‘Animalia’ – Mammal Hands

Animalia

IT’S NO SURPRISE that the live gigs of newcomers Mammal Hands caught the ears of Nick Blacka (bass player with trio-of-the-moment GoGo Penguin) – subsequently recommending them to Gondwana Records boss Matthew Halsall who duly signed them to his growing catalogue of new artists – for there’s more than a hint of Blacka’s band in this, their resulting debut release, Animalia, as well as echoes of early Portico Quartet. Yet their style is also defined by elements of electronica, classical minimalism, dance, Africana, and Indian classical, creating a richly creative blend which can, in equal measure, both move and excite.

The strong Norwich-based trio comprises brothers Nick Smart (piano) and Jordan Smart (saxes), with Jesse Barratt on drums and tabla – their eight original compositions here very much on-trend with the current wave of eclectic, democratically-conceived contemporary jazz ensembles. And what a compelling first outing this is.

Eschewing the traditional double bass element doesn’t, as one might expect, result in imbalance, thanks to the solid-chorded/octaved rhythmic piano of Nick Smart. Indeed, opener Mansions of Millions of Years – with influences and moods that might suggest e.s.t., Reich, Glass and Satie, as well as a raga pulse and energy – displays the impassioned intent of this one-time busking band, Jordan Smart’s escalating soprano sax whirling and crying over the busyness of piano and drums. The three players clearly share an empathy in composition and performance, delivering a varied sound world – the brief and more contemplative Snow Bough spacially glinting to falling piano and sax melodies which possess delightful Japanese koto-like clarity.

A brooding sense of anticipation fills Kandaiki, Jordan Smart’s clipped vibrato lines very much reminiscent of Portico’s Jack Wyllie – and here can be found the magic of the trio, as piano and sax intertwine contrapuntal melodies and harmonies over a simmering, near-perpetual 5/4 piano and drum figure. In contrast, the percussive, yet melancholy, open landscape of Spinning the Wheel finds Jordan Smart’s soprano in folky, yearning vein, Nick’s dark-set low piano chords shrouding the piece in mystery.

Suitably-titled Bustle teems with life to its pianistically-tricky seven-beat ostinati and trip-up pauses; and Jesse Barratt’s complex, ticking momentum, including subtly hollow tabla, is great to focus on. Luxuriant Inuit Party presents a particularly rich combination of tenor punch, tightly-clustered piano chords and solid four-square beat which also offers a tangible improvisatory glimmer of their live act. Upping their game still further – and a real stand-out – Street Sweeper revels in an infectious groove, the Smart brothers sharing melodies over an effusive left-hand piano hook, Barratt shuffling enthusiastically as well as offering a joyous touch of Cuban clatter.

Larger-scale Tiny Crumb closes the album, highlighting the trio’s aptitude for building and elaborating on themes, moving up through keys with ever-increasing urgency. Again, Nick Smart’s all-encompassing piano presence is impressive, sharing with Jesse Barratt its rhythmic intensity, all the while encouraging the apparent vigour of Jordan Smart’s tenor (the end of his white-hot, Pharaoh Sanders-style soloing induces a desire to applaud!); and then, a hypnotic, tabla-decorated end-piece which hints at a much longer play-out than afforded here.

As a debut, Animalia is captivating, yet also feels like just the beginning of Mammal Hands’ creative musings. In their multifarious musical minds, not to mention their considerable instrumental proficiency, Gondwana have signed a breakthrough band capable of hitting the heights. Catch a glimpse of the band at 2013’s Mostly Jazz Festival, as well as the official video for Mansions of Millions of Years.

Releasing on 15 September 2014, pre-order/purchase the album (and preview a couple of tracks) at Gondwana Records’ Bandcamp Store.

 

Nick Smart piano
Jordan Smart saxophones
Jesse Barratt drums, tabla

gondwanarecords.com

Gondwana Records – GONDCD011 (2014)

‘First Light’ – Andrew McCormack

FirstLight

‘MODERN CLASSIC’ is the recurring impression, each time I listen to this latest piano trio release, First Light, from Englishman in New York, Andrew McCormack.

