josh Arcoleo tenor saxophone
George Crowley bass clarinet
Lewis Wright vibraphone
Sam Lasserson bass
Jon Scott drums

michaelchillingworth.com

Two Rivers Records – TRR 010 (2016)

‘Connection’ – Empirical

Empirical

ALWAYS pushing, always challenging… progressive UK quartet Empirical strike out on their own with fifth studio album, Connection.

For almost a decade – and in this line-up since 2008 – Nathaniel Facey (alto sax), Lewis Wright (vibes), Tom Farmer (double bass) and Shaney Forbes (drums) have, in previous releases, sought to experiment and collaborate with other artists. But, as Farmer explains, “This time, we went into a great-sounding studio with just the four of us. Connection is an accurate representation of what we’re doing now, what our gigs sound like. This is our expression.” Indeed, by all accounts, their recent week-long ‘pop-up jazz lounge’ in a London Underground retail unit – an opportunity to introduce their sound to new audiences, for free – was a runaway success in terms of live jazz awareness and social media presence.

Ten original tracks, mostly composed by either Wright or Farmer, find the band in typically spirited, spiky vein, crafting an acoustically raw edge to all they do. Card Clash is a great example of their consummate flexibility in communication, skipping from jagged dissonance into infectious, lucid swing; and whilst alto sax and vibes may be expected to be the principal melodic voices here, it is in fact the democratic and dynamic parity of all four musicians which is key to their appeal, as the snappy rhythms, false endings and lightning riffs of Nathaniel Facey’s Stay the Course prove.

All manner of textures seem possible in this grouping, Lewis Wright’s vibraphone easily conjuring sustained ’60s MJQ (Lethe) or the effervescent brightness of Gary Burton (The Two-Edged Sword); and Facey’s alto can swing from hard-bop (Initiate the Initiations) to subtle exploration (Mind Over Mayhem). Yet the invention here is consistently contemporary, unpredictable and engaging. Announced by Steve Reichian clapping rhythms, Farmer’s The Maze darts, twists and flips to Wright’s similarly minimalist vibes repetition, picked up by the bassist with impossible rapidity; and Driving Force‘s burning mystery gradually unfolds across slowly-oscillating vibes, with Facey’s firecracker improv and Forbes’ brittle percussion breaking the smoothness of the surface.

The surprises are fast-arriving across these fifty-three minutes, Anxiety Society possessing an almost Clouseauian/Shot in the Dark quirkiness, thanks to its bobbing bass undercurrent, cheekily ticking percussion and characterful, anarchic alto; and the delicate vibraphone pools and cascades of closing number It’s Out of Your Hands are especially becalming until their confluence with the fast-flowing eddies of bass, drums and alto sax.

True to form, Empirical delight with their unadorned though particularly physical and creative approach to jazz, melding tradition with forward-facing fervour.

Released on 18 March 2016, Connection is available as CD or download from Cuneiform Records’ Bandcamp page.

 

Nathaniel Facey alto saxophone
Lewis Wright vibraphone
Tom Farmer double bass
Shaney Forbes drums

empiricalmusic.com

Cuneiform Records – RUNE 416 (2016)

‘Treehouse’ – Tom Hewson Trio

Treehouse

A TRIO ALBUM with a difference, this has been swirling around in my head for some time now, captivating me with its cerebral and emotional effect on the senses.

The lofty soundscapes of the Tom Hewson Trio’s debut release, Treehouse – with magical combined timbres of piano, vibraphone and double bass – might evoke white-streamed morning mists and glistening, eddying streams, or equally possess a swinging, quicksilver sprightliness to raise an involuntary smile. It’s certainly an album of precise yet often fearless chamber jazz which demands close attention to its shifting complexities and frequent coruscations of beauty.

Described by one of Tom Hewson’s musical heroes – the late, respected John Taylor – as a pianist and “sublime composer” with a “ravishing and daring” style, he cites key musical discoveries which have helped shape his personality and career. As well as Taylor, these include the music of Ravel, Debussy, Paul Bley, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell… and such influences become remarkably apparent across this album of ten originals. Hewson’s colleagues, since the trio’s inception in 2010, are Lewis Wright (vibes) and Calum Gourlay (double bass).

This project’s unwavering appeal is due in part to the mercurial weave of textures that is possible between the players, suggesting in the first few minutes of opening track Sparticle that any augmentation, especially percussion, might hinder this perfect synergy. Flowing French impressionism here melds easily with bold, syncopated rhythm; and sprightly solo piano passages become organically infused with gently dancing bass and the sustained chimes of vibraphone.

The democratic outlook of the trio is another important factor – title track Treehouse, for example, allowing Hewson to become rhythm maker beneath Wright’s glowing improvisations; rockin’-in-rhythm Glitch is predominantly a lively, Oscar Peterson-like piano-and-bass feature until previously subtle vibes flamboyantly (Gary Burton-style) steal the show; and, in contrast, Silver Strands and Gelsomina are both sensitively crafted, raindrop-splashed watercolours, their luscious harmonies possessing paradoxical contentment and melancholy.

Interspersing the main features are three solo improvisations from each instrumentalist, offering a window on their raw creativity and the overtones and resonances achievable; Gourlay’s harmonic arco bass exploration, sans effects, is particularly intriguing. Maybe suggesting the livelier side of Bill Evans, Not Relevant‘s bright swing is characterised by oscillating vibes and piano riffs, opening the door for clean-cut piano extemporisations as well as twinkling moments of repose. And Beanie’s Bounce (shades of Bouncing with Bud?) serves as a fabulous curtain call, its crackling verve showcasing each player’s physical and creative dexterity, with Hewson’s audacious, bluesy piano solo spot a standout.

You won’t often hear a jazz landscape as simultaneously sincere, eloquent and lucent as this, nor one which throws out shooting-star surprises each time it’s played. A rare and focused treasure from an adventurous British trio.

Treehouse is available directly from CAM JAZZ Presents, online and record store retailers, and also iTunes.

 

Tom Hewson piano
Lewis Wright vibraphone
Calum Gourlay bass

tomhewson.com

CAM JAZZ Presents (KEPACH Music) – CAMJ 3316-2 (2015)