‘Trio’ – Felix Jay (3CD)

FOLLOWING the singular creative path of Felix Jay has been illuminating, and proves how limitless our discoveries can be. A varied career has seen the multi-instrumentalist collaborate with artists including Hans-Joachim Roedelius, working for NME and striking a friendship with Brian Eno, while his recording acquaintance with jazz trumpeter Byron Wallen is long-standing.

Trio isn’t a ‘jazz piano trio’ recording, as one might surmise, but a three-album work of sessions which cover a double decade, from 1999 to 2019 – two featuring Wallen and guitarist Rob Luft – and much of it recorded at his music room on the River Eye, in the serene rurality of the Cotswolds. It seems Jay has always preferred improvisational collages, yet his music is generally accessible and certainly increasingly absorbing. Personnel details and instrumentation for each album are listed further below.

Riverseyeside Recordings weaves a sinuous route, Calabash and Song for Ch(arli)e featuring muted trumpet (echoes of Miles) over rivulets of Fender Rhodes and wavering, phased electric guitar; and its Jay’s marimba and other percussion which provides mysterious depth in Bush of mists. Electronics are effective in pieces such as Sacred flutes, creating a breathy ostinato for bass clarinet to crawl through; and Shisya’s joyful conversation between scampering guitar runs, bass flute and a clapping rhythm is attractive (one of Jay’s earlier recordings, Cardamom & Coriander, demonstrates his skill with fluttering, harmonic bass flute). Fils de fils de Kilimanjaro taps into Luft’s affection for an African vibe; grooving Where’s Jack? feels like it could run and run; and expansive Must it be? It must be! views the afterglow with steel guitar shooting star trails soaring above delicate soprano sax melodies.

Jay’s connection to Indonesian ensemble music features strongly in second album, Jazz Gamelan, which is mostly his three-way dialogue with Wallen and Luft. In a slendro way quietly chimes, perhaps in reverence to Joe Zawinul; and there are delightfully mesmeric tuned percussion solo episodes such as Jasmine and Kempulus. This hour’s sequence genuinely feels like an exploration in and out of different rooms, the prepared piano and clarinet of Samburan more akin to classical chamber music, then countered by softly bass-funked, trumpet-improvised On what corner? Luft’s sitar impressions against hammered gamelan tones in Ripples (1 & 2) are inspired; and exotic, guiro-scratched Lull leads into another meditative space – In a suling way – becalmed by high, Southeast Asian-suggested soprano recorder.

Third album, Prepared/Unprepared, is a thread of Jay’s spontaneous improvisations at a prepared electric grand piano. Arguably more challenging to take in, these extended experiments seem to combine pianistic and percussive ideas, though maybe the solidity of an acoustic instrument would be more sympathetic.

For an alternative, tributary experience of predominantly improvised music, I recommend pursuing this unique collection (especially for the first and second albums) which reveals new textures every time. It was the enthusiasm of Rob Luft which prompted Jay to resurrect and complete these archive recordings, and it’s right that they have now found the light of day and are also entirely relevant to the current jazz/improvised scene. 

Recently-released Trio isn’t available through the usual channels (burningshed.com is yet to make it available). But it is on sale, directly from Felix Jay, at ebay.

 

RIVEREYESIDE RECORDINGS
Felix Jay all percussion, basses, Rhodes, piano, prepared piano
Rob Luft guitar
Byron Wallen trumpet, ngoni
Nicola Alesini bass clarinet, soprano saxophone
Susan Alcorn, BJ Cole pedal steel guitars

JAZZ GAMELAN
Felix Jay all percussion, bass, piano, prepared piano
Rob Luft guitar
Byron Wallen trumpet
Jan Steele clarinet, soprano recorder

PREPARED/UNPREPARED
Felix Jay prepared Kawai electric grand piano

Hermetic Recordings – HERM 7, 8 & 9 (2019)

‘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)

‘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)

‘Constant Movement’ – Þorgrímur Jónsson Quintet

ConstantMovement

ICELANDIC JAZZ frequently delivers a jetstream of cool sophistication, somehow viewing things from a different perspective, whether through abstract impressionism or invigorating accessibility. The latter is certainly the case with new release Constant Movement from the Þorgrímur Jónsson Quintet.

Bassist Þorgrímur “Toggi” Jónsson (Þ = Th in Iceland’s alphabet) will be familiar to many as the backbone of pianist Sunna Gunnlaugs’ trio (current release, Cielito Lindo). But this is quite a different venture, his own ten originals brought to life with the help of a fine personnel: Ari Bragi Kárason (trumpet, flugelhorn), Ólafur Jansson (tenor sax), Kjartan Valdemarsson (piano, Rhodes) and Þorvaldur Þór Þorvaldsson (drums).