The trajectory of McCormack’s jazz career has been fascinating to monitor since his 2007 debut album, Telescope, through to the more recent digital-only Live in London of 2012. In between, his musical partnership with saxophonist Jason Yarde (in two impressive duo recordings, as well as captivating live performances), revealed much about his personality and musical drive – and a relocation across the Atlantic to immerse himself in the American jazz scene has now, excitingly, increased his compositional/improvisational creativity and technical accomplishment to the heights that are to be discovered here.

Along with NYC rhythm section Zack Lober (bass) and Colin Stranahan (drums), the pianist delivers a precise set of eight contrasting originals, plus a closing interpretation of Thelonious Monk – and, pleasingly, the overarching feel is one of an intelligent and inventive trio at ease with their connective artistry, which makes for the most heartwarming chamber jazz experience.

Bustling Prospect Park launches the album, perhaps suggesting the freedoms of Brooklyn’s urban oasis, McCormack’s morning-light piano seemingly dancing and cascading in the sun. The brisk, jaunty bass and drum tempo is particularly finely weighted, neither of the three players overshadowing the other, which enhances the sense of openness – and it’s a joy to experience McCormack’s exquisite keyboard touch throughout. Gotham Soul probes and twists to McCormack’s misterioso opening left-hand motif, gradually building in intensity but then pulling back to reveal a delicate double bass extemporisation against the combined subtlety of piano and drums – the communication lines here are most definitely clear, as the pianist closes with contrapuntal finesse. There’s a certain Monkish impudence and unpredictability to Leap of Faith, the trio’s jabbing punches transforming into McCormack’s effortless, melodic rolling across the keys to Lober’s steady, city-walking bass and Stranahan’s drumming intricacy.

Title track First Light summons the cerebral sound world of Bill Evans, such is the measured lucidity of all three musicians – but, specifically, it’s the incredible detailing of Andrew McCormack, from held-back droplet melodies, through rapid high runs and chordal saturation, and then back to final, sustained simplicity which vividly paints that very first, quiet glimpse of daybreak. Lober’s opening chromatic bass edginess in Reluctant Gift contrasts well, eventually breaking into more confident ground until the whole trio flies at impressive speed, inviting a hard-hitting show from Colin Stranahan until its unexpected… STOP! Reflecting the cityscape impressions of the cover art, Vista quietly patters through shifting major/minors, building and fading as if to emulate the changing patterns of a day in the US capital, pitching tranquillity against the heavy hydraulic hiss of sprawling traffic.

The River is more improvisatory in feel, ebbing and flowing to individual creative thoughts and a great combined bass and piano bass pulse, yet always cohesive. Its tense, jarring motifs are quite different to the earlier, reflective numbers; and elaborated live possibilities – hinted at by Stranahan’s colourful percussion – can easily be imagined. A brief interlude, Faith Remembered, recalls themes from the earlier Leap of Faith, expertly reinterpreting them into a pensive, perhaps melancholy, late-night piano solo. And then, to close, Thelonious Monk’s Pannonica, McCormack and his trio exchanging the writer’s trademark piano ‘clumsiness’ for a suitably bright’n’breezy evening walk in the park – full circle: first light to twilight.

Released on 7 July 2014 by increasingly successful British label Edition Records – superbly recorded/produced and packaged – First Light is available in digital and CD formats from their Bandcamp store. Certainly the mark of a consummate pianist/composer with a maturing, distinctive voice… and an album to treasure.

 

Andrew McCormack piano
Zack Lober double bass
Colin Stranahan drums

Edition Records – EDN1052 (2014)

‘The New Straight Ahead’ – NYSQ (New York Standards Quartet)

NYSQ

THESE GUYS just wanna have fun!… and how clearly that message is conveyed, from the amiable tenor/piano intro and throughout The New Straight Ahead. Taking on ‘the jazz standards’ and setting them off in all kinds of new directions – avoiding the cracks and potholes of mediocrity and tedium – is no mean feat. But, on this joyous Whirlwind debut, the NYSQ (New York Standards Quartet) possess experience and passion, in spades, to carry it off.

Although a clear and immediate studio recording, the mood here is one of stumbling in off the street to find the most gloriously-ebullient four-piece at full tilt, buying a beer or two and waiting to discover which unlikely jazz avenue is traversed next. And up on stage, bringing this affectionate, colorised journey to life, are renowned musicians Tim Armacost (saxes), David Berkman (piano), Daiki Yasukagawa (bass) and Gene Jackson (drums).

