REVIEW: ‘Gecko’ – Tom Smith

TWO things…

Firstly, find yourself a good, bass-responsive speaker system; and then absorb one of the most cheering small ensemble recordings to be heard in a year like no other.

Once the lead alto in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra and now with the Patchwork Orchestra, saxophonist, bass clarinettist and composer Tom Smith has twice been a finalist in the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition and won the 2018 Peter Whittingham Development Award from Help Musicians UK. He already has a string of orchestral and big band arrangements to his name, has worked with artists including Maria Schneider, Donny McCaslin and Beverley Knight, and has garnered plaudits from the likes of Django Bates, Julian Joseph and Soweto Kinch.

Now, at the ‘ripe old age’ of 24 he steps out in debut album Gecko; and his trio with vibraphonist Jonny Mansfield and pianist Will Barry displays a fullness through these original compositions which belies its compact nature. There are echoes of Stan Sulzmann’s Neon project (Here to There, with Jim Hart and Gwilym Simcock, comes to mind) and also the duo of Jason Yarde and Andrew McCormack. But also, significantly, the tone and ebullience of his personal hero Tim Garland (this album’s producer, and surely a wellspring of advice) can be heard in Smith’s unfaltering agility.

Spirited Flamenco Carlos, with its jaunty, showtime piano riff, instantly demonstrates the trio’s capabilities. Piano and vibes frolic with abandon while Smith’s improvisatory ideas overflow – and without a dedicated rhythm instrument, such blistering momentum shouldn’t sound so at ease! At not far off ten minutes’ duration, Steampunk Tendencies shows similar verve, with Will Barry’s low chordal grooving providing the driving force, pushing the saxophonist to ever greater heights.

Like Garland, Tom neatly switches to bass clarinet – in Alex and John (written for a wedding, celebrating LGBTQ+ love), his deeper range is a joy; and there are some lovely, sonorous descending and leaping figures in chameleonic Blueish. Piano and vibraphone may sometimes seem curious companions, but chirpy, slightly comedic House in the Clouds in particular qualifies that match, Barry and Mansfield darting around Smith’s catchy, alto signature-tune riffs. Everyday Epic, too, preens itself with confidence, as light and shade highlight the trio’s empathy.

Graceful piano in Anthem becomes refracted by sustained, shimmering vibraphone; and there’s something both plaintive and considered about the way Smith’s high alto enters only latterly. Reposeful Curiosity, also, is full of glinting reflection, only gradually offering a measured, lapping sense of headway; and melodic Viking Dance’s constantly-shifting textures and colours are fascinating to pore over.

Focus on the detail in these nine tracks, rather than pushing them to the background. Tom Smith’s interaction with his colleagues is intelligent, never short on technical flair or improvisational enterprise – and with his track record thus far, Gecko suggests many, still greater things to come.

Released on 6 November 2020 – Basho Records’ first digital-only release – and available at Bandcamp.

 

Tom Smith saxophone, bass clarinet
Jonny Mansfield vibraphone
Will Barry piano

tomsmithsax.com

Basho Records – SRCD58-2 (2020)

RECENT LISTENING: April 2020 (2)

Steal the Light – Let Spin
Moss Freed, Ruth Goller, Finlay Panter, Chris Williams
Release date: 17 April 2020 (Efpi Records)
letspin.bandcamp.com

Life is the Dancer – Rob Luft
Rob Luft, Joe Wright, Joe Webb, Tom McCredie, Corrie Dick with Byron Wallen, Luna Cohen
Release date: 17 April 2020 (Edition Records)
robluft.bandcamp.com

Rickety Racket – Martin Pyne Quartet
Philippe Guyard, Russell Jarrett, Marianne Windham, Martin Pyne
Release date: 3 April 2020 (Tall Guy Records)
martinpyne.bandcamp.com

