‘Self-Identity’ – Ollie Howell

Self-Identity

THE SLEEVE of a seminal early-1970s 12″ vinyl jested that its contents could not ‘be played on old tin boxes, no matter what they are fitted with’ – maybe a prophetic warning to a quick-grab, smartphone-to-the-ear generation to come. But such wisdom was recalled when soaking up this second release, as leader, from British drummer and composer Ollie Howell.   

Self-Identity follows 2013 debut album Sutures and Stitches, and the intervening years have seen Howell’s career flourish, with the great Quincy Jones’ “360-degree beautiful young cat” compliment leading to him selecting the drummer for the opening residency, this year, at his Q’s jazz club in the luxurious Palazzo Versace Dubai.

Expanded to a sextet, with the addition of guitarist Ant Law, this line-up is completed by tenor saxophonist Duncan Eagles, trumpeter Henry Spencer, pianist Matt Robinson, double bassist Max Luthert; and ‘old tin boxes’ are definitely out, because what is striking – both about Howell’s arrangements and this Real World Studios recording – is the rhythmic sonority which he, Robinson and Luthert achieve. So, spanning some seventy minutes, the consistent appeal of these twelve original numbers is not so much the tuneful hook, but rather the slickness of the groove and the ensemble’s overarching synergy which provides fertile ground for confident, melodic soloing – and an especially tight link-up between tenor and trumpet.

Syncopated, leaping figures in Shadows typify the approach as unison piano bass and double bass riffs are driven by Howell’s exacting, versicoloured lead; and the album’s pervading optimism is continued with the bright sax-and-trumpet lines of Resurge. Echoic electronics play their part, too, transitorily segueing the usual broadness of the writing, as well as enhancing the ‘timeslip’ intro to ruminative, brushed Almost TomorrowRise and Fall‘s central vibrancy rocks to Eagles’ deep tenor improv and Law’s fretboard agility, whilst the rhythmic prominence of pianist Matt Robinson in Moving On and Knew is impressive.

Howell’s compositions are roomy, so not only do their ‘passing clouds’ of ideas have the effect of shedding fluctuating light on their progression, they also encourage freedom of individual expression. Balancing Stones‘ dynamic range illustrates this well (including delicate timbres from the leader’s kit), as does The Unknown with its dual-horn assertiveness; and Coming Home‘s subtle, opening blend of folk/hymn tune and Balkan-imbued percussion provides the springboard for breezy, closing showcases from Howell’s players.

Eschew the tinny headphones or portable speakers… and find a way to bask in the rewarding ‘hi fidelity’ of Self-Identity.

Released on 14 April 2017 and available as CD or digital download from Bandcamp, and at iTunes.

 

Ollie Howell drums, electronics, compositions
Duncan Eagles tenor saxophone
Henry Spencer trumpet
Ant Law electric guitar
Matt Robinson piano, Rhodes, electronics
Max Luthert double bass

ollie howell.com

Ropeadope (2017)

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‘Burn the Boat’ – Fini Bearman

Fini

“ABANDON THE SHIP, embrace the water, take a leap of faith… don’t think of what could stop you.”

Such a challenge should resonate with all truly creative musicians. And if you ever ruminated on whether the songwriter’s art had mostly degenerated into a three-chord trick – with a middle eight, if you’re lucky – then vocalist and composer/lyricist Fini Bearman traverses vast, colourful oceans to dispel those notions (see what I did there?). 2014’s album of new interpretations from George Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess is an especially captivating listen; but now, with Burn the Boat, Bearman presents a collection of mostly self-penned songs, three of which are crafted upon the works of American/Portuguese poets.