Take, for example, It Don’t Mean a Thing which, contrary to the sentiment of the original lyric, finds a new spirit when taken on a surprisingly different rhythmic path. Both the dissective reworking and Tim Armacost’s soprano resemble the inquiring artistry of Wayne Shorter, Ellington’s original rapid swing smoothed into a broader, more leisurely, but still upbeat tempo. Evergreen (or browny orange) Autumn Leaves opens in familiar enough territory, but then takes off apace to Armacost’s liquid tenor, the band audaciously dipping in and out of 7/8 with palpable glee. Daiki Yasukagawa’s perfectly pliant bass sets up a boisterous interpretation of Herbie Hancock’s The Maze which bristles to a fervid bass and drum propulsion, with scintillating solo displays both from ‘Dexter’ Armacost and David Berkman at the piano.

Delightfully lush chords introduce When You Wish Upon a Star – mellow Scott Hamilton-style meanderings on the classic Disney tune of Harline/Washington; Remember finds Armacost in a perky Stan Getz state of mind, its assured, effervescent pulse courtesy of Gene Jackson’s flamboyance at the kit; and the piano quirkiness of Thelonious Monk’s Misterioso is embraced by Berkman, with Armacost’s sax offering an added dimension. Ah-leu-cha is one of the stand-outs of the album, a near-eight-minute offering which carries Charlie Parker’s original along on a wave of soprano-infused energy; and, in contrast, beautifully lyrical tenor improvisations on Jobim’s Zingaro relax to a gently shimmering South American piano and percussion sundown.

Released on 22 July 2014, this fourth NYSQ release warmly demonstrates how adaptable, in qualified hands, such old favourites can be… and it’s a great vibe to return to again and again. The band are clearly proud of their current eight years together, touring internationally, and happy to quote a Tokyo nightclub listener’s compliment: “I can hear each guy doing his own thing, but you’re doing it together”.

Visit the album page at Whirlwind for more information, promo video and purchasing.

 

Tim Armacost tenor and soprano saxophones
David Berkman piano
Daiki Yasukagawa double bass
Gene Jackson drums

Whirlwind Recordings – WR4654 (2104)

‘Subterranean: New designs on Bowie’s Berlin’ – Dylan Howe

Subterranean

THE ‘BERLIN YEARS’ of David Bowie’s wide-ranging pop/rock career are amongst the most memorable – a source of fascination and inspiration to musicians, including composers and instrumentalists from other genres.

In the mid-to-late ’70s, Bowie had turned his attentions to a more minimalistic/ambient output, influenced by a move to West Berlin and stemming from his interest in postmodernist contemporary art. The recorded legacy of that period centres around two (some say three) seminal albums – Low and Heroes, both from 1977 – produced by Tony Visconti and including celebrated rock experimentalists Brian Eno and Robert Fripp. Two decades on, leading American contemporary composer – and friend of Bowie – Philip Glass reimagined both projects as stunning orchestral symphonies which highlighted the far-reaching creative possibilities of these iconic compositions.

Now, as a fan of Bowie’s original recordings from his teenage years, and seeking a more original and personal direction for his own work, British rock and jazz drummer Dylan Howe has translated the ‘call’ of that ‘Berlin era’ into a remarkable new studio release, Subterraneans, mainly interpreting the instrumental aspects of this pair of albums. Created over a period of several years, and realised thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, the accomplished personnel comprises Julian Siegel and Brandon Allen (tenor sax), Ross Stanley (piano, synths) and Mark Hodgson (double bass) along with appearances from bassist Nick Pini, guitarist Adrian Utley and special guest on koto, Dylan’s father (needing no introduction to Yes fans!), Steve Howe.

The landscape of the project is broadly filmic, encompassing prog/synth rock and post-bop jazz; and whilst initially slow burning, it progresses and expands into an imaginatively colourful fusion of both. So, opening track Subterraneans maintains the shifting synth profile of the Low original, but ticks perhaps more optimistically to Howe’s snare/cymbal rhythm and the subtle explorations of piano and sax. Weeping Wall encourages a greater jazz quintet presence and momentum, Howe prominent at the kit against Vangelis-like electronics; and the extended All Saints (a later Bowie creation), opening with the expressive bass of Mark Hodgson, leaps into a wide piano-driven jazz swing, Brandon Allen taking the wonderfully hard, dry Coltrane-esque tenor solos (sinister synth whinings hovering behind).

