‘The Day I Had Everything’ – Malija

Malija

IT’S A FEELING that probably resonates with most of us; as kids, relishing those long, school summer holidays stretching out in front, safe in the knowledge that with each seemingly endless day came the freedom to explore and make new discoveries with friends.

Entitling this new album The Day I Had Everything, saxophonist Mark Lockheart expresses that same kind of excitement in a working environment with equally adroit colleagues, Jasper Høiby (double bass) and Liam Noble (piano). “The sheer excitement one has as a child getting up in the morning and not being able to decide what to do first” is Lockheart’s parallel to the process of pooling their own, original compositions and the pleasure of developing and recording them in the studio; and whilst their perhaps African-sounding trio name is nothing more than a connecting of forenames, it clearly reinforces their unalloyed musical cohesion and friendship (first collaborating on Mark Lockheart’s impressive 2009 album In Deep).

What becomes fascinating across these 56 minutes is that each of the three players’ contributions are often stamped with their recognisable, individual characters, whilst also possessing an openness and eclecticism which continually delights. Malija’s realm is far away from a standards trio, and the element of surprise remains strong throughout, as does the group’s flawless musicality and invention… frequently flecked with coltish exuberance and tangible mischievousness.

Enter at any point in this 11-track release and there is soon the realisation of both depth and warmth in the unfolding artistry. The eccentric folksiness of Lockheart’s opener, Squared, might easily have its roots in Dave Brubeck’s Unsquare Dance as his signature full tenor voice weaves around jaunty piano and bass grooving, plus an ever-present tinge of the unexpected; and intricately-constructed Mr Wrack (after Noble’s technical drawing teacher) anarchically bursts into a Beach Boys-style piano riff, increasingly swelled by the Ligeti Quartet’s chattering grandeur and Lockheart’s wonderfully disorderly screeching. Jasper Høiby’s occasionally-tripped-up walking-5/4 Unknown is quietly cheerful, with a cross-pollination of phrases and subtle horn / bass clarinet layering underpinning flighty soprano sax, whilst The Pianist shunts and grunges to Noble’s bass fifths and bluesy ornamentation in tandem with brash, almost cackling tenor (and so deeply satisfying!).

Høiby’s bass harmonics (redolent of his Phronesis) and the added complexity of modal, out-of-body riffs from Noble and Lockheart’s soprano tee-up the pianist’s Wheels, happily jarring the senses before finding a more freewheeling clear road ahead; and the bassist’s shadowy title track Malija (with such a memorable, searching melody) seems to reference his work with Kairos 4tet – an exquisite, richly-tenored wellspring of beauty. Almost a Tango is typically Mark Lockheart, full of shifting dance rhythms, textures and moods (not unlike the writing on his acclaimed release Ellington in Anticipation), all three players seeming to wallow in its quirky splendour.

An echoic, slowly-oscillating piano-and-bass motif in Liam Noble’s miniature, Blues, melds superbly with breathy tenor (Polar Bear minus electronics?); then the saxophonist’s charming, breezy One For Us emerges like a beloved classic at the end of a set, and could easily invite a delicate vocal from Cleo Laine or Norma Winstone. Wayne’s World – Høiby’s tribute to Wayne Shorter, with his sinewy bass encircling the whole piece – gives free rein to Noble and Lockheart to improvise more abstractedly and, in the detail, still more deliciously, Then, closing anthemically yet mysteriously, and integrating the Ligeti’s strings, Mark Lockheart’s With One Voice feels imbued with the spirits of both Michael Tippett and Joe Zawinul, its poignancy filled once again with the tenorist’s unmistakable, luxurious tones.

Listening now, and in musical and emotional terms… this feels like I have everything.

Released on 27 November 2015 – available as CD, download and 12″ vinyl at Edition Records’ Bandcamp store.

