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Dom Franks’ StrayHorn Quartet - Living With Spooks Rating: 3-5 out of 5 Consolidates on the success of the previous StrayHorn Quartet releases with Franks again impressing as both a saxophonist and as a composer/arranger.

Dom Franks’ StrayHorn Quartet

“Living With Spooks”

(Soulito Records)

Cheltenham based saxophonist and composer Dom Franks founded StrayHorn Quartet in 2010 as an outlet for his compositions.

The group’s début album “In Native Tongues” (2011) received a favourable review in Jazzwise Magazine and garnered airplay on specialist jazz radio stations in the UK and abroad. The quartet have also gigged regularly, particularly in the South West and the Midlands, and have made a number of festival appearances.

In 2015 the quartet’s second album, “One Drop Love Chant” was also very well received and was the subject of a favourable from the Jazzmann which can be read in full here;
http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/strayhorn-quartet-one-drop-love-chant/

Rather then interpreting the music of the late, great Billy Strayhorn as the band name might suggest “One Drop Love Chant” found the quartet concentrating to good effect on the original compositions of Franks and the group’s pianist Alex Steele.

This third release features a different version of the band with Steele sharing keyboard duties with John Law, the latter a well known composer and band-leader in his own right and a recent – and very welcome- import to the English West Country.

There’s also a change in the rhythm department with the West Country team of Will Harris (bass) and Matthew Jones (drums) being replaced by two young musicians currently making names for themselves, bassist James Agg and drummer Billy Weir. Both products of the acclaimed Jazz Course at Birmingham Conservatoire Agg and Weir are also members of Law’s current
Re-Creations group (a descendant of Law’s one time OPT Trio) and appear on the pianist’s recent album “Re-Creations Vol. 1”.

Three of the ten tracks on “Living With Spooks” also feature the playing of guest guitarist Lee Jones, a long term associate of the StrayHorn Quartet.

With Steele taking a less prominent role this time round the composing spotlight falls more firmly upon Franks, this probably promoting the subtle change in the band name – previous releases had taken place under the more democratic banner of the StrayHorn Quartet. It’s also notable that the leader chooses to specialise on tenor and soprano saxes (plus occasional keyboards) on this album. “One Drop Love Chant” also featured Franks fairly prominently on alto sax.

Like its immediate predecessor “Living With Spooks” embraces a variety of jazz styles and commences in relatively straight ahead fashion with the lively, bop influenced “The Calling” which features some lithe and fluent tenor soloing from the leader on his own composition. There’s also a tumbling piano solo from Law – it’s interesting to hear him in such a mainstream context after listening to him leading his own, more contemporary ensembles such as the Art of Sound Trio or his Congregations electro/acoustic groups. Meanwhile young drummer Billy Weir enjoys something of a feature in the closing stages of the tune.

Weir’s drums then introduce the afro-beat stylings of the Franks original “Angelique” which sees Steele replacing Law on piano and sharing the solos with the leader’s tenor. Guest guitarist Jones also appears on an effervescent piece that keeps the energy levels up and features Weir on kit drums and a variety of percussion.

The first cover is “Mr. Men Reloaded”, Franks interpretation of the “Mr Men Theme” written by keyboard player and composer Tony Hymas. It’s a pleasingly lyrical arrangement of the waltz based tune and includes elegant and melodic solos from Agg on double bass and Law on piano in addition to the leader’s subtle tenor sax probings.

“Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel” is a funky, hip hop infused Franks arrangement of the traditional Negro spiritual that features Steele doubling on acoustic and electric keyboards with Agg on electric bass. Weir drives the tune along energetically and there are exuberant solos from Steele on acoustic piano and Franks on tenor plus a final rock inspired wig out from Jones on turbo-charged electric guitar.

By way of contrast “Rhosymedre” is Franks’ lilting arrangement of a traditional Welsh folk tune with a typically gorgeous melody that provides the framework for supremely tuneful solos for the leader on warm hewed tenor, Agg on double bass and Law on flowingly lyrical acoustic piano.

The title track is Franks’ playful re-working of Ray Parker Jr.’s “Ghostbusters” theme, the new title a subtle allusion to Franks’ Cheltenham base and the presence of GCHQ on the edge of town. The arrangement plays with the harmonies of the original to create a disguise distinctive enough for the piece to qualify as an original composition. The mood is edgy and urban, perhaps in acknowledgement of Kneebody, one of Franks’ acknowledged influences. All the musicians play well, including Jones on his final guest appearance, with the solos coming from Franks on tenor and Steele on piano.