Two Chevrons Apart – Yuri Goloubev
Tim Garland, John Turville, Yuri Goloubev, Asaf Sirkis
Release date: 17 April 2020 (Basho Records)
bashorecords.com

Neutral Tones – Beresford Harries
Charlie Beresford, Tim Harries
Release date: 15 April 2020 (The 52nd)
the52nd.bandcamp.com

Trio (3CD) – Felix Jay
Felix Jay, Rob Luft, Byron Wallen, Nicola Alesini, Susan Alcorn, BJ Cole, Jan Steele
Recorded 1999–2019 (Hermetic Recordings)
burningshed.com (TBC) and ebay.co.uk

RECENT LISTENING: August 2019 (1)

Ingi Bjarni – Tenging
Ingi Bjarni Skúlason, Jakob Eri Myhre, Merje Kägu, Daniel Andersson, Tore Ljøkelsøy
Release date: 30 August 2019 (Losen Records)
losenrecords.no/release/tenging

Eddie Parker’s Debussy Mirrored Ensemble – Reflections Transformations | Improvisations
Eddie Parker, James Allsopp, Gareth Lockrane, Jan Hendrickse, Rowland Sutherland, Alcyona Mick, James Gilchrist, Brigitte Beraha, Imogen Ridge, Steve Watts, Simon Limbrick, Martin France
Release date: 13 September 2019
debussymirroredensemble.org

Michael Janisch – Worlds Collide
Michael Janisch, Jason Palmer, John O’Gallagher, Rez Abbasi, Clarence Penn
with John Escreet, George Crowley, Andrew Bain

Release date: 6 September 2019 (Whirlwind Recordings)
michaeljanisch.bandcamp.com/album/worlds-collide

Zac Gvi – Monk Spent Youth
Zac Gvirtzman, Ben Davis, Fred Thomas
Release date: 13 August 2019 (F-IRE)
zacgvi.bandcamp.com/album/monk-spent-youth

Michael J Bolton – Earthrise
Michael J Bolton, Mike Walker, Neil Yates, David Hentschel, Alex Smith, Matthew Johns, Marc Russo, Tim Garland, Noelle Rollings
Release date: 30 August 2019 (Market Square Music)
propermusic.com/product-details/Michael-J-Bolton-Earthrise-267575

Corey Mwamba – NTH
Corey Mwamba, Laura Cole, Andy Champion, Johnny Hunter
Release date: 2 July 2019 (Discus Music)
discus-music.co.uk/catalogue-mobile/dis86-detail

‘Zentuary’ – Dewa Budjana (2CD)

zentuary

BALINESE electric guitarist Dewa Budjana seems to be a man on a mission. High-energy jazz-rock artistry pours from him like there’s no tomorrow! For latest double album Zentuary (follow-up to 2015’s Hasta Karma) he calls on a core, western powerhouse of bassist Tony Levin and drummer/keyboardists Gary Husband and Jack DeJohnette, as well as guests including saxophonists Tim Garland and Danny Markovich.

Major influences on Budjana’s career are iconic guitarists John McLaughlin, Allan Holdsworth and Pat Metheny; and such transmitted dynamism, coupled with heady, colourful infusions of Indonesian culture, provides the foundations for these one hundred minutes of intense, original composition and improvisation. With Bali some 8,000 miles from the UK, the guitarist’s often anthemic soundscapes traverse geographic borders – in music, what borders? – with ease, providing a window on exotic vocals, textures and rhythms. The scale of the project might initially feel pretty overwhelming, and perhaps Zentuary (the guitarist’s contrived word, melding ‘zen’ and ‘sanctuary’) could more easily be considered and digested as an entire, continuous movie soundtrack. In fact, Budjana thinks big, even taking the opportunity to incorporate sessions with the Czech Symphony Orchestra.

