REVIEW: ‘High Heart’ – Ben Wendel

A BIG HEART… and a big impact! Saxophonist Ben Wendel’s new sextet release, featuring the superbly adroit voice of Michael Mayo, was an immediate ‘ear grab’ on its first hearing and has since gone on to prove itself as an album which occupies a quite distinct contemporary jazz groove.

Canadian-born, raised in Los Angeles, and now residing in New York, Wendel’s career has seen him work alongside artists including Tigran Hamasyan, Eric Harland, Joshua Redman, Linda May Han Oh, Prince, and is a founding member of Kneebody.



For High Heart, his fifth recording as leader, Shai Maestro and Gerald Clayton interchange piano and Fender Rhodes (a masterstroke), supported by the fiery, industrious rhythm section of double bassist Joe Sanders and drummer Nate Wood. The tenorist’s neat band integration (rather than static, upfront soloing), plus a precise melodic pairing with vocalist Mayo, defines this abundant exploration of his clearly well-crafted music; and what sets it particularly ‘high’ is the almost outrageous technique, synchronicity and rapidity of these players’ performances, delivering frissons of excitement reminiscent of 1970s fusion bands.

This is, however, emphatically a recording for the here and now, described as a statement on society’s ‘increasing complexity, oversaturation and social imbalance’ in an ‘increasingly impersonal time’. The album’s ‘cover heart’ interprets designer Oli Bentley’s son’s simple line drawing, which the five-year-old slipped under the door for him during a digital meeting with Wendel – and as Bentley says, The simplicity and innocence of the symbol, its link to the title we had just been discussing, and the human connection it made through a closed door – I knew there wasn’t anything I could possibly bring to this project that was more personal or contained more humanity than this”.

Eight original numbers draw the attention in, more and more deeply, the pensive title track’s swirling motion introducing Wendel’s and Mayo’s close partnership. Burning Bright (inspired by William Blake’s ‘The Tyger’) unlfurls the band’s wondrously agile interaction as shared vocal-and-sax phrases and keyboard improvisations pull in and out of focus across its constantly skittering rhythm (witness Nate’s Wood’s fabulous composure in the videos, linked below). Wendel’s compositional diversity is impressive, the mechanically angular piano and Rhodes intro of Kindly contrasting well with its legato (even soporific) repeated figure from sax and voice; and lofty hymn, Less, takes Mayo’s gentler, wordless tones up into the firmament, carried on waves of piano and effects.

Up there in the album’s highlights, with hints of Pat Metheny and Weather Report, is positively bustling Drawn Away, complete with bluesy, Latinesque piano break. But more than anything, it’s the busy, combined weave of each individual contribution which elevates it – a real repeat-player, and a true feel-good. A sense of urgency, perhaps reflecting the album’s warning of ‘impersonality’, is heard in disquieted Fearsome, with Wendel’s sprawling tenor the orator. Similarly, the dazed soundtrack vibe of Darling – dedicated to a dear friend – feels ominous, as if to suggest the theme of sleepwalking into dispassion, before Traveler’s effected piano and percussion lead away to vocally harmonized meditation.

In High Heart, Ben Wendel’s music appears to progressively ‘commentate’ on the need for greater societal empathy. Above all, though, it’s the zeal of this band which shines through in gloriously exhilarating fashion.

Released on 30 October 2020 and available as CD, vinyl or digital download at Edition Records and Bandcamp.

Videos: Burning Bright and Drawn Away.

 

Ben Wendel tenor saxophone, EFX, piano, wurlitzer, bassoon
Shai Maestro piano, Fender Rhodes
Gerald Clayton piano, Fender Rhodes
Michael Mayo voice, EFX
Joe Sanders double bass
Nate Wood drums

benwendel.com

Edition Records – EDN1162 (2020)

REVIEW: ‘Yardbird Suite’ – Alexey Kruglov & Krugly Band

HAVING DISCOVERED the music of genial Russian alto saxophonist Alexey Kruglov, back in 2014, through his ‘Duo Art’ album Moscow with pianist Joachim Kühn, I’ve come to anticipate three, key aspects with each subsequent release.