Jónsson’s creative approach is multi-faceted, so there’s always a sense of something new at each turn – and that is manifested both in attention-grabbing musicality and playful whimsy. The imperturbable stride of Humble borders on easy-listening, but its catchy phrases and Ólafur Jónsson’s lazy tenor are irresistible; the same goes for cloudless Mountain View, whose purposeful, spring-in-the-step gait provides a platform for sublime, ascending flugel and sax riffs, with the clarity of Toggi Jónsson’s double bass momentum providing a steady pathway. Then, all at once, retro-pop-grooving In Berlin bursts through, a dazzling powerhouse of incisive Rhodes and trumpet improv underpinned by electric bass and metallic percussion (by now, there’s the realisation that this project must surely be a labour of love).

Somewhere between Stan Getz and trad jazz, From Above sedately floats down the river – you can almost smell sweet honeysuckle and feel the glinting sun’s warmth. The trumpet and tenor pairing of tijuana-style Eastern Time Zone is irresistible (again, Valdemarsson’s Rhodes explorations are deliciously fervid); and title track Constant Movement‘s irrepressible Puerto Rican beat, courtesy of Toggi Jónsson and Þorvaldur Þór Þorvaldsson, feels like it might party all night long.

Crystalline acoustic piano in Hringrás invites restrained, hymnal expression from trumpet, sax and arco bass to a backdrop of shimmering cymbals; and Rotation‘s sumptuous, Latinesque swagger is emphasised by splendidly articulate bass and brazen, muted trumpet. A tongue-in-cheek whiff of ’60s comedy movie theme or Alan Moorhouse marching band might be imagined in horn-swooning Don’t Panic, though again it possesses characterful charm through its jabbing Rhodes, bass piano-string strikes and luxurious soloing; and Spiffy presents perhaps the most convivial, straight-ahead jazz of the recording.

This is undoubtedly good-time music with a sparkle in its eye, offering bags of interest fired by impassioned musicianship. In fact, a must-listen.

Released on 14 August 2016, Constant Movement is available as CD or digital download from Bandcamp.

 

Ari Bragi Kárason trumpet, flugelhorn
Ólafur Jónsson tenor saxophone
Kjartan Valdemarsson piano, Rhodes
Þorgrímur “Toggi” Jónsson acoustic bass, electric bass
Þorvaldur Þór Þorvaldsson drums

Sunny Sky Records – Sunny Sky 736 (2016)

‘Frame of Reference’ – Sean Foran

seanforan

HIS FIRST ALBUM as leader, Australian pianist/composer Sean Foran’s Frame of Reference has already called me back time and time again to become immersed in its textural beauty.

In essence, that’s what the attraction is, and also what seems to have been in Foran’s mind as he explored the potential of this project. Known for his part in established piano trio Trichotomy, he envisaged chamber jazz to which artists he had long admired would bring their own character; and the specific instrumental line-up he imagined, creating its flow so evidently here, comprises guitarist Stuart McCallum, saxophonist Julian Arguelles, cellist Ben Davis and drummer Joost Hendrickx. Notably, the quintet first convened in the studio for the actual recording session – perhaps the key to the spontaneity of these eight absorbing tracks.

Foran’s fluvial pianism informs his music throughout, so that it either teems with sit-up-and-listen vitality or sparkles with rivulets of broken-chord elegance; yet it never brashly showboats, therefore allowing his colleagues the freedom to break out of the scored passages. Opening track Room with a View is many-hued, as if painting ever-changing climatic conditions’ effects across a lake. Here, piano ostinati are flecked with subtle electronics or vibraphone-like Rhodes embellishments and Arguelles’ strong alto melodies glide over rhythmically propulsive percussion. Foran’s ability to markedly change his colour palette is particularly attractive, Une Fille‘s full-band buoyancy eddying quietly into legato piano interludes, with McCallum’s mobility across the frets sounding remarkably sitar-like; and Ben Davis’ diverse cello voicings, displayed well in title track Frame of Reference, provide a refreshing change of timbre to more usual double bass.

Blue-sky Dare to Dream treads a delightfully simple groove, but it’s how Foran manages its instrumental light and shade which impresses so much; like a master distiller, he draws together the various streams to create musical nectar. Arguelles’ soprano eases out over the limpid, chamber feel of A Fine Balance before the piece’s invigorating, downward glissade, whilst Quiet Times‘ eventual, not-so-placid arrival finds McCallum’s guitar in a particularly fine improvisational swirl. Mish Mash alternates between folksy, new-age delicacy and Joost Hendrickx’s snappy, complex rhythms, and The Sum Of‘s closing, spacial chill-out is, at times, redolent of early Mike Oldfield (maybe that’s the gorgeously open guitar tone over Foran’s transcendental blend).

As with so much original jazz, don’t let this album rumble on in the background; it’s the compositional attention to detail and varietally improvised nuances which create the magnetism, along with a distinct air of equilibrium.

Released on 2 September 2016, Frame of Reference is available from Discovery Records, Bandcamp and record stores. Promo video here.

 

Sean Foran piano, Rhodes
Stuart McCallum guitars
Julian Arguelles saxophones
Ben Davis cello
Joost Hendrickx drums

seanforanmusic.info

Jazzhead Records – HEAD222 (2016)

‘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