‘Scratch and Sift’ – Michael Chillingworth

Scratch2

THE CURIOUS ASSORTMENT of characters above conceals a delicious preponderance of reeds in Michael Chillingworth’s debut septet album, Scratch and Sift.

Saxophonist and clarinettist Chillingworth is a mainstay of London’s contemporary jazz scene, working with artists such as Stan Sulzmann, Julian Siegel, James Maddren and Kit Downes. So it’s fascinating to discover the free thinking of his own writing, realised with colleagues Tom Challenger (tenor, clarinet), Josh Arcoleo (tenor), George Crowley (bass clarinet), Lewis Wright (vibes), Sam Lasserson (bass) and Jon Scott (drums).

Here is an album which rasps and sizzles so hard and so densely that it’s hard to ignore. Contrastingly sweet and sour, many of these eight, original compositions somehow seem to convey the arresting wit, irony and dark mischievousness to be found in classic, monochrome Ealing comedies. Right from the off, stealthy vibraphone and spicy horn ta-dahhs in Butterman lure the senses into an unusual world of theatrics and drollery, its agile melodies and close, spiky arrangements shadily tiptoeing around each corner; and Mint‘s syncopated blarings are matched by Jon Scott’s perky percussion, with some delightful individual improvisations widening into more open landscapes.

Yes, there’s a certain, honest Britishness to Chillingworth’s musical imagination. Overlaid tumblings in Brian Kuh give way to rapid, exuberant sax anarchy as the leader’s swirling alto is taunted by his assailants amidst challenging, irregular riffs (unpredictable, scampering unison passages here, which break into harmony, are especially effective… nay, smile-inducing). The furtive bass clarinet, double bass and vibes of clock-ticking The Wait (not to be listened to, alone, on a dimly-lit railway platform!) eventually screech to jittery alto and a cacophony of wailing sirens; so it’s quite likely that lumbering, irascible Capture is the resultant, bumpy, Black Maria journey!

Politely funky Grateful Lady is a joy, Lewis Wright’s repeated vibraphone chromatics providing the notorious ‘sax and clarinet boys’ with an opportunity to knock seven bells out of each other – so much vim and vigour, encouraged by Lasserson and Scott in the propulsive rhythm section, and concluding with wonderfully wheezy, out-of-breath textures in the reeds department. Through the opening flick of one eye, Numbers‘ initial quietude becomes utterly mischievous, its inquisitive alto extensions and trills breaking into communal boogie; and closing Righteous fools no-one – a chuffing, squawking hullabaloo which, though microscopically arranged, is as tireless and wild as the album’s earlier, madcap adventures – and Chillingworth’s hard-blown improv just as audacious.

Awright, mate [nudge, wink]… go get it!

Released on Two Rivers Records on 1 July 2016, Scratch and Sift is available from Bandcamp.

 

Michael Chillingworth alto saxophone, clarinet
Tom Challenger tenor saxophone, clarinet
Josh Arcoleo tenor saxophone
George Crowley bass clarinet
Lewis Wright vibraphone
Sam Lasserson bass
Jon Scott drums

michaelchillingworth.com

Two Rivers Records – TRR 010 (2016)

‘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)

‘Can of Worms’ – George Crowley

CanOfWorms

Y’SEE WHAT ‘APPENS when y’open a Can of Worms?!…

Overflowing with writhing, jostling spontaneity, but with sufficient compositional structure to keep a lid on things, London-based saxophonist George Crowley’s new two-tenor quintet recording is a veritable powerhouse of creativity. His debut release, Paper Universe (Whirlwind, 2011), remains long in the memory as a jazz quartet recording of mature, unfettered exploration. Now, together with sparring tenor partner, the ever-chipper Tom Challenger, he constructs the formidable and foreceful front line of an energetic five-piece completed by Dan Nicholls (piano/Wurlitzer), Sam Lasserson (double bass) and Jon Scott (drums).

Crowley reveals that this band came into being for the purposes of a 2013 live gig, leading to the desire to develop and document the project’s clear success in a studio album – a shrewd and worthwhile decision, given the resulting sense of excitement, anarchy and strong musicality on show here. As composer of all seven substantial pieces, the leader never settles for the obvious, nor any half measures – he and his colleagues go all out for unwavering improvisation whilst recognising the strength of tight ensemble playing. And it’s fabulously earthy, ‘unputdownable’ stuff.

The Opener‘s agitated ten-minute expanse bristles to Jon Scott’s trademark clattering-yet-incisive drum rhythms, bolstered by Sam Lasserson’s babbling bass and Dan Nicholls’ typically brash, animated piano; and in amongst all this, tenorists Crowley and Challenger (one in each ear!) breathlessly duel it out – the combination of the written and the abstract quite thrilling. Nicholls’ uneasy ‘music box’ Wurlitzer announces Whirl, a broad, impudent affair featuring Challenger’s gruffness and Crowley’s screeching – yet the precise framework is always apparent.

Ubiquitous Up Tune in 3, with tricksily-timed sax riffs, is certainly ‘up’, and it’s a tribute to the directness of the engineering/mixing that its raw, live feel translates so well into recorded sound. The jarring major/minor blues of Rum Paunch is a joy, the two tenors either in unison (or thereabouts) or otherwise taunting each other, whilst Nicholls’ sneering, rippling piano almost encourages them in their outrageous discord.