The point of difference in Fini Bearman’s melodic, contemporary/folk artistry is that its basis is in contemporary jazz – and from that genre’s sea of accomplished instrumentalists, you could hardly wish for finer collaborators than Matt Robinson (keys), Nick Costley-White (guitar), Conor Chaplin (bass) and Dave Hamblett (drums). Here is a writer who not only vividly communicates her own thoughts and others’, but also wraps the sung words in shifting waves of colour and texture, combining crashing breakers with coruscating pools of heart-on-sleeve emotion. Recorded at residential Giant Wafer Studios, tucked away in rural Mid Wales, there’s a tangible sense of conviviality emanating from these fifty minutes – and familiarity with these nine originals only heightens the attraction.

Sand on Sand‘s airy, exuberant invitation to “Step out of the darkness… and into the light” is layered with vocals as piano, guitar and synth washes perpetuate its positive spirit – and alongside the bubbling, commercial appeal, it is crowned with lush instrumental finesse. Title track Burn the Boat‘s scratchy guitar-rock ascension (Costley-White’s electronics so ‘on it’ here) enhances the suppleness of Bearman’s emphatic delivery as Robinson’s synth lines soar overhead, whilst the catchy, poetic lines of Gone, co-written by Tommy Antonio – “Fell asleep with my clothes on, screensaver waving ’til dawn” – are musically ’70s-reminiscent of Daryl Dragon and Toni Tennille; and, again, it’s difficult to emphasise enough the incisive jazz invention.

Deeply-felt You Bring the Sunlight focuses on the strong bonds of relationship (“I’d rather have nothing at all”), the folksy, guitar- and piano-accompanied gracefulness suggesting a touch of ‘talkin’ at me’ Harry Nilsson; and Bearman’s playful miniature I Know, I Alone (based on Richard Zenith’s translation of Fernando Pessoa’s short poem) is carried by Dave Hamblett’s colourful percussive display. Maybe Next Year‘s reluctant acceptance is portrayed through an imaginative, undulating arrangement enhanced by the improvisatory clarity of Robinson and Costley-White, whilst Langton Hughes’ poem The Idea inspires a purposeful touch of soundtrack, or even musical theatre – much of that due to Bearman’s characteristic, acute sense of expression and storytelling.

Say the Words is an album standout to put on loop – buoyed by Conor Chaplin’s aqueous yet mobile electric bass and Matt Robinson’s Latinesque piano highlights, this exquisite, soulful, shuffling groove is so evocative of Stevie Wonder that a vocal duet with Fini is imaginable! Such a Fool closes the album, bathing E E Cummings’ poetry in watercolour atmospherics before its animated conclusion – and he couldn’t have foretold it better: “May my heart always be open to little birds who are the secrets of living.”

Released on Two Rivers Records, Burn the Boat is a ‘must hear’, available as CD or digital download at Bandcamp.

 

Fini Bearman voice, composition
Matt Robinson piano, Rhodes, synths
Nick Costley-White guitar
Conor Chaplin bass
Dave Hamblett drums

Album art by Fini Bearman

finibearman.com

Two Rivers Records – TRR-015 (2016)

‘Flying Machines’ – Flying Machines

FlyingMachines_digital assets

A NEAT SYNTHESIS of pioneering inspiration, elegant sleeve art and exhilarating original music ties together Flying Machines’ eponymous debut album – a jazz-rock experience founded on imaginative, soaring electric guitar expression and energized, synth-sizzling grooves. 

With crew of piano/keyboardist Matt Robinson, bassist Conor Chaplin and drummer Dave Hamblett, guitarist/composer Alex Munk’s inspirited artistic approach is fired by the legacy and memory of his father, Roger Munk, whose tireless, award-winning vision for the advancement of British airship technology resulted in this year’s maiden voyage of the world’s longest aircraft – hybrid vehicle Airlander 10.

Indeed, there is undoubtedly a sense of gliding freedom and adventure as these nine, aeronautically-themed tracks take to the skies, as if the guitarist’s overarching brief to the band is to ascend towards spatial euphoria. So although opening number Tracks ripples to incisively picked guitar, deftly chromatic piano and tricksy, propulsive rhythms, it then levels out into an above-cloud state of tranquillity, with Munk’s clean, sustained melodies basking in endless sunlight; and the busyness of Bliss Out also has wide-openness at its heart, Robinson’s anthemic piano octaves floating over Hamblett’s snare drum propulsion, giving rise to gutsy guitar improvisation.