 

Mark Lockheart saxophones, bass clarinet
Jasper Høiby double bass
Liam Noble piano
with
Ligeti Quartet (on Mr Wrack and With One Voice)

Edition Records – EDN1064 (2015)

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‘A Room Somewhere’ – Liam Noble

LiamNoble

LISTENING BACK through the CD collection of recent years, it’s the inquiring pianism of Liam Noble that provides an edge to recordings by the likes of Mark Lockheart, Julian Siegel, Alex Garnett and the delightfully anarchic Pigfoot.

As an educator, Noble no doubt inspires the same satisfying, left-field spirit of creativity in others, whilst his 2009 trio ‘take’ on Dave Brubeck’s work was hailed by the late, great man as “an inspiration and a challenge for me to carry on in the avenues that you have opened. I’ve never gone so far into the unknown as you three but I have opened the door and peeked in. Your CD is an invitation to enter.

Now, with his first solo release in 20 years, the pianist quite remarkably reveals his intentional avoidance of writing music for the two-day studio session. And whilst such ultimate freedom in improvisation might initially seem disconcerting, the recorded opportunity to re-visit these imaginings provides the intrigue (Noble likening his deconstructed interpretations of familiar tunes to slalom skiing: “Taking out all the poles, only a bare slope remains. So I leave some in, but try to surprise myself (and the listener) about where they are”).

It’s a fascinating course to traverse, the recognisable melody of Wouldn’t It Be Loverly (the ‘room somewhere’ from My Fair Lady) coming more clearly into view towards the finishing line, once Noble has freestyled obliquely. Through its sparseness and melancholy, Paul Simon’s Tenderness is easily discerned, though flecked with sumptuous, alternative chordal colour and sensitive rubato; and Noble’s bubbling solo piano variation of Directions is striking in its acoustic interpretation of Joe Zawinul’s electronic, early fusion abstractness. Classic There Is No Greater Love swaggers and swings brightly (imagine an animated and varied conversation between Ellington and Monk) – and here, as frequently throughout the album’s sequence, the urge to replay and catch new detail is compelling. Indeed, Thelonious Monk’s own Round Midnight hides amongst the shadows in Noble’s considered ruminations, demanding careful attention.

The memory of the late, great Kenny Wheeler is honoured in a bustling reading of Sophie (from Music for Large & Small Ensembles); and standard Body and Soul is the subject of perhaps the most impressionistic of all of the pianist’s concepts, initially far removed from any thoughts of Louis or Billie – yet it slowly and delicately unfurls to reveal its beauteous jazz hues. Six White Horses is a real ear-grabber, with Noble simulating so well the US Country feel of the galloping, banjo-accompanied original, especially through judicious internal muting of the piano strings.

And then there are Noble’s own creations – Major Minor, which rings to deep-end prepared piano and percussive, Ginastera-like flair; Now, whose chiming harmonics are a joy (with Debussian overdub melodic variation Now and Then); and I Wish Played Guitar, its magnificently disturbed undertow reflecting the title.

Quite what Sir Ed (and Lady Elgar) might think of the pianist’s closing “tinkering” with their engagement celebration piece, Salut d’Amour… well, I could probably guess! But, though it takes far more liberties than Ken Russell’s classic Monitor movie of the early ’60s, it does reveal a deep understanding of the salon favourite’s harmonic structure – and ‘Edu’ enjoyed a jape or two.

So, what of the macaw sharing the cover art spotlight? It’s Liam’s “accomplice” – a visual metaphor for the colourful unpredictability of it all. Mr Brubeck would surely recommend ‘peeking in and entering.’

Released on 25 May 2015 – on Basho Records – A Room Somewhere is available from JazzCDs and all good jazz outlets.

 

Liam Noble piano

liamnoble.co.uk

Basho Records – SRCD 48-2 (2015)

‘Andromeda’ – Alex Garnett’s Bunch of 5

AlexGarnett

HARD-BOPPING, full-swinging and with two solid tenors upfront, this new offering from Alex Garnett’s ‘Bunch of 5’ project packs mighty punch after punch!