By turns, these twelve particularly expansive tracks are exhilarating and mysterious, Dancing Tears immediately chasing pace and bubbling to Tony Levin’s signature Chapman Stick bass. Budjana is undoubtedly a ‘guitar star’, his breathless, varying explorations of the fretboard shining out above thunderous rock drumming; and Solas PM‘s similar line is coloured by the rapidity of Danny Markovitch’s high-flying soprano. Lake Takengon adds flamboyant wordless vocals into the mix; the tropical atmospheres of Rerengat Langit (Crack in the Sky) combine the evocative tones of Indonesian flute with spoken phrases and delicious fuzz guitar; and the steady progression of Suniakala confirms the guitarist’s aptitude for orchestral, almost Pink Floydian grandeur.

Dear Yulman descends into dark, shady thriller territory, though Budjana’s impressively liquefied chromatics rise above; Pancarabo‘s Methenyesque vocals alternate with a driving synth groove redolent of Jan Hammer (and even Husband’s time with Level 42); and the exuberant, chiming celebration of Manhattan Temple glints to Tim Garland’s unmistakable vibrato and Levin’s beautifully resonant NS bass. At this stage of CD2, there’s a sense of envelopment, of basking in the aromatic wonder – and Dedariku‘s breathy suling flute finds a path through dense undergrowth to ascend melodically with synth and guitar (this is certainly theme tune material). The eastern joy of Ujung Galuh – one of many vast tracks – is carried by Danny Markovitch’s soprano improv; Uncle Jack‘s quirkiness is characterised by catchy guitar motifs, glissando bass and all manner of piano and synth hues; and the peaceful, closing acoustic guitar and strings oasis of title track Zentuary also has a symphonic urgency which suggests there remains plenty more for Budjana to say… next time.

A big statement from a strong Indonesian jazz-rock force, Zentuary is available as CD or digital download from Bandcamp and Amazon, as well as at iTunes.

 

Dewa Budjana guitars, soundscapes
Tony Levin electric upright NS Design bass, Chapman Stick
Gary Husband drums, keyboards, acoustic piano
Jack DeJohnette drums, acoustic piano
with guests
Danny Markovich curved soprano sax
Tim Garland tenor sax
Guthrie Govan guitar
Saat Syah custom-made Indonesian suling flute
Ubiet vocals
Risa Saraswati vocals
Czech Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michaela Růžičková

dewabudjana.com

Favoured Nations (in association with MoonJune Music) – FN2880 (2016)

‘ONE’ – Tim Garland

ONE

THE PROSPECT of a new Tim Garland album always raises the pulse… and unquestionably, ONE is no exception.

The saxophonist/composer has, through time and experience, become a treasured mainstay of the UK jazz scene – and his releases of the last couple of years (2014’s Songs to the North Sky and last year’s Return to the Fire) have certainly confirmed that status. The final track of the 2015 album – a recording which rekindled, on vinyl, the acoustic excitement of 1995’s Enter the Fire – featured both longtime collaborator Jason Rebello on Fender Rhodes and versatile guitarist Ant Law in a more electronic groove, presumably sparking the notion of a future project in similar vein.

Well, here it is, in all its splendid jazz-rock magnificence, completing the quartet with Asaf Sirkis (from Lighthouse Trio days) on drums and percussion, plus guests Hossam Ramzy (percussion) and Dionne Bennett (vocals). It’s a thriller of a masterpiece, pretty much from start to finish, with Tim Garland’s instantly-recognisable vibrato and commanding presence heading up a wondrous complexity of textural arrangements, sparkling rhythms and fabulous virtuosity. Garland was, notably, a key player in legendary prog rock and jazz drummer Bill Bruford’s Earthworks line-ups, and the influence of that sound world is frequently apparent in many of these nine original compositions. Indeed, a similar level of detail certainly keeps this album on loud ‘repeat’ in the car CD player (no track-jumping here!) – a recording which adroitly achieves a perfect synthesis of slick production and spontaneous, improvisatory performance.

