Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Russ Johnson: Meeting Point (Relay Records, 2014)

It's always exciting when I see Tim Daisy's name on a record. For me he's one of the top drummers out there on the jazz and improvised music scene. In the past few years he's started his own label and this is the twelfth release - if you include the four live recordings in the catalogue. If you don't know the label be sure to check out the back catalogue, which has some fine recordings. If you don't know Tim's playing then I suggest you take some time to listen to his past work. He's been involved in some of the most interesting contemporary jazz and improvised music projects of the past years.

This latest release is from trumpeter Russ Johnson. Johnson is a fine player who's no newcomer to the jazz and improvised music scene. If you check out his blog you'll see a fine range of projects he's been involved in. I originally saw him many years back with Michael Bates' Outside Sources, playing some gigs in Europe. Since then his name has appears regularly, either in one of his own units, with bassist Cameron Brown or the Belgian saxophonist, Robin Verheyen's NY Quartet. 

In the meanwhile, the new record from Russ Johnson Meeting Point is the eighth studio project to come out on Relay Records. On this record Russ has chosen a quartet line-up made up of: Jason Stein – bass clarinet; Anton Hatwich –bass; Tim Daisy – drums, and of course Russ – trumpet.

The album uses melody, combined with free elements, to build compositions and improvisations, giving a nice balance between the two, that make the music easily listenable, yet challenging. The first track Lithosphere is a funky piece, with bass and bass clarinet underpinning the melody in what could be either a bass-line, or counter-melody. When the solos start, the bass and drums keep the whole thing together, but, whilst the trumpet solos above, the bass clarinet punctuates below, coming in from time to time with ideas to accompany. Eventually the two wind instruments swap places, as one fades out the other steps forward. 

The other pieces constantly move between styles. Confluence tracks 2-4, are (I imagine) a sort of suite - titled: 'Introduction', 'Part I', 'Part II'. Russ Johnson leads the way using the material from Part I, developing it as a drum duet. He stays close to the melody, not tempted to use his chops, other than for dynamics. Eventually the whole band joins in and the piece takes a sort of slinky feel, looping around the bass line with Jason Stein playing some excellent bass clarinet, managing to avoid melodic clichés by searching out sounds that fit within the harmony. It's a solo bass clarinet that carries us across into the Part II, creating a dark sombre atmosphere. Russ Johnson plays a lovely rubato theme which gives the ensemble a cue to step up the volume and energy. Tim Daisy leads the way with a great drum solo which evolves out of the music, until almost from nowhere we are introduced briefly to the first theme, which fades into the background. Great piece, fine playing all round.

There are three pieces titled Conversation, (tk5 with Stein, tk7 with Hatwich, tk9 with Daily). These improvised duet pieces add a nice touch (and interlude) to the album's main tracks. Each one has something special, according to the instrumental combination.

This leaves us with Clothesline (tk6), Chaos theory (tk8) and Half Full (tk10). Chaos theory is an excellent track, starting off with an 'Ornette-ish' type theme, which develops into a wonderful rubato piece where the rhythm section and soloist play off each other, melodically and rhythmically. It has great energy, and an elastic feel which keeps you listening. And, there's some fine soloing from everyone!

The last track Half Full is a very gentle piece, again using the melody as a bass line and the basis for the improvisations. It's a great way to finish off the album. The track gradually builds up its energy as it heads towards the end, stretching the time feel like an accelerating train. This gives a sense of urgency to the track, and brings us to the end of a very satisfying album. 

The music and the group are top notch throughout, keeping you fixed to your seat. It really combines so many elements, but, it a coherent way. It's a slow burner, as I've noticed through the weeks, which is perfect, after all who wants to know a whole album straight away? 

Great album, recommended to all who enjoy swing, freedom, melody and creativity.        

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

More from Singlespeed: #2 - Cory Wright Outfit: Apples + Oranges

Welcome to part two of Singlespeed Music's releases this month. Today it's the turn of the Cory Wright Outfit with "Apples and Oranges", or is that, as written, "Apples + Oranges"......?

I have to say straight away that this is a new one for me, a great surprise. Singlespeed mentioned in a press release that he was bringing out a record from Cory Wright, unbeknown to me this record was going to blow me out of my chair - sofa in fact.

Next, what type of music is it?

What really defines the music on this release is the excellent ensemble playing, combined with beautifully written charts and arrangements, there isn't one duff track on the record. The underlying trend of the music is built on tradition, and in particular that of hard-bop. Yet, the group, and the compositions, take this much, much further. The music develops in an extremely organic fashion, using some intriguing methods, tempo changes, improvised sections and hot fiery solos. The music sits on neither side of the fence, taking in straight ahead and improvised musical traditions. Cory Wright has put together a set of charts which succeed in the same way that the Ken Vandermark Five have tried in the past. Other groups, such as Atomic or Motif, have also pushed in the same direction, combining accessible melodies with alternative ways of soloing over (or with) material. 

On this record examples of that can be found from the start Freddie Awaits the Sleepers blasts off the record, a theme that could come straight from the Marsalis song-book (with a difference). Great melody, wonderfully arranged interlocking hits and rhythm section breaks, before letting the soloists play their magic over the whole thing.

That's just the beginning of the record, things keep coming at you! Low Impact Critter (tk2) starts off with some great free blowing before coming together for a theme, using an impro/theme/impro/theme type form, to great effect. St. Bruno's Preview (tk3), gives you a breather, a short 'to the point', quasi ballad. Many of the pieces tread a fine path between total freedom and organised melody, added to this the soloists negotiate each piece, fitting in perfectly. One of the key soloists, Evan Francis (alto sax and flute), plays some very fiery solos, using strong sinewy lines to bring tension to the music. Cory Wright also plays some excellent tenor sax, reminding me of Oliver Nelson at times - a way of playing a sax like a composer. He also plays clarinet on The Sea and Space (tk5), giving us new colours in the ensemble sound, and of course the solos also. But the whole ensemble is clearly top notch, Rob Ewing, on trombone, plays a key role in the ensemble's sound, adding fine imaginative solos along the way. Add to that the fine bass and drums team of Lisa Mezzacappa and Jordan Glenn who do a great job of bending over backwards to fit into all situations with equal energy and inventiveness. The album clearly works best listened to as a whole, the shorter pieces - all titled St. Bruno's .... - work as melodic interludes connecting the larger scale pieces.

Finally, as you can see there's plenty to say about this record. It's a top notch album that should be heard, especially by those interested to hear inventive music from the American west coast. This is how one imagines jazz should be, fresh, musical, adventurous, and certainly no pretensions.      

The musicians: Cory Wright - tenor sax & Bb clarinet; Evan Francis - alto sax, flute; Rob Ewing - trombone; Lisa Mezzacappa - bass; Jordan Glenn - drums.


Enjoy the clip from YouTube "Freddy Awaits the Sleepers", which is a pretty good taste of what the album sounds like.

If you enjoy this check some more releases on the Singlespeed Music label.

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