Munk’s citation of Pat Metheny and Mike Walker as influences can be heard in dreamy As Long As It Lasts. Rapid, anticipatory synth patterns in Emotional Math Metal bubble underneath crashing rock chords and breathless, extended, bass-driven riffs (yet there are always moments of serenity for taking in the view); and the guitarist’s solo piece, First Breath, possesses a Tracy Chapman song-like simplicity which almost implies a lyrical vocal line, as well as a redolence of Steve Howe or Steve Hackett prog interlude.

This quartet coalesces superbly across these differently-hued episodes, the buoyant electric bass and Rhodes funk of Lighter Than Air perhaps suggesting Snarky Puppy or, again, Metheny; and Peace Offering‘s initial weightlessness hits some splendidly turbulent dynamic and rhythmic fluctuations, all so exactingly co-ordinated. Stratosphere‘s crunchy, pop/rock solidity treads somewhere between Blue Oyster Cult and Genesis; and post-flight A Long Walk Home (with Chaplin’s switch to double bass and Robinson’s acciaccatura piano inflections emphasising this more rustic, acoustic amble) views the afterglow with an exquisite, thankful reverence.

Technically and emotionally thrilling, Flying Machines’ own inaugural flight is ‘up there’ with the best. Released on 14 October 2016, it’s available as CD or digital download from Bandcamp.

 

Alex Munk guitars, compositions
Matt Robinson piano, synths, Fender Rhodes
Conor Chaplin electric bass, double bass
Dave Hamblett drums

flyingmachinesband.com

Sleeve art by Oli Bentley at split.co.uk

Pictor Records – 001 (2016)

‘Orbital’ – Max Luthert

MaxLuthert

AN INCANDESCENT elegance pervades this debut release from bassist Max Luthert – a sumptuous and mature sextet recording, richly coloured and layered by the creative possibilities this particular collaboration engenders.

Very much a respected player on the London jazz scene, Luthert is joined by Gareth Lockrane (flutes), Duncan Eagles (tenor sax), Séb Pipe (alto sax), Matt Robinson (piano) and Dave Hamblett (drums), who warmly bring to life these nine original compositions in which the leader has challenged himself to write for larger ensemble. The flute and dual sax combination achieves strikingly effective textures as mellifluent unison lines splay into opulent, three-way harmonic expressions, whilst also providing the freedom to extemporise individually – and, with an overarching sense of joie de vivre, this ‘little big band’ has much to say.

Title track Orbital perfectly illustrates the strengths of the collective with an ebullience which crackles to snappy, tricksy rhythms through which Duncan Eagles’ deeply-toned tenor both breezes and luxuriates. The mood swings in this are delicious, as is the crispness of the interaction, due in no small part to Dave Hamblett’s typically incisive though equally flamboyant drumming. Cloud on Cloud is characterised by flautist Gareth Lockrane’s mellow, slurred phrasing both floating above and melding with alto and tenor to create a luscious, dreamy ballad; and the subtly-infused Indian flavour of Assam‘s melodies and arrangements dissolve to afford space to Luthert’s distinctively-resonant bass soloing and the tabla-like hollowness of Hamblett’s carefully-weighted rhythms.

Grand Designs ripples to the complexity of shared and overlaid improvised woodwind phrases, Matt Robinson enhancing Luthert’s authoritative momentum with sparkling piano runs. In contrast, the most delightfully spacial Quiet December features the haunting tenor soloing of Eagles and the eloquent, gossamer fragility of Luthert’s imaginings (each attuned to the other, due to their close association in trio Partikel); and ascending tenor motifs bring an initial perky briskness to The Edgewall, its later, edgy sections finding Luthert’s mobile bass leaning more towards a Dave Holland sound world.