Garland and colleagues ‘roadworked’ this material, whilst touring, to both hone and co-own the interpretations which made the final recording. Such acquired confidence is evident from the off, in Sama’i for Peace whose energetic and tricksy ten-beat pulse fuses Sirkis’ Middle Eastern colours, emphasised by Hossam Ramzy’s added percussion, with Genesis-like electronic keyboard and guitar sustenance; and Garland’s soprano exuberance seems to hit new heights. Bright New Year must be one of the most optimistic, blue-sky compositions heard in some time, its shimmering, folksy guitar and piano supporting Garland’s memorable, soaring melodies (Ant Law’s 12-string acoustic adding hard-edged urgency); and the burning drama of The Eternal Greeting demands focus as Garland’s deep tenor richness pirouettes with the gradually building instrumental weave.

Colours of Night ripples with Garland’s signature compositional riffs, echoing his jazz-fusion association with Chick Corea – and the depth of chordal Rhodes and guitar palettes ensure that this quartet always remains strong, without the need for a bassist. Here, Ant Law’s high electric guitar improvisations are both incisive and dextrous, whilst Zawinulesque keyboards and Sirkis’ remarkable konnakol voice send shivers up the spine – this is a band which continually seeks out new combinations to impressive effect. Prototype hits the King Crimson and Yes buttons with vigour, its flawless, percussive synchronisation and Law’s searing guitar recalling that first rush of hearing Robert Fripp or Steve Howe; and Gathering Dark‘s smouldering Mediterranean journey, featuring Jason Rebello’s typical elegant piano improvisation, is full of mercurial interest.

Dionne Bennett’s smoky and earnest vocal adds weight to Garland’s lyrics in Pity the Poor Arms Dealer – a passionate protest song against arms profiteering (though amidst the album’s predominant, instrumental feel-good, it could seem a little incongruous). Foretold is reminiscent of Garland’s excellent Libra album, his multi-layered tenor combining with synthy washes and both Sirkis’ and Ramzy’s percussive elaborations; and to close, Youkay fizzes with the most delicious Weather Reportian fervour – quite possibly the album standout.

Succinctly… it’s difficult to recommend this album too highly.

Released on Edition Records, ONE is available as CD and high-quality download at Bandcamp.

 

Tim Garland soprano and tenor saxophones, additional keyboards and percussion
Asaf Sirkis drums, percussion, konnakol
Jason Rebello piano, Fender Rhodes, Hammond B3 organ, keyboards
Ant Law nylon string, 12 string, 8 string and semi-acoustic guitars
with guests
Hossam Ramzy doholla, Egyptian tabla, karkabu (tracks 1, 4 and 8)
Dionne Bennett vocals (track 7)

timgarland.com

Edition Records – EDN1072 (2016)

‘Drama’ – Colin Towns Mask Orchestra

Drama

BEFITTINGLY, Colin Towns’ latest production, Drama, is lavish, expansive and thrilling. Drawn from the composer/keyboardist’s extensive, high-profile projects for the theatre – an environment which he has more than successfully navigated for many years – this double CD combines original music from an impressive range of stage productions with jazz-focused reinterpretations.

The Mask Orchestra was formed by Towns back in 1990 – and for this seventh release, he welcomes back a host of seasoned, big-name jazz artists to collaborate with new-generation players (all listed below) to create a dynamic 21-piece wall of sound. The scale of the undertaking is epic – so much so that these two and a quarter hours might initially feel somewhat dizzying. But then, out of the seemingly relentless rush, the detail begins to emerge as Colin Towns’ considerable jazz, rock, TV and stage soundtrack experience is distilled into a gripping collection of skilfully crafted portraits which draw on a variety of genres, whilst incorporating and encouraging jazz’s inherent improvisational excitement.

To ‘tread the boards’ appropriately, the band were required to digest the synopses of the fifteen storylines – from Macbeth to Hysteria, The Cherry Orchard to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Whatever level of understanding you may or may not have of these great theatrical works, there’s a hair-tingling exhilaration to the musical realisation of each; Towns’ description of his compositions (with their origins in shows from 1986 to 2014) being “simply maps, and the musicians are the magicians who turn them into 3D kaleidoscopes.”