Some Are smoulders like some late ’60s TV thriller theme, leading to the similar drama of Neuköln – Night (from Heroes) – this time, an effective, fast-paced reworking in which Howe’s drums and Stanley’s piano skitter to the ebullition of Nick Pini’s bass. Howe takes Art Decade to another place, its ambient Eno-like qualities evident, but shimmering as a sensuously-felt, droplet-piano ballad. Warszawa – in Bowie’s hands, sombre and menacing – becomes sprightly and dance-like to Dylan Howe’s touch. Whilst such a transformation might sound crass or insensitive, it is in fact surprisingly successful; tempered with unsettling moments characterised by Adrian Utley’s echoic guitar, the jazz groove which ultimately dominates these eleven minutes is joyful in its synth-infused abandon.

Neuköln – Day picks up on the earlier Night theme; here, a darker variation – and my futile, self-indulgent desire at this point anticipates a crashing Sound Chaser-like injection from master guitarist Steve Howe! But no fear – Mr Howe (Senior) takes up the koto embellishments of serene Moss Garden to close the set.

Released on 7 July 2014, Dylan Howe will be touring Subterranean in the UK from 5 September (see dates below). Whether or not Bowie runs through your veins, it’s worth investigating at Bandcamp (download/CD/vinyl) – and endorsed enthusiastically by davidbowie.com.

 

Dylan Howe drums
Mark Hodgson double bass
Ross Stanley piano, synths
Brandon Allen tenor saxophone
Julian Siegel tenor saxophone
with
Nick Pini double bass
Adrian Utley guitar
Steve Howe koto

dylanhowe.com

2014 tour dates:
Dylan Howe; Dave Whitford; Ross Stanley; Steve Lodder; Andy Sheppard

5 September: Colchester
10 September: Lincoln
11 September: Nottingham
12 September: Derby
13 September: Hessle
26 September: Brighton
29 September: London
1 October: Halifax
2 October: Milton Keynes
3 October: Liverpool
18 October: Coventry

Motorik Recordings – MR1004 (2014)

‘#ONE’ – Black Top with Steve Williamson

BlackTop

THE ALBUM ART is intriguing, only subtly hinting at the extended explorations contained within. Recorded live at the creative crucible that is Jazz in the Round (curated by BBC Jazz on 3’s Jez Nelson at The Cockpit Theatre, London), duo Black Top collaborate with saxophonist Steve Williamson to produce an absorbing free jazz experience.

Former Jazz Warriors Pat Thomas (piano, keyboards and electronics) and Orphy Robinson (marimba, vibes, steel pan, trumpet and electronics) have, over the past three years, been experimenting with live instruments and lo-fi technology, inviting jazz ‘royalty’ such as Shabaka Hutchings, Jason Yarde and Claude Deppa to guest with them to create a diversity of improvised trio sets. For this performance and subsequent debut release (recorded in January 2012), they welcomed back acclaimed saxophonist Steve Williamson, together setting up these excitingly original, live soundscapes.

The album’s three tracks cover a spectrum of musical textures and shifting atmospheres, referencing New York’s ‘Loft Scene’ avant-gardism of the 1970s as well as revealing Afro-Caribbean influences and dance rhythms. Piano, marimba and saxes take centre stage, but Black Top also infuse their evident virtuosity with a plenitude of beats, samples, loops and effects.

Opener There Goes the Neighbourhood! meanders to the unadorned sounds of tenor sax, marimba and piano, the three players spontaneously developing their shared ideas with increasing complexity, intermittently augmented by pounding electronic dubstep patterns and oscillations. The gradually-changing marimba ostinatos are, unsurprisingly, redolent of Steve Reich, Thomas’s full piano stabs adding to the hypnotic pulse and Williamson’s tenor melodically soaring above.

