‘Unit[e]’ – Alexander Hawkins (2CD)

Alexander Hawkins —Double CD Digipak-v1.3

BEHIND THAT intensely black, nondescript cover… well, perhaps even the initiated might only hazard a guess at the mercurial ninety minutes of original music presented in this double CD – Unit[e] – from Oxford-based pianist and composer Alexander Hawkins.

Previous albums such as Song Singular, Step Wide, Step Deep and Alexander Hawkins Trio have identified a distinctly explorative musician whose avant garde approach to jazz and improvisation is fed by many influences, suggesting the left-field vociferations of Ornette Coleman or Jamaaladeen Tacuma, and most certainly the classic, genteel swing of Duke Ellington (Hawkins describes The Duke as possibly the most basic element of his DNA). The recording is split into two sessions – the sextet of CD1, [C]ALL; the larger ensemble of CD2, HEAR[T] (personnel listed below) – and Hawkins refers to his use of square brackets in each piece’s title as an intentional ‘add or subtract a letter’ couplet device, for example: [W]here (‘here’ is one answer to ‘where’) and [S]how (‘show’ is one answer to ‘how’).

The seven tracks of [C]ALL find Hawkins’ piano in dialogue with violin, guitar, bass clarinet/tenor sax, double bass and drums – and an overarching reference to jazz tradition seems infused throughout, opening with For the People‘s perpetual, blustering, unison riff which invites Tom Skinner’s excited percussion and Shabaka Hutchings’ characteristic tenor squawks, as well as contrastingly mellow electric guitar lines from Otto Fischer. [C]all (parts 1 and 2) stomp proudly to an unusually beautiful, almost naive dance groove (in the right mood, a wonderfully cacophonous seven minutes to get into); and overlapping instrumental voices in [T]each ruminate freely to Hawkins’ sparky, leaping piano before eventually and quietly admitting defeat. The heritage jazz foundation of Hawkins’ work becomes more prominent in [K]now, where ‘MC’ Otto Fischer delivers his calmative, abstract narrative over an oblique lounge ensemble (the Ellington link accentuated by Hawkins’ delicious, semitonal chords). The fiddle and double bass of Dylan Bates and Neil Charles, in [W]here, introduce searching guitar and bass clarinet improvisations over angular piano and drums; and [S]how‘s relative spaciousness seems to beckon the listener inside, to join its subterranean roaming.

With Hawkins directing from the piano, HEAR[T]‘s thirteen-piece ensemble treads a freer, less structural path through five tracks which frequently groan and exclaim with a bewildering mesh of sounds. [Forge[t] is boisterous, irascible and anarchic, whilst the palpable trad swing of fifteen-minute-plus See[k] > Hear[t] includes splendid horn combinations and distressed flute, underpinned by Stephen Davis’ colourful percussion and enhanced by intriguing live electronics (a multifaceted experience worth staying with!). Idea[l]’s pandemonium recalls the cosmic, orchestral colour of David Bedford’s ‘Star’s End’; the awakening of [Sun[g] > Star[k] might summon Aaron Copland’s broad, restful landscapes (and its crescendoing trumpet-led progression perhaps akin to his ‘Rodeo’); and title track Unit[e]‘s nebulous instrumentation, carried on thinly-sustained strings, hints at dark-sky activity, complete with effusive, empyrean swing-band celebration.

Alexander Hawkins’ creativity may be challenging… but his jazz credentials and true, unfettered expression make it one hell of a ride!

Released on 7 July 2017, Unit[e] is available as a double CD from Discovery Records or digital download from Bandcamp.