Over the last couple of decades, Alex Garnett has been much in demand as sideman, session player, composer and arranger, and his excellent quartet album of 2011, Serpent (Whirlwind), marked his long-awaited solo debut. Now, with a stellar quintet which also features tenorist Tim Armacost (read Garnett’s entertaining liner notes on the beginnings of the saxmen’s acquaintance), the ‘bunch’ hit the heights with a rollicking, eight-track, hour-plus performance which pretty much shines as brightly as any live gig. Completing the line-up are Liam Noble (piano), Michael Janisch (bass) and James Maddren (drums).

The combination of the leader’s tone and delivery is every bit as commanding as Rollins or Getz, whether rocking widely or producing those gorgeously lush, reaching phrases – and the diversity and inventiveness of the strong Garnett/Armacost musical partnership here is compelling throughout. Most compositions are Garnett’s and express the skill of his writing which, as he describes, “reflect brief moments in a twenty-year passage of time through my musical life experience”.

Opener So Long!, a beautifully straight-down-the-line swinger inspired by an early ’90s Benny Golson concert, is infectious in its ‘old standard’ melody and simplicity. Following, the childlike interruptedness of Charlie’s World (Garnett explains all) is both endearing and fascinating, Noble’s mischievous, jarring pianism a delight as Janisch also ‘comes out to play’; and there are some sparkling individual improvs from both tenors. Buoyantly lyrical, title number Andromeda (after the galaxy) finds Garnett and Armacost intertwining so richly, Maddren’s muted snare and toms effecting a certain weightlessness – and listen out for the magical, nebulous aura of both Noble and Janisch.

A rip-roaring, pacier version of Garnett’s Delusions of Grandma (heard also on Robbie Harvey’s Blowin’ that Old Tin Can release) is a show-stealer, the two unison tenor lines remarkably staying together before breaking into extemporised abandon; with Garnett clucking grittily and Armacost flowing freely, they eventually duel it out unaccompanied – an absolute joy, especially with the added complex solo display of Maddren. An arrangement of the Burns/Mercer tune Early Autumn reflects the influence of Stan Getz on Garnett, and both saxophonists here do well to summon his spirit with their own warm, deeply-felt searchings; and, written for this quintet, Her Tears exudes an unswerving edge which its composer explains as ‘lovers growing apart’, reflected in the fascinatingly terse melodic and rhythmic conversations shared throughout the band.

Holmes (Inspector, no less), though devoid of fiddle, opens with a bright Mancini (Clouseau?) swagger, clearly enjoyed by the five – blithe yet propulsive, it swings with a great joint sax melody. And, to close, the band make a good fist of Garnett’s arrangement of Irving Berlin’s familiar I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm as it rattles along with exuberant, breathless and extended improvisation from all corners – and when the saxmen stand aside, the focus on Noble, Janisch and Maddren confirms both the intelligence and musicality of their performances throughout, including a dazzlingly high-flying piano solo (with the merest hint of Isley Brothers in its chordal conclusion!).

Releasing 26 January 2015, and currently being toured, Andromeda is weighty, fun, and available from Whirlwind Recordings. More information, promo video and purchasing here.

 

Alex Garnett tenor saxophone
Tim Armacost tenor saxophone
Liam Noble piano
Michael Janisch double bass
James Maddren drums

Whirlwind Recordings – WR4664 (2015)

’21st Century Acid Trad’ – Pigfoot

Pigfoot cover

THERE’S A REAL KICK to this debut album from Pigfoot. Not content with trotting out faithful, modest versions of 1920s and ’30s jazz standards, this acoustic ‘trad. quartet’ scratches at their familiar surface to explore – as the title hints – surprisingly gritty, off-the-wall interpretations of Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Sidney Bechet, and so on.

