‘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

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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)