At almost 24 minutes in length, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner provides a central focus. The deep, hollow voice of the marimba possesses a strong personality, Robinson building its sustained, edgy mystery towards a repeated phrase on which Thomas lavishes a brash and richly percussive Cuban-style piano display, jabbing and rolling across the entire keyboard. Crunchy tenor heightens the excitement, Williamson blasting and scurrying to the concurrent fever. This expansive journey is initially indeterminate and unpredictable, yet the familiarity of repeated listenings remains just as compelling, the trance-like effect of spiralling soprano sax, rapid marimba, fuzzed electronics, jagged piano and thudding rhythm impressively gripping – and then a palpable calmness when it briefly dies back to more spacial cerebration. The closing section finds Williamson’s soprano sneering broadly at the keys, though piano and marimba are up for the challenge with the same tumultuous intensity… and appearing unresolved at the close!

Archaic Nubian Stepdub throws electronics to the fore in this funkier and more succinct closing track, its perpetual-though-shifting rhythms encouraging Williamson to reciprocate with similarly loop-mimicked soprano sax.

One of Babel Label’s 20th anniversary releases for 2014, the exhilarant rhythms and open environments of #ONE are capable of prompting an almost interactive listener response, such is their power to move. To sample and purchase, visit Babel’s website/Bandcamp store – and catch a great video excerpt of the gig here.

 

Pat Thomas piano, keyboards, electronics
Orphy Robinson marimba, vibes, steel pan, trumpet, electronics
with
Steve Williamson tenor and soprano saxophones

Babel Label – BDV14128 (2014)

‘Devotion’ – Marko Churnchetz

Print

THAT MOMENT when the ears prick up and the spine tingles. In the world of contemporary jazz, it happens fairly frequently… but not so often to this level. Debuting on the Whirlwind label, Slovenian pianist/keyboardist and composer Marco Churnchetz may just have entered the annual ‘best of’ stakes with Devotion – an outstanding programme of originals.

New York-based Churnchetz (Črnčec) is clearly influenced by the 1970s explosion of seminal keyboard creatives, including Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. Together with an exceptional Stateside quartet – Mark Shim (tenor sax, midi controller), Christopher Tordini (basses) and Justin Brown (drums) – he melds stylish post-bop jazz and progressive jazz/rock grooves into an intoxicatingly distinctive fusion. And all presided over by his own staggering pianistic proficiency.

Being There is a suitably sizzling curtain-raiser, the quartet’s acoustic personae bristling with energy, Churnchetz and tenorist Mark Shim quite breathtaking in their relentless extemporisations. Here is a band high in confidence, in full control – yet this is only for starters! The rapid piano and Patrick Moraz-like midi synth runs of feverish, flamencan Schizo prepare the way for the most incredibly gritty tenor show from Shim… and it’s the pin-sharp rhythmic edge provided by double bassist Tordini and drummer Brown which perpetuates the tingling excitement. Title track Devotion cymbal-shimmers to the lyrical meanderings of piano and tenor – a beautifully open and considered ballad which demonstrates this quartet’s shared intuition, building in intensity with Shim reaching his higher register.

The jazz fusion pizazz of Gonzalost (presumably a reference to the brilliance of Afro-Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba) is one of the finest recorded displays I have experienced all year. The perfect electric bass and Fender Rhodes groove partnership here summons memories of Bill Bruford’s late ’70s solo releases (Dave Stewart, Jeff Berlin), Shim carrying the pitch-bent synth torch brightly, and Justin Brown (fix the ‘drum cam’ on him!) absolutely scintillating at the kit. Complete with infectious Latin piano octaves and tremendous band co-ordination throughout, this is one for iPod repeat mode. A brief Interprelude keeps the pot boiling, leading to similarly blazing (and appropriately titled) Risk Free, characterised by highly-charged tenor and piano, and inhabitating a sound world which nods to the likes of Weather Report and the Moutin Reunion Quartet. Running at eight minutes (and in common with most of the tracks), there is space for themes and ideas to develop, Shim’s searching tenor displaying Shorteresque beauty, and Justin Brown magnificent in hard-hitting complexity.