 

CD1: [C]ALL
Dylan Bates
violin
Neil Charles double bass
Otto Fischer
guitar, voice
Alexander Hawkins
piano
Shabaka Hutchings bass clarinet, tenor saxophone
Tom Skinner drums

CD2: HEAR[T]
James Arben flute, tenor saxophone
Dylan Bates violin
Neil Charles double bass
Stephen Davis drums, percussion
Otto Fischer guitar
Alexander Hawkins piano, conductor
Laura Jurd trumpet
Julie Kjær flute, alto flute, alto saxophone, bass clarinet
Nick Malcolm trumpet, flugelhorn
Hannah Marshall cello
Percy Pursglove trumpet, double bass
Alex Ward clarinet
Matthew Wright live electronics

alexanderhawkinsmusic.com

Self-released – AH1002/3 (2017)

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‘Weather Warning’ – Kevin Figes Quartet / ‘Time Being’ – Kevin Figes Octet

WeatherWarning_TimeBeing

EUREKA! That moment when, after weeks of listening, an album (or two, in this case) smacks you between the ears and becomes your unputdownable ‘jam’! 

There’s an osmotic attraction to Kevin Figes’ music. It possesses remarkable creative breadth, taking in fusion, post-bop and contemporary abstraction… and gradually seeps into the consciousness until it won’t let go.

For these two simultaneously-released albums – Weather Warning (quartet, augmented) and Time Being (octet) – the saxophonist/flautist/composer assembles a fine collective of fellow Bristol-based musicians (listed in full, below); and characterised by addictive, rhythmically-energised horn riffs and Rhodes/Prophet textures, often blended with retro-tinged wordless vocals and occasional, wistful flute, Figes and colleagues paint shifting, vibrant canvases of ‘colorfield’ sound which become increasingly engaging.

Weather Warning‘s sparky title track hints at the joys to come, Jim Blomfield’s synth and Rhodes combining with Mark Whitlam’s outrageously offbeat rhythmic patterns to underpin the superb, sputtering duo of Figes and trumpeter Nick Malcolm. It somehow recalls the wonder of 12″ vinyl discoveries of the ’70s – that time of poring over luxurious gatefold album sleeves; yet Figes’ writing sparkles brightly in today’s musical landscape. There is so much to enthuse about here, from the swinging, melodic, double-sax immediacy of Empathy, and Birdsong‘s improvised vocal and instrumental chattering, to the sublime, often spacial beauty of Fall Apart; and alto/tenor/trumpet Horn Improvisation‘s invention compellingly bridges contemporary classical and jazz. Figes is a consummate saxophonist, his excursions both eloquent and endlessly imaginative; but his delicate mastery of the flute in quartet piece For Cathy is at least as effective as it charmingly weaves around piano ostinati and subtle bass and drums.

The octet project throws the vocal contributions of Emily Wright and Cathy Jones to the fore, album Time Being resounding to the fascinating, close harmonic meld of saxes and voices over a fervent, piano-driven rhythm section (there is certainly chemistry at work here, not least because Wright, Harris, Whitlam and Malcolm are all close collaborators in vocal/instrumental jazz outfit Moonlight Saving Time). Again, a title track with memorable licks, pressing momentum and rich solo improvisation is followed by changing panoramas: Pastoral Scenes is coloured gracefully by the adept, interlocking vocals of Wright and Jones (at times, redolent of Kenny Wheeler’s compositions), and the urgent electric piano and sax groove of The Point deliciously bounces to Will Harris’s electric bass. It’s all classy stuff, often with a rough-hewn streak and frequently on the edge of unpredictability – Petit Plaits, in particular, is a masterpiece of unbridled energy, maximising the density of the band line-up; and Loft Space‘s extended adventures certainly aren’t alone in bringing on the desire to witness this ensemble perform live.

Released on 10 April 2016, Weather Warning and Time Being are available directly from Pig Records. Recommending one above the other, though, is virtually impossible – both are British jazz gems, and have long stayed in the car CD player!

 

‘WEATHER WARNING’
Kevin Figes
 alto saxophone, flute
Jim Blomfield piano, Rhodes, Prophet 5
Will Harris bass
Mark Whitlam drums
with
Nick Malcolm trumpet (tracks 1, 6 and 7)
Nick Dover tenor saxophone (tracks 3, 5, 6 and 7)
Emily Wright vocals (tracks 3 and 6)
Cathy Jones vocals (tracks 3 and 6)

Pig Records – PIG:08 (2016)

 

‘TIME BEING’
Kevin Figes 
alto saxophone
Nick Dover
 tenor saxophone
Emily Wright
 vocals
Cathy Jones
 vocals
Jim Blomfield
 piano
Will Harris
 bass
Mark Whitlam
 drums
Lloyd Haines
 drums

Pig Records – PIG:07 (2016)

 

kevinfiges.co.uk

‘Meeting at Night’ – Moonlight Saving Time

MST_300

THE HIGH TINGLE FACTOR created by a significant arrival on the British contemporary jazz scene is always rather special… and very much the case with Bristol-based Moonlight Saving Time.