Full-bodied and swirling to a wonderfully tenacious bass and drums swing, Banrock Station is brightly illuminated by Lockrane’s high agility and Matt Robinson’s pianistic deftness; again, the close-knit ensemble work of Lockrane, Eagles and Séb Pipe shine out to provide that full, almost ’60s-style ambience – a definite stand-out. The broader landscape of Pacific Before Tiger features open, extensive soloing from Pipe, whilst the jaunty airiness of closing number Metro Moodie, with its tom-tempered percussion, includes Gareth Lockrane’s irresistible velvety-cum-gravelly bass flute register.

The majority of this session might well comfortably sit in the background at a dinner party, such is its unabashed equanimity – but, boy, how it lives and breathes when turned up loud and given the opportunity to fill a room! Released on 27 October 2014, information and audio samples can be found on the dedicated Orbital page of Whirlwind’s website.

 

Max Luthert double bass
Gareth Lockrane flutes
Duncan Eagles tenor saxophone
Séb Pipe alto saxophone
Matt Robinson piano
Dave Hamblett drums

2015 UK live dates:
18 January: Ashburton Jazz Club
19 January: North Devon Jazz Club, Appledore
21 January: Dempsey’s, Cardiff
22 January: SoundCellar, Poole
23 January: Sheffield Jazz Club

Album artwork by Alban Low

maxluthert.co.uk

Whirlwind Recordings – WR4659 (2014)

‘Sutures and Stitches’ – Ollie Howell

OllieHowell_Sutures

WHEN A DEBUT ALBUM sounds this good (correction: this spectacular), you simply cannot ignore it! Relatively new to British and international jazz audiences, drummer and composer Ollie Howell’s first release comes as something of a revelation.

The initially curious title, ‘Sutures and Stitches’, soon becomes clear as Howell openly shares his recent history of numerous neurosurgeries and, importantly, his determination to take the positive from these experiences and channel them musically. Indeed, this collection of self-penned post-bop originals (plus an arrangement of Dear Old Stockholm) is a remarkably confident and mature first release, boasting a strong personnel: Mark Perry (trumpet), Duncan Eagles (tenor sax), Max Luthert (double bass) and Matt Robinson (piano). With endorsements from renowned drummer Jimmy Cobb (“He’s loaded with talent!”) and music legend Quincy Jones (describing Howell as “an unbelievable drummer. So creative I couldn’t believe it. This kid is a 360-degree beautiful young cat that I believe has what it takes to make a life out of music.”), this is surely a great curtain-raiser to a glittering career to come.

Later On opens the album with aplomb, Howell instantly displaying his crisp and direct attention to compositional and drumming detail, Robinson hitting the advance button for Perry and Eagles to take flight with characteristic shared brilliance. There’s a cordial spirit to the lively Beyond, its opening unison melody feeling welcomingly familiar, soon stepping up a gear for a terrific tenor solo, Robinson’s accomplished piano then driving on and on to a cross-rhythmical hand-clap/percussion conclusion.

Short solo intros from each band member precede five of the tracks – not mere fillers, but concise lead-ins to the pieces which follow, beginning with Howell himself on rapid, perfectly-tuned toms, ahead of So Close, So Far. With its finely-balanced sound, and possible imaginings of a big band arrangement, Perry’s assured flutter-tongueing blazes high above the tight ensemble accompaniment. Lively miniature, Angry Skies, leads to Perry’s melancholy trumpet intro to 19th Day, a wistful tune beautifully carried by Eagles’ rich tenor, partnering with Perry to great effect. At almost nine minutes, A World Apart is a great centrepiece to showcase the raw, combined talent of this quintet – Howell skilfully directs the band to reach for that higher rhythmic, melodic and improvisational plane… result: success!