Founded in 2013, it turns out that Pigfoot’s anarchic line-up is an exciting who’s-who of contemporary jazz innovators – trumpeter (and founder member of Loose Tubes) Chris Batchelor; tubist Oren Marshall (to be found alongside Shabaka Hutchings in Sons of Kemet); that most influential and imaginative of pianists, Liam Noble; and drummer Paul Clarvis (find me a more expansive CV!).

It’s quite possible to imagine the odd incredulous snipe at their brash, seemingly-irreverent approach – perhaps whispers of ‘king’s new clothes’ or Bonzo Dog references (remember their wonderfully mocking late ’60s parody, Jazz (Delicious Hot, Disgusting Cold)?). But peel back the layers (see cover art), and there’s an unabashed and, I sense, affectionate desire to render these classic tunes in outlandish textures and colours to bring a freshness to them – and with that unexpectedness, they become increasingly absorbing. Indeed, I am now at the stage with this live recording – from London’s Vortex Jazz Club – that it’s difficult to eject it from the car CD player, such is the adroitness, humour and downright feel-good of these eight extended tracks.

Spencer Williams’ Basin Street Blues maintains its New Orleans origins, yet Liam Noble’s dissonant chords and Paul Clarvis’s deliberate, almost bumbling drum rhythms give it a fascinating edge. 12th Street Rag is positively outrageous with its haphazard tempi, although Oren Marshall’s steady, plodding tuba (plus a few liberties and a blustering solo) keeps some semblance of order, Chris Batchelor blasting melodies in various keys – perfect (or, happily, ‘imperfect’!). Fats Waller’s Jitterbug Waltz rattles along impetuously, the improvisations becoming more and more jaunty and extreme until, ultimately, triple time breaks helplessly and wonderfully into Wilson Pickett’s In the Midnight Hour. Tennessee Waltz eases the pace, Batchelor stating its deep southern spiritual tune which Noble then carries away to extemporise in typically jarred invention (it works so well against fluttering drums and drawling tuba).

Gospel pairing Just a Closer Walk with Thee and His Eye is on the Sparrow teases with a fairly straight rendition, Batchelor’s bright trumpet melody eventually signalling disorder which includes a belting, bluesy tuba solo – and Clarvis takes full advantage of the mayhem before the four conclude ‘repentantly’. Pigfoot clearly revel in the Duke Ellington favourite Mood Indigo, disassembling it with ease, but never straying completely from its familiarity; Batchelor’s impressive muted and spurting trumpet techniques are a key feature. And there’s more than a touch of mischief to Sidney Bechet’s tangoing Petite Fleur – but the experience of these guys is evident as they hold it together with various random acts of rebellion.

1920s standard Nobody Knows You When You’re Down is a closing show-stealer. Batchelor’s forlorn, inebriated trumpet (“Once I lived the life of a millionaire, spendin’ my money, I didn’t care”) sets up this beautifully bold ten-minute slow blues, the quartet presenting a typically audacious and stoic response to its original themes of prosperity fail. The conviction and, yes, humour in this performance (especially Oren Marshall’s tuba) provides a suitably profuse conclusion to these fifty entertaining minutes of ‘acid trad’.

Released on 31 March 2014, with the quartet touring in the Autumn, this is a rollickingly great experience to seek out – it certainly brings a smile to my face. In fact, I happily concur with Bessie Smith – ‘Gimme a Pigfoot (and a Bottle of Beer)’!


Chris Batchelor
trumpet
Oren Marshall tuba
Liam Noble piano
Paul Clarvis drums

Village Life – 131112VL (2014)

‘Ellington in Anticipation’ – Mark Lockheart

Image

EVERY NOW AND THEN, an album comes along which blows my jazz socks off – one of those I can’t help but play on loop and identify as being present in my ‘best of the year’ summations. It immediately demands my attention, sends me into rapture, produces involuntary smiles and requires me to tell the world about it! My most recent experience of this has to be Mark Lockheart’s ‘Ellington in Anticipation’.

