Wednesday, July 11, 2012
Reviewed by: Ian Mann
With its elegant tunes and superb individual and ensemble playing “Occurrences” is well worth seeking out.
(Whirlwind Recordings WR4621)
Scottish bassist and composer Euan Burton, originally from East Kilbride, studied on the Jazz Course at Birmingham Conservatoire before returning north to become a key presence on the still burgeoning Scottish music scene. Burton has worked with many of Scotland’s leading jazz musicians including saxophonist Martin Kershaw, pianist Paul Harrison and guitarist Graeme Stephen. Others with whom he has collaborated are Julian Arguelles (saxophones), Kit Downes (piano) David Lyttle (drums) and guitarists Mark McKnight and Andreas Varady. This list is by no means exhaustive and the versatile Burton has also worked and recorded with some of the most influential figures on the Scottish folk scene including fiddler Aly Bain, accordionist Phil Cunningham and harp player Rachel Hair.
Released on fellow bassist Michael Janisch’s Whirlwind record label “Occurrences” represents Burton’s third album release as a leader and follows “Collective” (2006, seemingly deleted) and “Forgotten Things”, a 2010 date co-led by pianist Tom Gibbs and featuring Gilad Hekselman on guitar and Burton’s former tutor Ari Hoenig at the drums.
“Occurrences” features an all star British quintet with members drawn from all corners of the UK and beyond. Fellow Scot Steve Hamilton is on piano and Rhodes, Belfast based guitarist Mark McKnight returns a favour (Burton appeared on his 2009 “ Overnight” album) and the group is completed by the English pair of James Maddren (drums) and Will Vinson (alto and soprano sax), the latter now based in New York where he has carved out a considerable reputation as a fine musician in a highly competitive environment.
“Occurrences” highlights Burton’s skills as a composer across seven original compositions that the bassist originally conceived as a suite, although it is also his opinion that each piece is self contained enough to stand on its own merits. “I was trying to think like a film director or screenwriter is some ways” he explains, “developing a narrative, pacing it right for the audience and leaving space for the actors to make their roles their own”. For actors read musicians, there is some excellent playing here from a well balanced group with the players sounding fully integrated and happy in one another’s company. There is no grandstanding, least of all from Burton himself who largely seems happy to adopt an anchor role and let his compositions do the talking. Burton’s liner notes state that the music represents a story and expresses his feelings about some of the “occurrences I’ve lived through”. Certainly the music embraces a variety of styles and emotions but the enigmatic Burton has chosen not to hang any labels on his pieces. The music may have a descriptive, almost cinematic quality but Burton offers no clues with regard to interpretation, he merely names and numbers the pieces “One” to “Seven” and encourages his listeners to make up their own minds.
Burton’s writing is highly melodic with many of the pieces reflecting the composer’s love of folk music. Burton’s skilful arrangements bring out the best of the players with each individual musician acquitting himself well but within the context of a well integrated ensemble sound. These virtues are enhanced by a superior mix from engineers Stuart Hamilton (in Scotland) and Tyler McDiarmid (final mastering in New York).
“One” features the cool, airy tone of Vinson’s alto sax his playing tightly controlled but often very beautiful on a superlative group performance. McKnight’s lush, ringing guitar chording and Hamilton’s astute piano accompaniment are perfect foils with Maddren’s customarily nimble and inventive drumming the icing on the cake.
Maddren’s lightly brushed cymbals introduce the lengthier “Two” which also features Hamilton on Rhodes. From quiet beginnings the tune develops to embrace a light funk groove courtesy of Hamilton, maybe even a hint of hip hop too. Vinson commands the attention early on but it’s McKnight’s fleet fingered fretwork that impresses mid tune and there’s something of a feature for Maddren too before Vinson assumes control once more, urged forward by the outstanding young drummer. Once more though the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, this is another excellent team performance.
“Three” is a tender ballad led off by Hamilton at the piano and with Vinson at his most lyrical on alto. Hamilton’s flowingly limpid piano explores similar territory with sympathetic accompaniment from Burton’s richly rounded bass and Maddren’s delicate brushwork.
Maddren’s drums usher in the forthright “Four”, mashing with Hamilton’s Rhodes to create a more muscular funk inflected groove which gives McKnight and Vinson the chance to shine, whether soloing individually, trading phrases or doubling up on the melody line. Again it’s Maddren who really drives the piece, his contribution throughout the album is consistently excellent, his playing always imaginative and stimulating and he unfailingly brings out the best in his colleagues.
“Five” offers another example of the lyrical side of Burton’s writing and he allows himself some well deserved solo space. Burton’s solo is lyrical and unhurried, well articulated and beautifully constructed. His delicate lyricism is complemented by the tenderness of Vinson’s playing on alto sax. Maddren delivers another excellent performance with the brushes and the sympathetic, lyrical accompaniment from piano and guitar is delightfully apposite and well judged.
“Six” is the lengthiest track on the record and embraces a number of moods and styles. The catchy opening hook re-emerges several times, initially punctuated by gentler, more impressionistic interludes featuring Rhodes and alto sax. Hamilton later solos joyously on Rhodes, trading phrases with Vinson against a backdrop of funky, hard driving drums. Hamilton switches to acoustic piano for the second half of the tune, initially in support of McKnight’s guitar. McKnight’s solo, spacey heavy on sustain, builds slowly and logically before coalescing with sax and piano in a second half that sounds like Pink Floyd playing jazz. The ethereal air is punctured by the brief and sudden return of the opening hook which abruptly closes the door on this intriguingly structured but wholly satisfying composition. The feel of the second half of the piece is very different to the first but this only adds to the fascination and appeal.
“Seven” closes the album on a relaxed note with Vinson switching to soprano and Hamilton moving back to Rhodes for a breezy item that begins with the sound of unaccompanied soprano, joined later by trilling Rhodes and gently brushed but subtly propulsive drum grooves. It’s airy and lovely and a delightful way to conclude a varied and highly accomplished album.
“Occurrences” may not have the visceral impact of some other albums and I found it to be a recording that took several listens to appreciate properly. Not that it’s in any way difficult, it’s highly melodic and tuneful but rather understated, the kind of record that doesn’t shout for your attention but nevertheless has plenty of interesting things to say. Maybe the sheer starkness of the tune titles discourages immediate absorption with no verbal clues for the listener to hang the music on. Some of you might get it straight away, others, like me may find it takes a little longer but with its elegant tunes and superb individual and ensemble playing “Occurrences” is well worth seeking out.
JAZZ MANN FEATURES
The sun shines on the final day of an excellent festival.
Ian Mann soaks up the vibes at Cheltenham Jazz Festival.