REVIEW: ‘Second Lives’ – Graham Costello’s STRATA

“SONICALLY, this is a fully analogue record – a computer hasn’t touched it. You hear full takes, and practically zero overdubs.”

Since Strata, his debut release of 2017, Glaswegian drummer/composer Graham Costello (a first-class graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) has been honing his craft; in particular, developing this intensive, progressive band with tenor saxophonist Harry Weir, trombonist Liam Shortall, pianist Fergus McCreadie, guitarist Joe Williamson and electric bassist Mark Hendry. That first, self-released step into a polyrhythmic jazz/rock/minimalist environment, followed by 2019’s Obelisk, has clearly spurred this sextet on to greater heights. The drummer’s ‘live in studio’ approach to capturing it all in full flight (quoted above and qualified by “You hear everything – squeaks, room sounds, pedal clicks”) perhaps bears the most immediate comparison with the ‘real-time process music’ of Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin, though with more of a funk/soul vibe.

Themes of evolution, heritage, stoicism and inner challenge (look deeper into that cover ‘icon’) permeate these eleven compositions/improvisations, with discoveries about Costello’s extended, Burmese-Indian family especially inspiring the creativity. Fronted by richly powerful tenor sax and trombone, though clearly driven by the leader’s fervent, metrical energy, STRATA as a unit are tight, uncompromising and dynamic – something initially belied by the ambient-piano awakening of အစ (translated from Burmese as ‘beginning’). Recurring motifs strongly inform their overriding energy, exemplified by Eudaimonia which thrives on a blistering wall of approaching/receding horns and pyrotechnic percussion, and continued in torrid, sax-squealing Legion (Costello’s flamboyance at the kit, here, is on another level).

Certainly there are oases of calm, as in Satie-suggested Iris led by McCreadie’s restrained, echoic piano; or Williamson’s notable pitch-bent guitar that paints an unsettling, industrial landscape in Snowbird; and Circularity’s repose summons the slowly-shifting figures of John Ellis and The Cinematic Orchestra. But STRATA’s trademark thunder is unquestionably ‘main feature’, the rasping horns and full-band saturation of The Colossus crescendoing and thrashing to fever pitch, while the brisk momentum of bass-babbling Impetu is carried by relentless piano figures, its boldness momentarily side-stepping into calypso. The pulsating, upward trajectory of Arrowhead creates an exciting, almost menacing three minutes (a double or triple extension to its development can be imagined), closely followed by the John Adams-reminiscent propulsion of Ataraxia – crashing, riffing… and anything but tranquil! To close, the band’s ruminative title track seemingly connects with the earlier-mentioned themes, its cyclical piano and meditational effects perhaps impressing continuity of ‘family’.

Graham Costello’s STRATA have, so far, furrowed their particular groove with panache, character and honesty; and that foundational principle of artistic realism delivers a ‘wow factor’ in this album which will undoubtedly translate explosively into eventual live performance. Advancing the band’s compositional style and sound may be their next challenge – but they’ll be up for it!

Co-produced and engineered by the legendary Hugh Padgham, Second Lives is released on 7 May 2021 and available as CD, vinyl and digital download at Bandcamp.

 

Graham Costello drums, composition
Harry Weir tenor saxophone
Liam Shortall trombone
Fergus McCreadie piano
Joe Williamson guitar
Mark Hendry electric bass

Cover image by Bernadette Kellermann and Graham Costello

Videos: Eudaimonia, Legion, Circularity, Impetu, Live in concert (2018)

grahamcostello.com
gcstrata.net

Gearbox Records – GB1566CD (2021)

REVIEW: ‘A New Dawn’ – Marius Neset

SAFE TO SAY, in these uncertain times, we’re all looking for that silver lining; or, in the case of acclaimed Norwegian tenor saxophonist Marius Neset, the gilt-edged promise of A New Dawn.