Max Luthert’s sonorous bass intro to For Anya is a worthy preamble to its delicate bass- and piano-led dedication. They finds Ollie Howell on fine form, bringing shape to Perry’s and Eagles’ searching solos, Luthert again with a lyrical bass addition. Eagles’ brief sax intro takes us into the gorgeously introspective Two Sides, tenor and piano creating between them such an appealing dialogue. Traditional tune Dear Old Stockholm receives a feisty arrangement, all players pushing at its animated energy. Howell’s drum display is so dynamic, so exact, whilst Robinson and Luthert perpetuate the heady groove. Finally, a particularly limpid piano intro leads to A Hollow Victory, Eagles’ and Perry’s unanimous melody giving way to their own thoughtful solos – a gentler, considered finale to a superbly creative and rounded album.

Released by Whirlwind on 23 September 2013, Howell is touring ‘Sutures and Stitches’ until 3 December – and one can imagine (or, better still, experience) live pyrotechnics of the highest order! Details and samples here.


Ollie Howell
drums/compositions  olliehowell.com
Mark Perry trumpet  markperrymusic.com
Duncan Eagles tenor saxophone  duncaneagles.com
Max Luthert double bass  maxluthertcouk
Matt Robinson piano  mattrobinsonmusic.com

Sleeve design and illustration by Alban Low  artofjazz.blogspot.co.uk

Whirlwind Recordings – WR4636 (2013)

‘Between Shadows’ – Reuben Fowler

BetweenShadows

FROM THE very first horns entry, this debut album from Kenny Wheeler Prize-winning trumpeter/composer Reuben Fowler announces its clear intent – contemporary big band artistry of significant stature!

Only a short time since graduation from the Royal Academy of Music, and just a handful of years from picking up his instrument as a teenager, Fowler has mustered an incredible line-up of musicians to play out the creativity that seemingly gushes from his passion for this field of jazz! The personnel is on outstanding form, boasting such names as Stan Sulzmann, Jim Hart, Tom Harrell, George Crowley, with Dave Hamblett (drums) and Matt Robinson (piano and Rhodes).

Opening number ‘Too Minor’ (written by the late Richard Turner) is an absolute tour de force, brimming with confidence and impetus, building in energy and complexity as it progresses. The mellow ‘Holness’, with George Crowley leading both smoothly and lithely on clarinet, is introduced with tight brass harmonies which then extend out into lush scoring for the whole band. Indeed, the writing is exceptional throughout this album – accessible, yet overflowing with ideas which twist and turn away from the conventional (not unlike Dave Holland’s large-scale projects).

‘Dundry (for JGB)’, written for alto sax soloist James Gardiner-Bateman and referencing his south-of-Bristol residence, presents a ten-minute groove-driven stand-out track, with Hart’s vibes and Alex Munk’s guitar suggesting a landscape more Manhattan than Somerset (Fowler & Hutch, maybe?!), complete with brassy crescendos. It just pulls you under its spell, with Tom Harrell’s flugelhorn the perfect Hubbard-like lead, and Gardiner-Bateman providing a wonderfully jarring sax line – magnificent right through to its TV theme tune close!

The five-part suite ‘Between Shadows’ neatly incorporates an exquisite arrangement of ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’, the tempo eventually changing up a gear to showcase ravishing improvisations including that of trombonist, Robbie Harvey, backed by Jim Hart. Voices add another dimension to ‘The Lost’ and ‘The Lost and the Found’ (gorgeous tone from Brigitte Beraha), with Stan Sulzmann embellishing brightly on soprano – and Fowler plays flugel so assuredly and sensitively beyond his years. Tenor player Joe Wright features on ‘Ending’, drawing this generous release (recorded in just two days) to a close.

We are told that the pieces in the suite ‘Between Shadows’ are a response to poetry which suggests ‘something special, to cherish’. That is certainly the case here, and Reuben Fowler deserves all the accolades that are sure to come his way – firstly, for his compositional maturity, and then for the achievement of masterminding such an accomplished and illustrious group of musicians to breathe life into his music.

As is the Edition Records way, the production is crystal clear, capturing the detail from the full range of dynamics to present this big band in all its glory. A real winner of an album, which is launched at The Forge, London, 25 July 2013.

Edition Records – EDN1042 (2013)