Law returns to the piano chair for the unaccompanied introduction to the Franks original “Granada” which features the composer on lightly dancing soprano, skipping airily around the Spanish flavoured rhythms. Franks impresses with an agile solo on the straight horn while Law’s inventiveness at the piano is reminiscent of Chick Corea.  Agg and Weir give typically sure footed performances in the rhythm section with the latter again accorded something of a feature.

Despite the title “Laws Of Attraction” actually features Steele at the piano on a piece with an old fashioned, orthodox jazz feel to it. There’s much to an enjoy on an easily swinging piece featuring solos from Franks on tenor and Steele on piano on his final appearance. Despite Law’s undoubted credentials Steele doesn’t suffer by comparison and the alternating of the pianists never disrupts the flow of the album as the Cheltenham based Steele again demonstrates what an accomplished and versatile musician he is. Meanwhile Agg weighs in with another fluent, inventive and melodic bass solo, offering further evidence of his own rising star status.

There’s a further example of Agg’s abilities on the haunting “The Kiss of the Sun For Pardon” which features his distinctive arco work alongside the keening of the leader’s sax and the arpeggiated lyricism of Law on piano. Richly atmospheric and evocative it’s arguably the loveliest piece on a very good album.

The set concludes with Franks’ “High Plains Drifter” which combines anthemic melodies with driving rhythms in a neat musical encapsulation of the tune title. Franks takes the first solo on fluent and authoritative tenor, his explorations fuelled by Weir’s sturdy drumming. There’s a contrast of dynamics mid tune through the melodic soloing of Law on piano and Agg at the bass before the leader’s sax takes flight once more.

“Living With Spooks” consolidates on the success of the previous StrayHorn Quartet releases with Franks again impressing as both a saxophonist and as a composer/arranger. The presence of an established name like John Law will hopefully bring the album to an attention of a wider public although all the musicians play well, including the quartet’s regular pianist Alex Steele. Agg and Weir establish themselves as names to look out for, whether individually or as a highly accomplished team and Lee Jones makes a number of telling contributions on guitar.

Despite their relatively close proximity to me StrayHorn Quartet are a group that I’ve yet to see performing live. On the evidence of the two recordings that I have reviewed thus far I suspect that they would prove to be a highly accomplished and exciting live act, whatever the line up might be.

Living With Spooks

Dom Franks’ StrayHorn Quartet

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Reviewed by: Ian Mann

Album Review

3-5 out of 5

Living With Spooks

Consolidates on the success of the previous StrayHorn Quartet releases with Franks again impressing as both a saxophonist and as a composer/arranger.

Dom Franks’ StrayHorn Quartet

“Living With Spooks”

(Soulito Records)

Cheltenham based saxophonist and composer Dom Franks founded StrayHorn Quartet in 2010 as an outlet for his compositions.

The group’s début album “In Native Tongues” (2011) received a favourable review in Jazzwise Magazine and garnered airplay on specialist jazz radio stations in the UK and abroad. The quartet have also gigged regularly, particularly in the South West and the Midlands, and have made a number of festival appearances.

In 2015 the quartet’s second album, “One Drop Love Chant” was also very well received and was the subject of a favourable from the Jazzmann which can be read in full here;
http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/strayhorn-quartet-one-drop-love-chant/

Rather then interpreting the music of the late, great Billy Strayhorn as the band name might suggest “One Drop Love Chant” found the quartet concentrating to good effect on the original compositions of Franks and the group’s pianist Alex Steele.

This third release features a different version of the band with Steele sharing keyboard duties with John Law, the latter a well known composer and band-leader in his own right and a recent – and very welcome- import to the English West Country.

There’s also a change in the rhythm department with the West Country team of Will Harris (bass) and Matthew Jones (drums) being replaced by two young musicians currently making names for themselves, bassist James Agg and drummer Billy Weir. Both products of the acclaimed Jazz Course at Birmingham Conservatoire Agg and Weir are also members of Law’s current
Re-Creations group (a descendant of Law’s one time OPT Trio) and appear on the pianist’s recent album “Re-Creations Vol. 1”.

Three of the ten tracks on “Living With Spooks” also feature the playing of guest guitarist Lee Jones, a long term associate of the StrayHorn Quartet.

With Steele taking a less prominent role this time round the composing spotlight falls more firmly upon Franks, this probably promoting the subtle change in the band name – previous releases had taken place under the more democratic banner of the StrayHorn Quartet. It’s also notable that the leader chooses to specialise on tenor and soprano saxes (plus occasional keyboards) on this album. “One Drop Love Chant” also featured Franks fairly prominently on alto sax.

