Ensemble perfection May round-up
Energy and spontaneity thrive in this glorious album full of rich variety and gorgeous soul
Branford Marsalis Quartet
The Secret Between the
Shadow and the Soul Branford Marsalis (saxophones),
Joey Calderazzo (piano), Eric Revis (bass), Justin Faulkner (drums)
Branford Marsalis’s method when planning a set for his quartet is to have everyone bring their ideas along and see what excites. In the studio he emphasises melody and rhythmic drive over harmony, resulting in music that has clarity and drive, but with everyone free to play in the cracks.
‘Dance of the Evil Toys’, Revis’s opener on the new album, is a case in point: it’s nervy and pushed hard by the leader, the rhythm section freestyling busily around him. By contrast, the group’s treatment of the late pianist Andrew Hill’s quirky piece ‘Snake Hip Waltz’ is bluesy, with a comedic edge that can’t quite disguise the fiercely concentrated group interplay.
Calderazzo brings two stand-out original ballads. The wistful ‘Conversation Among the Ruins’ is beautifully spelled out by Marsalis on soprano sax, while the gorgeous melody on ‘Cianna’ is caressed by the leader’s tenor like a well-loved standard.
With this line-up something of a rarity in jazz today, it’s rather wonderful to be reminded of how the classic horn-led quartet can still really smash it. ★★★★★ Like Branford Marsalis, the Californian trumpeter Ralph Alessi also retains a long-term working band. The quintet members, which include Ravi Coltrane on saxophones, have an easy familiarity with one another that allows them to make music of a restrained, even fragile beauty. The scene is set on Imaginary Friends, Alessi’s third album as leader for ECM, with ‘Iram Issela’, an ethereal transport for Alessi’s extended, full toned storytelling. Coltrane’s tenor sax insinuates itself so subtly into the music he practically redefines the notion of soloing. Andy Milne (piano), Drew Gress (bass) and Marker Ferber (drums) create a shifting, ephemeral sound that permeates the whole album.
(ECM 770 1817 ★★★★)
By way of contrast, drummer Anton Eger drafted in nearly a dozen contributors for his sparkling debut as leader, the eponymously titled AE. Conservatory trained, then a drummer in the Norwegian military, Eger made his name in civvy street as the powerhouse behind shapeshifting UK combo Phronesis and as sideman to young sax star Marius Neset.
This collective makes a startling sound that defies categorisation.
The opener, ‘★erb’, is a swirling maelstrom whipped up by Petter Eldh’s synths (a constant in the setlist) and Dan Nicholl’s Wurlitzer. ‘Oxford Super Nova’, whose riff recalls a Roy Ayers R&B groove, features the retro warbling of the Moog; ‘datn’ finds Phronesis keys wizard Ivo Neame noodling on mellotron over Eger’s fractured backbeat. (Edition EDN1122 ★★★★)
Pianist John Turville’s influences can be heard clearly in the beautifully understated acoustic sound he’s created for Head First: the late pianist John Taylor and horn player Kenny Wheeler were the gentle giants of UK jazz. Taylor especially would have loved the far reaching setlist for this, Turville’s debut recording as leader: rarefied original compositions like ‘Ennerdale’ that depict the wild north of England, interspersed with warmer, borrowed exotica from Buenos Aries and Brazil.
It’s a perfect environment for saxophonist Julian Arguelles too, whose classically inclined lines add to the quality on display. (Whirlwind WR4734 ★★★★)
Saxophonist Duncan Eagles is another young player branching out as leader for the first time with a new album, Citizen. On his own material, the sinewy sound he’s honed with dynamic young South London modernists Partikel is applied to more a more bop-like programme. ‘Riad’ was inspired by a visit to Marrakesh and Eagles’ soprano sax tangles with David Preston’s guitar to evoke the good natured clamour of the souk. ‘Conquistador’ has a less bright feel, opened by gloomy bass figures and Eagles’ mournful tenor intonations. Preston’s golden lines on ‘Taxco’ are reminiscent of Jim ★all’s style, enhanced by drummer Dave ★amblett’s cross hatching. (Ropeadope RAD443 ★★★★)
While he was on the road, Welsh pianist Gwilym Simcock fantasised about recording alone at home in Berlin, on his recently acquired 1900 vintage Steinway B: Near And Now is the realisation of that dream. Each suite is dedicated to a piano hero, mostly from the world of chamber jazz. The three loosely structured tunes in ‘Beautiful is Our Moment’, with their trickling arpeggios and fragments of melody, is for Billy Childs; ‘Many Worlds Away’ for Egberto Gismonti, which builds to a glorious standing wave of sound, is the most improvised. (ACT 9883-2 ★★★★)
Marsalis massive: marvel at these musicians’ interplay