Friday, March 01, 2013
Reviewed by: Ian Mann
“Dice Factory” captures all four members of the band at their best on a series of challenging and invigorating compositions.
(Babel Records BDV 12110)
Dice factory is a new London based quartet featuring some of the UK’s best young jazz musicians. The group was initially founded in 2009 as a jam band by pianist George Fogel and tenor saxophonist Tom Challenger, originally transcribing material by alt rock group Deerhoof and jazz pianist Vijay Iyer. When bassist Tom Farmer and drummer Jon Scott joined the group they began to integrate their own compositions into the repertoire and have since developed the impressive programme of original material that is presented here.
All graduates of London’s Guildhall School of Music the four individual members of the group are extremely active on the London jazz scene. Challenger is a key member of the Loop Collective, leads his own electro jazz group Ma and is an established member of drummer Dave Smith’s Outhouse group. Farmer is a member of the acclaimed band Empirical and a prolific sideman who is at home in a variety of jazz contexts, I recently saw him perform in the band of singer Sarah Ellen Hughes. Scott is an increasingly in demand drummer who has recorded prolifically over the last few years notably with Kairos 4tet but also with the bands of trumpeter Andre Canniere, guitarist Hannes Riepler, pianist Bruno Heinen plus the Anglo-German collaboration Paragon. Fogel is perhaps the least known of the four following spells abroad in the USA (he studied for a year at the famous Berklee College of Music in Boston) and the Far East. However he made a big impression as a guest on the most recent Empirical album “Elements Of Truth” and worked alongside Challenger and Scott in The Andre Canniere Group. Fogel impresses throughout the Dice Factory album and this is a recording that should help to consolidate his position as one of the UK’s most adventurous young pianists.
The Dice Factory name not only celebrates the quartet’s strong group identity but also references the cult 1970’s novel by Luke Reinhardt “The Dice Man”. In the book psychiatrist Reinhardt challenges himself to live by following decisions made by the random rolling of a pair of dice - “by creating problems for myself I created thought” explains Reinhardt, a phrase that remains one of the tenets behind Dice factory’s music making. Collectively the group seek to challenge themselves by creating what Challenger refers to as “hard music”. Although the group name may suggest total randomness there’s also a strong sense of structure about the group’s compositions, many of them built on mathematical principles and a fascination with numbers. The “math jazz” of Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa as well as the earlier M Base movement spearheaded by saxophonist Steve Coleman are acknowledged influences and “Dice Factory” is far from being a free improv record. Instead the compositions are well delineated, the chance element coming from the group’s interaction and improvisations around the themes. Challenger talks of the group experimenting with “chaos, chance, numbers, structure and work ethic” in a highly disciplined, self imposed environment. It may all sound a bit too intellectual but the resultant album is surprisingly melodic and approachable with Scott’s broken beats adding a very contemporary feel to the music.
An aside; Reinhardt’s book was an essential cult read for me and my schoolmates back in the 70’s; but let’s be honest for most of us it was more for the graphic and salacious sexual passages rather than for any overriding philosophical significance!
The compositional credits on “Dice Factory” are split equally between Challenger and Fogel with each contributing four pieces. Farmer, an increasingly influential composer within the ranks of Empirical, weighs in with a further two tunes. Things kick off with Fogel’s “Heyu Nantucket”, the opening hanging chords and broken percussion beats quickly shifting gear into an urgent passage full of rhythmic complexities and sudden melodic shifts as the instruments duck and dive, bob and weave. Fogel’s exuberant piano soloing is a highlight with a wilful dissonance sometimes muddying the waters. There’s a freer episode with Challenger’s garrulous tenor to the fore shadowed by Fogel’s Keith Tippett like piano and the chatter of Scott’s drums. This is music that rarely stays still, technically demanding for the players whilst ensuring that the listener stays on his/her toes - but it’s still wildly invigorating and enjoyable for all. A musical Nantucket Sleighride that’s very different from the sound of fat man Leslie West and his Mountain buddies while tossing in a quote from Miles Davis’ “Milestones” for good measure.