Like its immediate predecessor “Living With Spooks” embraces a variety of jazz styles and commences in relatively straight ahead fashion with the lively, bop influenced “The Calling” which features some lithe and fluent tenor soloing from the leader on his own composition. There’s also a tumbling piano solo from Law – it’s interesting to hear him in such a mainstream context after listening to him leading his own, more contemporary ensembles such as the Art of Sound Trio or his Congregations electro/acoustic groups. Meanwhile young drummer Billy Weir enjoys something of a feature in the closing stages of the tune.

Weir’s drums then introduce the afro-beat stylings of the Franks original “Angelique” which sees Steele replacing Law on piano and sharing the solos with the leader’s tenor. Guest guitarist Jones also appears on an effervescent piece that keeps the energy levels up and features Weir on kit drums and a variety of percussion.

The first cover is “Mr. Men Reloaded”, Franks interpretation of the “Mr Men Theme” written by keyboard player and composer Tony Hymas. It’s a pleasingly lyrical arrangement of the waltz based tune and includes elegant and melodic solos from Agg on double bass and Law on piano in addition to the leader’s subtle tenor sax probings.

“Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel” is a funky, hip hop infused Franks arrangement of the traditional Negro spiritual that features Steele doubling on acoustic and electric keyboards with Agg on electric bass. Weir drives the tune along energetically and there are exuberant solos from Steele on acoustic piano and Franks on tenor plus a final rock inspired wig out from Jones on turbo-charged electric guitar.

By way of contrast “Rhosymedre” is Franks’ lilting arrangement of a traditional Welsh folk tune with a typically gorgeous melody that provides the framework for supremely tuneful solos for the leader on warm hewed tenor, Agg on double bass and Law on flowingly lyrical acoustic piano.

The title track is Franks’ playful re-working of Ray Parker Jr.’s “Ghostbusters” theme, the new title a subtle allusion to Franks’ Cheltenham base and the presence of GCHQ on the edge of town. The arrangement plays with the harmonies of the original to create a disguise distinctive enough for the piece to qualify as an original composition. The mood is edgy and urban, perhaps in acknowledgement of Kneebody, one of Franks’ acknowledged influences. All the musicians play well, including Jones on his final guest appearance, with the solos coming from Franks on tenor and Steele on piano.

Law returns to the piano chair for the unaccompanied introduction to the Franks original “Granada” which features the composer on lightly dancing soprano, skipping airily around the Spanish flavoured rhythms. Franks impresses with an agile solo on the straight horn while Law’s inventiveness at the piano is reminiscent of Chick Corea.  Agg and Weir give typically sure footed performances in the rhythm section with the latter again accorded something of a feature.

Despite the title “Laws Of Attraction” actually features Steele at the piano on a piece with an old fashioned, orthodox jazz feel to it. There’s much to an enjoy on an easily swinging piece featuring solos from Franks on tenor and Steele on piano on his final appearance. Despite Law’s undoubted credentials Steele doesn’t suffer by comparison and the alternating of the pianists never disrupts the flow of the album as the Cheltenham based Steele again demonstrates what an accomplished and versatile musician he is. Meanwhile Agg weighs in with another fluent, inventive and melodic bass solo, offering further evidence of his own rising star status.

There’s a further example of Agg’s abilities on the haunting “The Kiss of the Sun For Pardon” which features his distinctive arco work alongside the keening of the leader’s sax and the arpeggiated lyricism of Law on piano. Richly atmospheric and evocative it’s arguably the loveliest piece on a very good album.

The set concludes with Franks’ “High Plains Drifter” which combines anthemic melodies with driving rhythms in a neat musical encapsulation of the tune title. Franks takes the first solo on fluent and authoritative tenor, his explorations fuelled by Weir’s sturdy drumming. There’s a contrast of dynamics mid tune through the melodic soloing of Law on piano and Agg at the bass before the leader’s sax takes flight once more.

“Living With Spooks” consolidates on the success of the previous StrayHorn Quartet releases with Franks again impressing as both a saxophonist and as a composer/arranger. The presence of an established name like John Law will hopefully bring the album to an attention of a wider public although all the musicians play well, including the quartet’s regular pianist Alex Steele. Agg and Weir establish themselves as names to look out for, whether individually or as a highly accomplished team and Lee Jones makes a number of telling contributions on guitar.

Despite their relatively close proximity to me StrayHorn Quartet are a group that I’ve yet to see performing live. On the evidence of the two recordings that I have reviewed thus far I suspect that they would prove to be a highly accomplished and exciting live act, whatever the line up might be.


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