Firstly, his projects often have a specific theme, such as 2015’s The Mighty Five, a wildly unique jazz celebration of native classical masters including Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov; and then 2020 release Tchaikovsky, marking 180 years since the composer’s birth. Secondly, he displays a wonderfully outrageous sense of experimentation, his improvisations sometimes squawked on reed only or blasted out simultaneously on two or more saxes (Roland Kirk style). Finally, given his ‘avant garde’ tag… expect the unexpected!

As with the likes of Gilad Atzmon or Marius Neset, Kruglov’s techniques eschew limits, with a creative flow almost persuading that his instruments are simply part of his physical being. For latest release Yardbird Suite, together with his Krugly Band of Artem Tretyakov (piano), Roman Plotnikov (double bass) and Pavel Timofeev (drums, percussion), the saxophonist focuses on this year’s 100th anniversary of the birth of the great Charlie Parker – one of his earliest influences as a player. An album described as a suite itself, the performance notes reveal how the eight interpretations have a direct connection with both Stravinsky and John Coltrane. And, boy, how these bebop arrangements bop!

‘Bird’, himself, could fly like the wind – and Kruglov’s present-day reimagining of Anthropology is similarly scintillating, including a couple of audacious, sauntering episodes within. Usually swinging, Now’s the Time surprises with its graceful waltz, while combined Scrapple from the Apple and Ornithology emphasize the quartet’s co-ordination in all manner of tempo/mood changes. Kruglov stamps incredible, bluesy individuality on Parker’s Mood, his dual, screeching altos certainly amongst the album highlights; and familiar, shuffling calypso My Little Suede Shoes is transformed into a jaunty stomp, Kruglov’s improvisations breathlessly traversing a capricious, quickening pace set and expanded on by his colleagues.

An unexpected balladic refashioning of Yardbird Suite is completed by the leader’s characteristic, reed-popping explorations; and Segment (sprightly when Parker and Miles Davis were upfront) takes on an shadowy, malleted, minor-key guise with shimmering Latin-piano overtones. Finally, classic bopper Confirmation enjoys its exuberant walking-bass moment in a band showcase to prove how mid-forties jazz, in our time, still gleams.

In our conversations, over the years, Alexey Kruglov’s artistic enthusiasm and zest for life have remained inspiring – and that’s sparklingly communicated, with intentional live-in-studio feel, throughout Yardbird Suite. Parker would surely approve!

Released on 28 August 2020 and available as CD or digital download at Bandcamp, and also at Fancy Music and Apple Music.

Video: dual-alto brilliance in Parker’s Mood.

 

Alexey Kruglov alto saxophones
Artem Tretyakov piano
Roman Plotnikov double bass
Pavel Timofeev drums, percussion

Fancy Music (2020)

REVIEW: ‘The Sleepless Kind’ – Andy Fleet ft. Andre Canniere

THE NAME of trumpeter Andre Canniere is familiar across the UK contemporary jazz scene; but perhaps less so, the jazz-inflected pop of pianist, vocalist and songwriter Andy Fleet.

Following his previous albums The Night Falls Fast and Takin’ Aim, Fleet’s The Sleepless Kind picks up a theme which seems to permeate his musical output – an ‘ode to the night’ which (presumably reflecting his years as a lounge pianist) ‘recounts tales of the sticky lights of Soho in the small hours’. As before, it’s Canniere’s muted, Paolo Fresu-style trumpet which strongly evokes jazz-bar auras; and alongside bassist Zane Maertens and drummer Joe Evans, there are appearances from electric guitarist Pete Kershaw, saxophonist/flautist Chez Taylor and backing vocalist Sarah Doe.   