As the house lights fade, this ‘supergroup pit orchestra’ launches into a raucous pictorialisation of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, a fascinating hybrid of Russian dance and New Orleans street jazz, briefly tempered by Julian Siegel’s lyrical tenor and then excitingly driven into its conclusion by Chris Montague’s electric guitar flamboyance and Stephan Maass’s elaborate percussion. The barren, windswept landscape of Shakespeare’s Macbeth becomes increasingly agitated as it evolves into big band grandeur, brimming with rippling horn riffs and Andrew McCormack’s propulsive piano energy; and the languid jazz expression of Long Day’s Journey Into Night reflects the relentless weariness and bitterness of Eugene O’Neill’s script, beautifully portrayed by close-knit harmonies and sumptuous tenor trombone and sax soloing.

Tom Stoppard’s Shakespearean tragicomedy Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is sneerily quirky and spiky, and The Bard’s own King Lear eerily captured in Towns’ choral synth miniature, with eloquent tenor solo from Nigel Hitchcock. Peter Shaffer’s troubled equine tale, Equus, darts and leaps with especially effective, sinister trumpet neighs and exciting brass and baritone chasing sections; disquieting Ghosts (Henrik Ibsen) floats mysteriously to Henry Lowther’s lithe trumpet lines; and closing ‘Act One’, Terry Johnson’s impressions of Dali and Freud, Hysteria, are portrayed on a grand scale by Towns’ inventive, saturated orchestration, including sumptuous tenor work from Tim Garland.

Opening ‘Act Two’, the Peruvian hues of Peter Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun are enhanced by a buoyant passing around of its progressive, anthemic tune, swelled by saxophone-led improv and Joji Hirota’s huge, Japanese percussion; and vivid orchestration in The Cripple of Inishmaan (Martin McDonagh) cleverly evokes Irish pipes and fiddle. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest‘s energetic fourteen minutes (interpreting Dale Wasserman’s stage adaptation of Ken Kesey’s famous novel, then movie) become crazy, challenging, mesmerising… and downright entertaining (its fullness almost beyond categorisation), whilst the inquiring nature of Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen is reflected in the fantastic, pressing urgency of Towns’ big band thriller. And emotionally romantic Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë) is captured by the misty, slow-waltzing soprano sax of Simon Allen.

Towns’ vast musical depiction of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (at virtually twenty minutes, almost too broad to take in) is volatile and impassioned, offering a spectacular window into the composer’s major contribution to British theatre. And before a triumphal, final reprise of The Royal Hunt of the Sun, the liberated themes of A Doll’s House (Henrik Ibsen, Frank McGuinness) are presented in exuberant, showy, jazz big band style, Montague’s guitar adding a contemporary, rasping edge – truly edge-of-the-seat stuff!

Most definitely not your average jazz release – but, especially for those with a theatrical proclivity, this is an ambitious project which delivers on so many levels. Released on 2 October 2015 on the Provocateur label, Drama is available from online and record store outlets, and at iTunes.

 

George Hogg, Graham Russell, Henry Lowther, Rory Simmons trumpets/flugelhorns
Barnaby Dickinson, Tom White, Harry Brown tenor trombones
Roger Williams bass trombone
Peter King, Simon Allen alto/soprano saxophones
Tim Garland, Alan Skidmore, Nigel Hitchcock tenor/soprano saxophones
Julian Siegel baritone/bass clarinet/tenor/soprano/clarinet/flute
Stephan Maass percussion/electronic percussion
Andrew McCormack piano
Arnd Geise bass
Chris Montague guitars
Ralph Salmins drums
Colin Towns keyboards
with special guest Joji Hirota percussion

colintowns.com

Provocateur Records – PVC1044 (2015)