Over the last decade or so, Neset has produced an extraordinary catalogue of original work – a distinctive melange of contemporary jazz and Scandinavian folk – often overloading the senses with complex, dizzying arrangements for small and large forces (the latter, in 2020 big band creation, Tributes). But as we know, the pandemic’s restrictions have dramatically shifted the current artistic landscape, with numerous ‘lockdown’ recordings appearing as musicians have sought alternative ways to express their artistry and keep their craft, technique and livelihoods on track. For the saxophonist, this global situation provided the opportunity to fulfil a long-held ambition – to record an album of solo tenor explorations (some of which he had originally written for band or symphony orchestra) without overdubs or effects. He describes it as “an amazing challenge – and also a bit scary: I cannot lean back on a rhythm section or another player, I am completely responsible for every little detail in the music myself”.

The proposition of a single horn player presenting an entire recording of solo material may not, initially, seem entirely tantalising. But those who can cast their mind back to 2011 debut Golden Xplosion – and his astounding live sets – will know that ‘unaccompanied’ in Neset’s world is anything but. Captured earlier this year, A New Dawn celebrates those extraordinary (dare it be said, unique) capabilities which naturally, over time, have been developed and honed into the bewildering wonder heard across these nine self-composed tracks. It’s an engaging display of melodic, rhythmic and chordal prowess – ‘chordal’, because Neset’s signature wizardry in stating or implying key signatures and progressions, through agile employment of ‘arpeggioed’ phrases and harmonics, is pivotal to this album’s success.

Those attributes can clearly be heard in the opening title track, where melodic phrases (in thirds, including bass line!) push it towards pop ballad territory, though also including Neset’s seemingly effortless improvisations. Theme from Manmade crackles like popcorn, its complex, bopping structure unfathomable in terms of such deft execution, and with the snatched breathing and rapidity of key clicks clearly audible. Taste of Spring unfurls, fern-like, in the lower registers before gradually climbing towards the sun with preening optimism and astonishing fluidity. In that vein, folk dance Brighter Times creates wondrous, gruff chordal sequences from harmonics, even hinting at a bluesy, Caribbean vibe; and with such richness, it’s easy to envisage one of Neset’s sumptuous big band arrangements piling in, midway.

Two numbers from that decade-old golden debut (with Django Bates, Jasper Høiby and Anton Eger) are reinterpreted. Old Poison (XL) rises from its impudent, slow beginnings (including a sneaky “look at me” at 0:38) into an audicious, mesmeric climax whose transcription would no doubt be mindblowing to view. Equally impertinent, groove-chasing The Real Ysj squeaks and rollercoasters at a hair-raising tempo. Back nearer terra firma, chirpy folksong A Day in the Sparrow’s Life is another ‘self-accompanied’ delight, its suggested verse-and-chorus structure pausing for contemplation before one of Neset’s most scintillating full-band impressions. Morning Mist’s murky trudge is shot through with shrill tenor wails and screams, but amidst it all is also the most beautifully wistful descending figure; and alpenhorn-hued multiphonics herald Theme from Every Little Step, a near-seven-minute paean reminiscent of Neset’s sublime work with tubist Daniel Herskedal, his mind wandering free.

Describing the “beautiful, sunny and very cold winter day” on which this recording was created, in a studio close to his Oslo home – while also contemplating the good and simple things in life: walking, running, skiing and being with family – Marius Neset’s solitary performances look ahead to brighter days. The spirit and grace of A New Dawn can point us in that direction, too.

Released on 30 April 2021 and available from ACT Music.

 

Marius Neset tenor saxophone, compositions

mariusneset.info

ACT Music – 9930-2 (2021)

REVIEW: ‘Wax///Wane’ – Lucien Johnson

MYSTICAL, a touch retro, and increasingly spellbinding, Wax///Wane is the work of New Zealand saxophonist and composer Lucien Johnson. It’s described as an album inspired by the lunar landscape of the southern skies – echoed by Julien Dyne’s virtually animated Neil Fujita-style cover art – and feels influenced by the output of both John and Alice Coltrane.