Taking their name from a quaint 1930s love song favoured by American jazz vocalist/pianist Blossom Dearie, this quintet first demanded my attention a couple of years ago at Manchester Jazz Festival. As they launched into their opening number, from an early five-track EP, there was the sense of a defining moment as the charismatic presence of singer Emily Wright illuminated front-of-stage with her particularly expressive, silken storytelling. Yet this is only part of the story, for MST’s distinction is its ability to combine Wright’s eloquence with a seriously creative team of improvising instrumentalists – trumpeter Nick Malcolm, pianist Dale Hambridge, double bassist Will Harris and drummer Mark Whitlam.

Consequently, debut album Meeting at Night rejoices in an elegant synthesis of memorably original song, fine arrangement and crackling jazz extemporisation – a varietal, near-50-minute sequence which balances emotive atmospheres with sprightly charm. Frequently, the impression is of a gradual unfolding, with musical delights around each corner (rather than gleaning all there is to know inside the first minute), which surely is key to the band’s compelling performance here.

The elegantly flowing, layered vocals of Emily Wright are revealed in bassist Will Harris’s opener Clouds, as it rolls and tumbles to snappy rhythms, bright piano runs and peppy trumpet lines, bringing the swift realisation of a new sound world. Title track Meeting at Night (the words of Robert Browning set to music by Wright and Harris) possesses a delicious vocal and instrumental unpredictability, with Emily Wright’s clear annunciation and theatrical delivery reminiscent of Cleo Laine or Annie Ross; and saxophonist Jason Yarde guests alongside trumpeter Nick Malcolm to infuse the number with improvisational high jinx.

Lush harmonies in Will Harris’s brief Trio introduces the gorgeously lilting Silence is Here – again co-written by Harris and Wright, it shimmers to the purity of that unmistakable voice and the band’s dynamic ebb and flow, including effective multi-layered trumpet textures. One of the album’s surprises is pianist Dale Hambridge’s arrangement of great British composer John Ireland’s Sea Fever which, removed from its original baritone voice setting and offered to Emily Wright, retains all of its strong, evocative yearning. And following, Hambridge’s own Desire for Nothing Known dreamily waltzes to memorable vocal harmonisations and the pianist’s elegant elaborations, Mark Whitlam’s sparky percussion driving it on into greater complexity (and quite unlike anything on the current jazz scene).

Jason Yarde features again in Nick Malcolm’s Views (a sumptuous development of a track from his own album Beyond These Voices), which floats to typically imaginative alto sax; and the tight, wordless vocals of Emily Wright, particularly when fused into sax and trumpet, become redolent of Norma Winstone’s earlier work with Kenny Wheeler. A Calvin Harris song – I’m Not Alone – is pure magic in MST’s hands; with an initial vocal folksiness (accompanied by Will Harris’s gently chordal and percussive accompaniment), it dissolves into the most ravishing, memorable ballad, mirroring the album art’s coastal longing – and thanks to Malcolm’s inventive trumpet, underpinned by Dan Moore’s Hammond and the drum precision of Mark Whitlam, it never descends into mawkishness. From My Window (courtesy of another current songwriting talent, Jamie Doe) shuffles to echoic vocals and Hambridge’s electric piano, embellished by the trumpet’s curious seagull cries; and from the pen of Emily Wright, closing track Arthur’s Dance possesses a sense of joyous journeying, its breeziness suggesting radio-play potential.