Andy Fleet’s straight-ahead approach is beguiling, not least because the riffs and sequences of these songs subtly imply inspiration from previous decades, and it can take the memory some persuading to deliver the result! But also, his MOR vocals possess an almost reassuring ‘glow’ – listen to the gentle bop of Stolen Years to imagine Colin Blunstone, or the soft, storytelling wistfulness of I’ve Had It All to recall the chart hits of Dean Friedman. There’s even a fond reminder of Gilbert O’Sullivan in bluesy, up-tempo “don’t wanna seem like a drama queen” Been There, Drunk That.

The telephone-line opening to All Broke Out With The Blues may feel a little obvious, but its smoky solace – again with Canniere’s sultry improvisation – is reminiscent of Randy Newman’s finest. Rock-grooving Love’s Enemy (Supertramp meets Bryan Adams) confidently struts; and there’s even a hint of Neil Tennant in gentle, memorable Through Closed Eyes, its 1980s backing vocal and flute intimating the fragile hope of a poignant movie scene.

If this all sounds like a disconnected melange, Andy Fleet actually has the ability to cohesively fashion new soft-pop/rock, complemented by the jazz inflections of Andre Canniere, into an album which I’ve now replayed many times. In the afterglow, pour a dram and ease back to this retro-styled songbook.    

Released on 31 March 2020 and available as CD or digital download from Bandcamp.

 

Andy Fleet piano, vocals
Andre Canniere trumpet
Zane Maertens bass
Joe Evans drums
with
Pete Kershaw electric guitar
Chez Taylor saxophone, flute
Sarah Doe backing vocals

Illustration by Alban Low

andyfleet.com

Low Vinyl Records / Cadiz – LV1608 (2020)

REVIEW: ‘The Letter’ – Shri

IT’S NOT UNCOMMON to be impressed by bass-player albums which aren’t dominated by the leader. But new release The Letter by Shri (Shri Sriram) is unashamedly… about the bass. Both the sound world and the story are fascinating.

Read my full review at LondonJazz News…

Released on 13 March 2020 and available as CD or download at Bandcamp.

 

Shri Sriram electric fretless bass, bowed bass, bass percussion, tabla, bansuri
Bugge Wesseltoft Fender Rhodes, synthesizers
Paolo Vinaccia drum kit
Arild Andersen double bass
Tore Brunborg saxophone
Ben Castle bass clarinet

shri.co.uk

Jazzland Recordings – 3779254 (2020)

REVIEW: ‘Minusgrader’ – Örjan Hultén Orion

IT WAS THE ARTICULATION and focus in this recording which first drew my attention; and indeed, Minusgrader, from Swedish saxophonist Örjan Hultén and his Orion quartet, has only continued to charm with its sparky animation and romantic lyricism – an evenly-balanced conversation glistening with individual flecks of personality along the way.

Read my full review at LondonJazz News…

Released on 18 January 2019, Minusgrader is available online from Artogrush, Plugged or Bengans in Sweden, and also at iTunes.

 

Örjan Hultén tenor and soprano saxophones
Torbjörn Gulz piano
Filip Augustson double bass
Peter Danemo drums

artofsound.se/minusgrader

Artogrush – OCD-012 (2019)

REVIEW: ‘Thought You Knew’ – Snowpoet

ThoughtYouKnew

THE IMMERSIVE experience of Snowpoet’s eponymous 2016 debut album left a lasting imprint…

Read my full review at LondonJazz News.

Released on 9 February 2018 and available in CD, digital and vinyl formats from Edition Records at Bandcamp.

 

Lauren Kinsella vocals, backing vocals, lyrics
Chris Hyson electric bass, double bass, piano, synths
Nicholas Costley-White acoustic guitar
Matthew Robinson piano
Dave Hamblett drums
Josh Arcoleo saxophone
with
Alice Zawadzki violin
Francesca Ter-Berg cello
Lloyd Haines drums, percussion (tracks 1, 2 and 7)

Produced by Chris Hyson

snowpoet.co.uk

Edition Records – EDN1105 (2018)