Read my full review at LondonJazz News…

Released on 1 April 2021 as a digital album at Bandcamp.

 

Lucien Johnson tenor saxophone, compositions
John Bell vibraphone
Michelle Velvin harp
Tom Callwood double bass
Cory Champion drums
Riki Piripi percussion

Cover art by Julien Dyne

lucienjohnson.com/

Deluge Records (2021)

REVIEW: ‘Where Will The River Flow’ – Matt Carmichael

THE OPENNESS and beauty of the west Central Lowlands of Scotland (Yon wandering rill that marks the hill, And glances o’er the brae*) evoked in the cover art to tenor saxophonist Matt Carmichael’s Where Will The River Flow hints at the contemporary expressions of jazz and Scots folk heritage found in this vitalising debut album.

From Dunbartonshire, and soon to graduate from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, 21-year-old Carmichael began playing at around the age of 11. A Peter Whittingham Development Award in 2019 recognised the potential that had earlier been seen by saxophonist Tommy Smith (“better than I was at that age”) who invited him to join his youth jazz orchestra. More recently, he also impressed as a finalist in 2020’s BBC Young Jazz Musician awards, playing his own compositions which included numbers from this album.

Like so many Scottish composers and players before him, the beauty of Carmichael’s homeland strongly informs these nine tracks which are melodically fresh, yet can also erupt with vivacity and technical flair. Their folksy footing means that, while these originals don’t head into the rugged terrain of more exploratory, avant garde jazz, they can most certainly jig with an infectious joie de vivre – and that’s due in equal part to the ebullience of his quartet colleagues, pianist Fergus McCreadie, double bassist Ali Watson and drummer Tom Potter.

The Spey is perhaps the most boisterous example of that – a breathlessly rapid reel reflecting ‘the fastest river in Scotland’, which nevertheless provides space for McCreadie’s improvisatory vigour (becoming his signature, as heard in recent release Cairn). It also demonstrates Carmichael’s confidence in writing a ruthlessly difficult main figure to share with the pianist (eventually) on the bandstand! Another river depiction, Firth – specifically, the Moray Firth – teems and tumbles over itself to Tom Potter’s thrashing percussion as it heads over to the North Sea. The title track, too, is an eleven-minute hike that climaxes in gushing, torrential grandeur – an indicator of the saxophonist’s unbounded optimism, amidst current artistic ‘turbulence’, in the early stages of what promises to be a fulfilling career.

Just as warming are Carmichael’s more mellow excursions into the great outdoors of his childhood. Cononbridge (near Inverness) ambles to the homey, rhythmic tread of piano, bass and drums; and its softly whirling tenor melody possesses ‘sig tune’ appeal, while also joyfully scaling improvisational heights. Looking north-east from the summit, Carmichael recalls his time studying in Oslo, and his watery inspiration taken from there – Sognnsvann – is a beautifully lilting lakeside theme imaginable as a Trio Mediaeval interpretation. Contrasting pibroch-styled Interlude, under greying skies, swoons to plaintive tenor over double bass drone, its icy grip relinquished to Hopeful Morning which skips with memorable, almost Spyro Gyra-like radio appeal.

Dedication Dear Grandma seems to draw from its composer a sense of gratitude and ‘place’ in a tranquil, meandering ballad; and the aurora of closing improvisation Valley signals the sun to gradually arc into full brilliance as the quartet thunders in rock-solid celebration.

Matt Carmichael’s musicality already displays striking maturity and awareness, with a compositional vocabulary that suggests much for future projects. Right now, Where Will The River Flow is likely to put a spring in your step!

Released on 12 March 2021 and available in CD, vinyl and digital formats at Bandcamp.