I had a pleasant chat with Tom Challenger at the London Jazz Festival double bill featuring Hannes Riepler/Andre Canniere at Charlie Wright’s. Moving away from music we got on to Tom’s love of cricket, something that is manifested here in the title of “Gooch”, a tune based around triplet patterns in an oblique reference to Graham Gooch’s triple century against the West Indies in 1990 (bloody hell over twenty years ago,Challenger must have been a boy at the time which makes your reviewer suddenly feel very old). The tune builds from an opening odd meter passage featuring percussion and prepared piano later joined by Challenger’s staccato tenor sax. But there’s also melody in Challenger’s sound as his subsequent solo demonstrates. Once again the group succeed in taking an seemingly academic and abstract idea and rendering eminently listenable. This time I think I caught Challenger making another quote, albeit slyer and less obvious, this time “Something’s Coming” from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story”. Maybe it’s something these clever chaps do with every tune, but if so I’m afraid that I didn’t pick up any more.
Fogel’s “Saribund” follows on quite naturally with jerky staccato passages punctuated by more impressionistic and lyrical interludes featuring Fogel’s spacious chording alongside Farmer’s bowed bass and Challenger’s tenor in its altissimo register. The catchy core riff sounds as if it could have been lifted from Polar Bear’s “Peepers” album but Fogel soon takes it somewhere else by way of that lyrical passage and a later bravura piano solo. Yet again the quartet pack a hell of a lot of information into a mere four and a half minutes.
Challenger’s “You’re Lucky” combines lyrical tenor sax with Scott’s Magnus Ohrstrom style groove with plenty of Dice Factory style melodic and rhythmic twists along the way. Challenger’s playing suggests a thorough knowledge of the tradition allied to a similar understanding of contemporary developments, particularly with regard to electronic music. His assured playing throughout the album has been likened to that of Iain Ballamy, another saxophonist who embraces the experimental whilst remaining essentially melodic.
Farmer takes over the compositional reins on “Eternal Sleep” a piece whose energy and urgency belies its title. The restless rhythms of Farmer and Scott coax excellent solos from Fogel and Challenger, the latter probing in highly effective fashion, before a final drum flourish from Scott.
Challenger’s “Zout” opens with a circling sax motif and unfolds in almost minimalistic fashion with Challenger and Fogel exchanging ideas in delightful fashion above Scott’s brushed commentary.
Solo double bass introduces Fogel’s “Eternal Moment” before the composer’s staccato piano motif takes over creating a dense rhythmic undertow which Challenger soars above. Fogel’s subsequent solo is percussive,feverish and audacious with Challenger subsequently taking over to deliver some of his most unfettered playing of the set underpinned by Fogel’s robust chording and the chatter of Scott’s drums. There’s a further bass feature for Farmer before the main theme kicks back in prior to a surprisingly lyrical coda.
Challenger’s “Pipes” begins with the sombre sound of brooding tenor sax and arco bass plus the shimmer of Scott’s cymbals. The solemn mood is maintained throughout via Fogel’s doomy minor chords as Scott demonstrates his skills as a colourist. It’s the kind of deeply atmospheric piece that one expects to find on an ECM record.
Farmer’s nine minute epic “TNG” references the composer’s love of Star Trek (The Next Generation, geddit?) and is comfortably the longest track on the album. In typical Dice Factory fashion it crosses several musical dimensions and time zones as it builds from the opening duet between the composer’s bowed bass and Fogel’s piano. These two are subsequently augmented by Challenger’s elegant long tenor sax melody lines and the rustle of Scott’s brushes in a delicate opening exchange. Later piano, bass and drums set up a stirring riff/groove above which Challenger soars above, before a slightly less frenetic passage allows both Challenger and Fogel the room to stretch out. Farmer has described “TNG” as a “tango that went wrong” but you’ll have to look hard to recognise it as such.
The album concludes with a brief reprise of Fogel’s “Saribund”, a tantalising glimpse of the way the music could have gone with a different throw of the dice.
Immaculately recorded by an engineering/production team of Philip Bagenal, Sam Navel, Alex Bonney and Peter Beckmann “Dice Factory” captures all four members of the band at their best on a series of challenging and invigorating compositions. This may be “hard music” born out of a spirit of intellectual rigour but it is still eminently approachable and with its myriad quixotic twists and turns there is much here to award the adventurous listener. Challenger, Farmer and Scott excel consistently as listeners to their work with other groups may have come to expect but the real surprise package is Fogel who sparkles throughout and makes a refreshingly original contribution to the group’s music with some inspired and highly individual playing.
To date Dice Factory’s live appearances have been comparatively rare, let’s hope we see and hear a lot more from them in 2013. On this evidence they should be a thoroughly compelling live attraction.
JAZZ MANN FEATURES
The sun shines on the final day of an excellent festival.
Ian Mann soaks up the vibes at Cheltenham Jazz Festival.