Shim’s mellifluous tenor lead in Without Tomorrow is achingly beautiful against supporting acoustic piano, bass and drums – an exquisite repose before the keyboard-fest of Late sparkles to the retro-imbued mix of Rhodes, midi controller, electric bass and drums (sans sax) – utterly irresistible. The closing Improvisation finds Churnchetz’s solo piano animated, rippling and enquiring – a raw glimpse of his unfettered creative genius.

Released on 7 July 2014, further information and purchasing can be found here.

A wondrous release – not to be missed!

 

Marko Churnchetz piano, Fender Rhodes, keyboards
Mark Shim tenor saxophone, Yamaha Wind electric MIDI controller
Christopher Tordini acoustic bass, electric bass
Justin Brown drums

markocrncec.com

Whirlwind Recordings – WR4653 (2014)

‘Pulcinella’ – Bestiole

Pulcinella

FIZZZZING with les ébats et le feu (er, frolics and fire), French quartet Bestiole create an extravagant, fantastical whirl of excitement with their third album, Pulcinella.

Hailing from the South West (Toulouse) and translated as ‘tiny creatures’, Bestiole consists of the tireless and highly inventive talents of Ferdinand Doumerc (saxes, flute, metallaphone), Florian Demonsant (accordion, kaval), Jean-Marc Serpin (double bass) and Frédéric Cavallin (drums, metallophone, glockenspiel). And together, with theatrical, circus-like wonder as well as an innate jazz sensibility, they present this eleven-track cross-genre amalgam of kaleidoscopic colour.

That typically Gallic pairing of saxophone and accordion features strongly throughout, delivered with fluent, showy abandon by Doumerc and Demonsant. At times, as in the long-titled opening number Garez vous chez vous dans l’allée vous emmerdez tout le monde, there’s a resemblance to the Iain Ballamy and Stian Carstensen duo project, ‘The Little Radio’. But, as a quartet, with added bass and drums thrust, they push their ideas to the limits via squawks, flutters, glissandi, handclaps and yells (check out Ni vu ni connu) over rapid ostinato phrases. First hearings suggest chaos and randomness, but it’s all carefully conceived and beautifully executed.

Christiana identifies the band’s more reflective alter ego – a mysteriously lilting waltz propelled by bassist Jean-Marc Serpin, its sustained, cascading accordion gently underpinning Doumerc’s mellow tenor. The addition of Patrick Vaillant’s mandolin and Daniel Casimir’s trombone in Sur le pavé la lune conjures clandestine monochrome movie mischief, although this slippery, moonlit soundworld later breaks down into a mandolin-induced riot of brass and percussion (it’s this unpredictability which is so fascinating). The gently-rocking metallophone in Morphée, along with its slumberous tenor melody, vividly illustrates the idea of twilight sleep – and although there’s a twist (again) as sinister, nightmarish overtones develop, quietude is eventually restored.

The cheeky, spacial brevity of Raksi chaparrak (la danse du papillon) – its trilled flutes reminiscent of Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson – leads to the wonderfully sauntering-cum-swinging Le moustique ambiteux, Serpin and Cavallin providing the spiky bass and percussion propulsion – infectious stuff indeed! ‘Jazz-funk salsa’ inhabits another short episode, Tu parles trop (or ‘you talk too much’), its yakking nature portrayed superbly by pecking mandolin and brassy chatterings. Niger is sublime in contrast – lyrical tenor against undulating accordion. And then… eight minutes in the company of La Tarantelle, which buzzes, clatters and falls over itself with unalloyed exuberance. This whirling dance, which rests only momentarily, seems to sum up the band’s ethos – put simply, a rollicking good time! The quietly bewitching endpiece, Envoûtement, with its breathy kaval melody over repeated metallophone (curiously recalling Gong, Mike Oldfield) is exquisite, and a mark of Bestiole’s impressive musicality.

Successfully coupled on recent UK gigs (in the Match & Fuse series) with similarly brash British bands Troyka and Brass Mask, Pulcinella is now on general release, and hugely entertaining – here’s a quick blast of what to expect.

 

Ferdinand Doumerc saxophones, flûte, métallophone
Florian Demonsant accordéon, kaval
Jean-Marc Serpin contrebasse
Frédéric Cavallin batterie, métallophone, glockenspiel
with
Patric Vaillant mandoline
Daniel Casimir trombone

Yellowbird/Enja – 9276 (2014)