‘Anatta’ – Alex Merritt Quartet


Anatta

SOMETIMES it just clicks. That sit-up-and-listen first connection with intelligently-conceived music and performance, prompting a compulsion to become involved and stay with it.

Taking its title from a Buddhist principle which, indeed, references ‘a state of no self, where we are fully immersed in our experience of the present moment’, Anatta is the debut release of young tenor saxophonist Alex Merritt and his fine quartet: pianist John Turville, double bassist Sam Lasserson and distinguished US drummer Jeff Williams. With the majority of the album’s eight compositions coming from Merritt’s pen (plus interpretations of Thelonious Monk and Eubie Blake), the tenorist’s lead exudes both maturity and confidence in an hour-plus outing which brims with exploration and reinvention.

Formed some six years ago, and encouraged by Jeff Williams whilst Alex Merritt was still studying at Birmingham Conservatoire, quartet and leader seek a fascinating duality in their approach – the concept of modelling new work based on the standard chord progressions of existing material (such as Merritt’s originals here based on Jule Styne’s Just in Time and John Coltrane’s Satellite), thereby reflecting the aim of ‘observing the elegance of life’s change’.

Merritt’s warm, dry, Getzian fluency (which, at higher range, even finds refractions of Paul Desmond) is a joy, whether intertwining with Turville’s mysterious, unpredictable chordal shifts in the title track or bubbling with controlled fervour in one of the aforementioned reinterpretations… cringingly-titled Justin Time-berlake (perhaps there’s a back-story!). In fact, for a saxman who rarely screeches or wails, such restrained eloquence shines prominently. For example, in swingin’ For Peter Schat (that Coltrane reworking), his mellifluous, elongated phrases set up a ‘pied piper’ kind of magnetism, with a constant stream of fresh improv ideas that don’t need any invitation to follow; and his band’s freer, nine-minute excursion through Pannonica beautifully echoes Monk’s famously capricious, angular approach.

The integration here is key and, throughout, feels like a sound this quartet has taken time to hone, driven along by Jeff Williams’ recognisable percussive solidity as well as Sam Lasserson’s double bass which, even amongst the sublime placidity of For Henri Dutilleux and Blake’s Memories of You, becomes majestic. Thelonious favourite Ugly Beauty is delightfully luxurious in this arrangement, especially when Merritt goes deep; and lively Conn Artist (other brands are available) cements his prowess as a composer with a promising future.

This feels like just the beginning… and what a beginning.

Released on the F-IRE label, Anatta is available from Propermusic, Amazon and iTunes.

 

Alex Merritt tenor sax
John Turville piano
Sam Lasserson double bass
Jeff Williams drums

alexmerritt.com

F-IRE presents – F-IRECD 86 (2015)

‘First Light’ – Andrew McCormack

FirstLight

‘MODERN CLASSIC’ is the recurring impression, each time I listen to this latest piano trio release, First Light, from Englishman in New York, Andrew McCormack.

The trajectory of McCormack’s jazz career has been fascinating to monitor since his 2007 debut album, Telescope, through to the more recent digital-only Live in London of 2012. In between, his musical partnership with saxophonist Jason Yarde (in two impressive duo recordings, as well as captivating live performances), revealed much about his personality and musical drive – and a relocation across the Atlantic to immerse himself in the American jazz scene has now, excitingly, increased his compositional/improvisational creativity and technical accomplishment to the heights that are to be discovered here.

Along with NYC rhythm section Zack Lober (bass) and Colin Stranahan (drums), the pianist delivers a precise set of eight contrasting originals, plus a closing interpretation of Thelonious Monk – and, pleasingly, the overarching feel is one of an intelligent and inventive trio at ease with their connective artistry, which makes for the most heartwarming chamber jazz experience.

Bustling Prospect Park launches the album, perhaps suggesting the freedoms of Brooklyn’s urban oasis, McCormack’s morning-light piano seemingly dancing and cascading in the sun. The brisk, jaunty bass and drum tempo is particularly finely weighted, neither of the three players overshadowing the other, which enhances the sense of openness – and it’s a joy to experience McCormack’s exquisite keyboard touch throughout. Gotham Soul probes and twists to McCormack’s misterioso opening left-hand motif, gradually building in intensity but then pulling back to reveal a delicate double bass extemporisation against the combined subtlety of piano and drums – the communication lines here are most definitely clear, as the pianist closes with contrapuntal finesse. There’s a certain Monkish impudence and unpredictability to Leap of Faith, the trio’s jabbing punches transforming into McCormack’s effortless, melodic rolling across the keys to Lober’s steady, city-walking bass and Stranahan’s drumming intricacy.

Title track First Light summons the cerebral sound world of Bill Evans, such is the measured lucidity of all three musicians – but, specifically, it’s the incredible detailing of Andrew McCormack, from held-back droplet melodies, through rapid high runs and chordal saturation, and then back to final, sustained simplicity which vividly paints that very first, quiet glimpse of daybreak. Lober’s opening chromatic bass edginess in Reluctant Gift contrasts well, eventually breaking into more confident ground until the whole trio flies at impressive speed, inviting a hard-hitting show from Colin Stranahan until its unexpected… STOP! Reflecting the cityscape impressions of the cover art, Vista quietly patters through shifting major/minors, building and fading as if to emulate the changing patterns of a day in the US capital, pitching tranquillity against the heavy hydraulic hiss of sprawling traffic.

The River is more improvisatory in feel, ebbing and flowing to individual creative thoughts and a great combined bass and piano bass pulse, yet always cohesive. Its tense, jarring motifs are quite different to the earlier, reflective numbers; and elaborated live possibilities – hinted at by Stranahan’s colourful percussion – can easily be imagined. A brief interlude, Faith Remembered, recalls themes from the earlier Leap of Faith, expertly reinterpreting them into a pensive, perhaps melancholy, late-night piano solo. And then, to close, Thelonious Monk’s Pannonica, McCormack and his trio exchanging the writer’s trademark piano ‘clumsiness’ for a suitably bright’n’breezy evening walk in the park – full circle: first light to twilight.

Released on 7 July 2014 by increasingly successful British label Edition Records – superbly recorded/produced and packaged – First Light is available in digital and CD formats from their Bandcamp store. Certainly the mark of a consummate pianist/composer with a maturing, distinctive voice… and an album to treasure.

 

Andrew McCormack piano
Zack Lober double bass
Colin Stranahan drums

Edition Records – EDN1052 (2014)