Released earlier this year (2013), the project was initially conceived for Trinity Laban Conservatoire students. Inspired by Lockheart’s love of Ellington’s music (introduced to him by his father), it draws together pieces by or associated with ‘the Duke’ (including those of Billy Strayhorn and Victor Herbert) and intersperses them with a number of his own superb compositions. Knowing these jazz standards so well, Mark Lockheart clearly has the authority to (respectfully) deconstruct and reconstruct them into the most fascinating reinterpretations.

Lockheart’s credentials as saxophonist and writer need little introduction: Loose Tubes, Perfect Houseplants, Polar Bear and his own excellent albums such as ‘In Deep’ and (with NDR Big Band) ‘Days Like These’. Numerous recent ventures include Kenny Wheeler’s fine ‘Mirrors’ album, Colin Towns’ crossover band ‘Blue Touch Paper’ and Dave Stapleton’s new ‘Slowly Rolling Camera’ project. The remarkable, full-sounding septet able to realise the creative nature of this recording, with Lockheart on tenor, comprises Finn Peters (alto sax and flute), James Allsopp (clarinet and bass clarinet), Emma Smith (violin), Liam Noble (piano), Tom Herbert (bass) and Seb Rochford (drums).

So what is it that pushes this album onto a significantly higher plane? Well, put simply: great musicianship, reinvention, diversity, beauty, humour and the courage to push the limits in order to deliver something new and exciting. Far from being straightahead jazz, every one of these eleven gems is crafted and improvised in extraordinary detail by Lockheart and his musicians.

For example, the familiar swing of Ellington’s It Don’t Mean a Thing is deliciously transformed in triple time, whilst Come Sunday lays back perhaps even further than the sacred intent of the original, though also introducing a contemporarily-scored, slightly uneasy episode to great effect. Mark Lockheart’s composition My Caravan takes on the modal vamp concept of the popular original (‘Caravan’), allowing all players their improvisatory freedom, and only quoting Ellington’s distinctive melody towards the close. Jungle Lady is another piece of Lockheart brilliance, cleverly referencing Satin Doll. Defined by Seb Rochford’s percussion, the beautiful tone of Emma Smith’s violin and the richness of Allsopp’s bass clarinet, it displays some pretty tight ensemble scoring… including glorious elephantine calls!

A clever combination of Liam Noble’s piano with drums and reeds provide particularly vivid, fast-moving imagery in Lockheart’s interpretation of Billy Strayhorn’s classic Take the A Train (often incorrectly attributed to Ellington, being his ‘signature tune’). It’s an utter joy – and great fun – to hear snippets of the melody coming and going, as if trying to find a clear view beyond the motion blurring – and the reshaped riff is a lovely, quirky twist! Lockheart’s tenor journeys in and out of destinations, Allsopp detouring with mischievous bass clarinet, before finally easing to a halt.

And so the album continues, the playful violin of Azure and blithe modern rhythms of Mood Indigo never failing to charm. Lockheart provides two more sublime originals – a pensive Beautiful Man and the Roaring ’20s ‘flapping’ of Uptown with appropriate, elegant fiddle lead. Victor Herbert’s limpid Indian Summer closes – the held-back, teardrop piano of Noble so entrancing.

The language of jazz is constantly being reinvented and developed, thanks to the consummate skill of artists such as Mark Lockheart and his colleagues – which means that the best of its historical legacy is capable of being preserved, yet sensitively reimagined for the present age, as well as providing inspiration for new works. Here, Lockheart eloquently and spectacularly displays that achievement in an album I will return to again and again.


Mark Lockheart
tenor sax
Finn Peters alto sax and flute
James Allsopp clarinets
Emma Smith violin
Liam Noble piano
Tom Herbert bass
Seb Rochford drums

marklockheart.co.uk

Subtone Records – ST802 (2012)