A fine recording from a band with a great future, from both compositional and performance perspectives, Meeting at Night is already (in this final quarter of the year) prompting thoughts of the year’s best album releases. Released on 2 October 2015, it’s available in CD and digital formats from Bandcamp, as well as from online retailers and record stores.

 

Emily Wright vocals
Nick Malcolm trumpet
Dale Hambridge piano
Will Harris double bass
Mark Whitlam drums
with
Jason Yarde alto sax
Dan Moore Hammond organ

moonlightsavingtime.co.uk

MSTCD002 (2015)

‘Beyond These Voices’ – Nick Malcolm Quartet

NickMalcolm

BRIMMING with intelligent and zesty exploration, this second release from the Nick Malcolm Quartet (plus guest Corey Mwamba) charts a truly absorbing path ‘twixt the written and the free, between rhythmic intensity and spacial tranquillity, sparking and igniting the deep creativity of the varied individual characters within a remarkable jazz blend. 

Trumpeter and composer Nick Malcolm clearly has an eclectic musical persona, as well as a multi-faceted style, often found belting out riffs (along with drummer Mark Whitlam, also of this quartet) between the dusky, enigmatic vocals of Emily Wright’s song-based Moonlight Saving Time. Put into this particular mix experimental jazz pianist Alexander Hawkins (whose solo and ensemble album releases created ripples of excitement earlier this year) plus the inspired, improvisatory bass playing of Olie Brice… and the result is a sophisticated quartet/quintet team capable of a satisfyingly original collaborative output. Beyond These Voices follows the band’s 2012 début, Glimmers, and explores, intentionally and quite beautifully, an equal appreciation of sound and silence (which Malcolm describes as “the essential paradox of music”).

Take, for example, Grimes, an eight-minute improvisation which opens with brash and brassy intent, Malcolm bouncing off Whitlam’s wide-open drums before the steadying undercurrent of Hawkins’ lush, deep chords and Brice’s bass enter, only to develop more strongly. The contrast between the two forms is marked, yet the whole combined concept is realised perfectly. And then the ‘silence’ – the most limpid and emotionally-charged high piano extemporisation, with space taking equal importance, plus an affirming, sustained bass. There’s Lead In Their Pencils is great fun – a kind of dissonant Ellington boogie in which Malcolm blasts and neighs his way through the pulsating, rhythmic chaos, Corey Mwamba’s sparky, hard vibes adding vivid colour.

Views takes a gentler back seat, although this is no straight-laced ballad. Malcolm’s tone is lazily mellow, peppered with the occasional flutter, and the precise vibraphone playing of Mwamba is a joy. The shuffling momentum of A Very Blusterous Day, upheld magnificently by Whitlam and Brice, offers a broad canvas for the written and improvised thoughts of Malcolm and Hawkins, with Mwamba offering again his distinctive approach to vibes, eddying and gyrating (like a supercharged Pierre Moerlen) to the shimmerings of Hawkins’ piano – and an orchestral, Brittenesque trumpet flourish to close. It’s Alright, We’re Going to the Zoo is a cheeky, smouldering, fizzing affair, Malcolm improvising freely and brightly against Brice’s bass bounce; Sidereal (the album opener) develops and opens out to display more of that spontaneous quartet interaction, whilst the the two free improvisations that punctuate the programme further reveal their insightful and creative abilities.

To close, something quite affecting… Where, Beyond These Voices, There is Peace. Prompted by Alexander Hawkins’ quiet then increasingly anguished piano chords, the trumpet of Nick Malcolm chatters and squawks to the bowed scratchings of Brice and tempered percussion of Whitlam. And, for a final magical minute, Hawkins almost completely suspends animation with characteristic piano weightlessness.

If you’re searching for new experiences, and the fascination of free-yet-accessible improvisation, Beyond These Voices demonstrates the heights that British jazz is currently achieving – and this is certainly a ‘grower’ of an album. Most impressive.

 

Nick Malcolm trumpet
Alexander Hawkins piano
Olie Brice double bass
Mark Whitlam drums

Guest
Corey Mwamba vibraphone

nickmalcolm.co.uk

Green Eyes Records – GE15 (2104)