Hard-swinging but nevertheless anarchic I’m Not Here To Reinvent The Wheel rolls deliciously to Lasserson and Scott’s fast pace, the reedsmen clearly revelling in its abandon (confirmed by the group cackles that follow its abrupt finish!). Terminal shuffles mysteriously to Scott’s intricacy at the kit and Nicholls’ magnificent Wurlitzer weavings, Lasserson’s relentless bass underpinning the broadness of the tenors’ extemporisations – such a glorious (and at times, cheeky) sound world; and, to close, T-Leaf rumbles particularly freely, though the fractured improvisations finally come together in absolute unanimity… lid well and truly sealed!

A triumph for George Crowley and his team. Released on 23 March 2015, further information, audio samples, promo video and purchasing can be found at Whirlwind.

 

George Crowley tenor saxophone
Tom Challenger tenor saxophone
Dan Nicholls piano/Wurlitzer
Sam Lasserson double bass
Jon Scott drums

georgecrowleymusic.com

Whirlwind Recordings – WR4666 (2015)

‘Ana’ – Emilia Mårtensson

ana2

MUSICAL DISCOVERIES are, I believe, waymarkers on a lifetime’s journey of appreciation and enjoyment of the artistic creativity that those blessed with a talent bestow upon us. Once experienced, they stay with us forever, evoking memories of the first unexpected rush of exhilaration that touched our soul.

In 2010, I chanced upon a debut release (Kairos Moment) by hitherto unknown contemporary jazz ensemble, Kairos 4tet. Led by indomitable saxophonist Adam Waldmann, their originality spoke loudly and clearly to me – and amongst the instrumental energy, a jazz vocalist delivered a single heartfelt ballad, Unresolved. Transfixed by its depth and beauty, I went on to discover this solo artist’s own debut album (And So It Goes… with pianist Barry Green) as well as appearances on subsequent Kairos albums and intimate piano-accompanied performances in London and Manchester.

Unsurprisingly, Emilia Mårtensson is rapidly making a name for herself on the London jazz circuit and beyond. A grounding in the folksongs of her native Sweden and standards of the leading ladies of jazz, combined with an admiration for a singer-songwriter genre that includes Paul Simon, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell, has resulted in a meltingly gorgeous voice characterised by sincerity, warmth, dynamic control and endearingly crisp Anglo-Swedish diction.

Masterminded by producers Rory Simmons and Alex Bonney, this second solo release features a particularly inventive instrumental line-up, the spacial detail of which complements and colours Mårtensson’s sensitive approach so appropriately. As before, Barry Green’s expressive and intuitive piano is the perfect match for Emilia’s velvety tones. Rhythmic and ornamental zest is provided via a refreshing range of timbres from Brazilian percussionist Adrian Adewale; and bringing a deep sense of equilibrium is bassist Sam Lasserson. Finally, fashioning the most wonderfully interwoven textures on half of the album’s ten tracks are the Fable String Quartet, whose precision and integrality with this project are outstanding.

Illustrating all of this is opening number Harvest Moon, written by Jamie Doe, Emilia’s soft vocals floating above a gently bubbling momentum. In profound dedication to her grandmother, Ana is communicated with love (Soft, at night, her hand on mine, she says, “Close your eyes before you open up your mind”), Barry Green decorously enhancing the affectionate mood over Sam Crowe’s delicate string arrangement. Barnaby Keen’s Learnt from Love is a standout, the distinctive chord progressions and melody of the chorus, in particular, still lodged in my mind from a live first hearing last July; and Emilia’s voice also displays a brighter, stronger edge.

Tomorrow Can Wait is perfect for Mårtensson, the heart-on-sleeve poignancy of writer Emine Pirhason’s verses emphasised by the initial sparseness of solo piano, and Emilia’s digitally-layered harmonies are used to great effect here, suggesting her folk roots. Traditional Swedish folksong is represented by bass/percussion-accompanied När Som Jag Var På Mitt Adertonde År; and Black Narcissus Music, Joe Henderson’s familiar tune set to Emilia Mårtensson’s skilfully-intoned words, is interpreted breezily courtesy of a great Rory Simmons string arrangement which melds perfectly with the instrumental trio.

Paul Simon’s Everything Put Together Falls Apart comes so naturally to Mårtensson before Green and co. run with it in a jaunty, bluesy direction. Moffi’s Song confirms her own songwriting prowess, its string-led arrangement imbuing this tribute to her grandfather with the feel of an old jazz classic; and to close, a folksy unaccompanied miniature, Vackra Människa – the translation, ‘beautiful person’, so very fitting for this accomplished singer.

Released on 7 April 2014 (in Babel Label’s 20th anniversary year), Ana is available here … a musical discovery awaits.

Video: The Making of Ana
Video: Harvest Moon


Emilia Mårtensson
 voice
Barry Green piano
Sam Lasserson double bass
Adriano Adewale percussion

The Fable String Quartet
Kit Massey violin
Paloma Deike violin
Becky Hopkin viola
Natalie Rozario cello

Babel Label – BDV14126 (2014)