 

Matt Carmichael tenor saxophone
Fergus McCreadie piano
Ali Watson double bass
Tom Potter drums

Album art by Joanne Carmichael

*quoted from An Ode to Spring – Robert (Rabbie) Burns

mattcarmichaelmusic.com

Porthole Music – PM01 (2021)

REVIEW: ‘Ever Open Door’ – John Helliwell

‘THE ACTORS AND JESTERS are here, the stage is in darkness and clear…’

An opening line familiar to fans of 1974 pop/rock album ‘Crime of the Century’, If Everyone Was Listening provides the curtain-raiser to former Supertramp saxophonist/clarinettist John Helliwell’s Ever Open Door – an account of easy-flowing jazz performances captured in concert at Chester’s enterprising Storyhouse venue.

This collaboration with fellow Manchester-area artists – creative keyboards guru John Ellis and The Singh String Quartet – presents an interesting range of compositions and arrangements, many by fellow saxophonist (and educator) Andy Scott. They draw on Helliwell’s career, as well as his evolving influences and discoveries which include music by Paolo Fresu, George Butterworth, Jim Scott, and also old bandmates.

Settle into the evening shadows for original delights such as English-folksong-styled Lord Stackhouse (aka Helliwell) and bluesy …It Seemed That Life Was So Wonderful (recognise that ‘Logical’ lyric in the title?), while Peter Gabriel’s introspective Washing of the Water takes on a brighter, hymnal quality. The catalyst for the project, traditional tune Waly Waly, is beautifully shaped, as is extended ‘bonus’ The Ballad of the Sad Young Men; and title track Ever Open Door (by Supertramp’s Rick Davies) offers a rare touch of animation.

Indeed, this 74-minute programme’s outlook is more about serenely melodic mood than adventurous, exuberant improvisation – and maybe a few up-tempo, curveball ‘firecrackers’ would have broken the intended spell. But the intimate, closely-recorded communion of rich tenor sax and clarinet lines, Ellis’s Hammond mastery and the quartet’s plush harmonies is both inspired and warming.

Released on 2 October 2020, Ever Open Door is available from Proper Music.

YouTube videos: The Ballad of the Sad Young Men and Father O’Shea.

 

John Helliwell tenor saxophone, clarinet
John Ellis Hammond B3 organ

THE SINGH STRING QUARTET
Rakhi Singh violin
Simmy Singh violin
Ruth Gibson viola
Ashok Klouda cello

johnhelliwell.com

Challenge Records – CR73511 (2020)

REVIEW: ‘Tributes’ – Marius Neset

IT’S ALMOST TEN YEARS since Marius Neset’s ‘Golden Xplosion’ onto the European jazz scene with his debut album of that name, on the Edition Records label. Since then, this master of remarkable saxophonic technique has forged a prolific career, recording an impressive series of albums (most of them reviewed at this site). Neset describes latest ACT Music release, Tributes, as marking “a new phase”…

Read my full review at LondonJazz News…

Released on 25 September 2020 and available from ACT Music.

 

Marius Neset tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, compositions/arrangements

DANISH RADIO BIG BAND, conducted by Miho Hazama
Erik Eilertsen trumpet
Lars Vissing trumpet
Thomas Kjærgaard trumpet
Gerard Presencer trumpet (solo on Children’s Day Part 2)
Mads la Cour trumpet (solo on Leaving The Dock)
Peter Fuglsang alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, flute, clarinet
Nicolai Schultz alto saxophone, flute
Hans Ulrik tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, bass clarinet (solo on Tribute)
Frederick Menzies tenor saxophone, clarinet (solo on Children’s Day Part 1)
Anders Gaardmand baritone saxophone (solo on Children’s Day Part 1)
Peter Dahlgren trombone (solo on Bicycle Town Part 1)
Vincent Nilsson trombone
Kevin Christensen trombone
Annette Saxe bass trombone
Jakob Munck Mortensen bass trombone, tuba
Per Gade guitar (solo on Children’s Day Part 1)
Henrik Gunde piano (solo on Leaving The Dock)
Kaspar Vadsholt double bass, electric bass
Søren Frost drums

mariusneset.info

ACT Music – ACT 9051-2 (2020)