Friday, June 08, 2012
Reviewed by: Ian Mann
“Shifting Sands” is an excellent example of intelligent fusion and an album that rewards repeated listening.
Geoff Eales and Isorhythm
(33 Records 33JAZZ226)
Welsh born pianist Geoff Eales has been part of the British jazz scene since the 1970’s. Now based in London he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of jazz piano styles from Art Tatum through Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett to Esbjorn Svensson.
He was a musician I’d always been aware of but it was his magnificent piano trio album “Master Of The Game”, released in 2009 on Edition Records that really grabbed my attention. Brilliantly played by Eales on piano accompanied by the stellar team of Chris Laurence on double bass and Martin France on drums the album garnered a rare Jazzmann Five star review. Superb as the playing was it was the quality of Eales’ writing that made the album truly memorable with each track telling a very personal story.
“Shifting Sands” is very different, unashamedly a “fusion” album that harks back to an earlier era and Geoff’s marvellously named 80’s outfit Electric Eales. But it’s not all bluff and bluster, Eales brings some of the writing qualities that distinguished “Master Of The Game” to this new project. It may be fusion but it’s intelligent and multi layered with a mature musical sophistication balancing the fireworks generated by an all star quintet featuring saxophonist Ben Waghorn, Australian born guitarist Carl Orr, Fred T Baker on electric bass and Asaf Sirkis at the drums. Master violinist Chris Garrick guests on two of the pieces adding a welcome new voice to the proceedings.
I recently saw the core quintet give a highly enjoyable performance of this material and more at Stratford Jazz Club (Warwickshire), the last date of a highly successful tour. The group were clearly having a ball playing this material and some of the soloing was quite inspired as the musical fireworks sparked. Baker played so hard he broke a bass guitar string, something I’d not witnessed in years.
Eales’ album notes explain the meaning of the term “Isorhythm” from its mediaeval roots to the current conception of “a fixed rhythmic pattern undergoing a series of melodic transformations throughout the course of a piece”. Eales goes on to observe that “it’s a marvellous way of achieving unity within variety”. Eales felt the term was the right name for a group whose music “exults in rhythm and is replete with deep grooves, riffs and ostinati” and “on a broader level we all aim to speak with one voice, with the same internal rhythm”. The concept may seem a little dry but the multi faceted music is very exciting whilst at the same time avoiding some of the excesses of the 70’s and 80’s.
The programme consists of eight Eales originals and kicks off with the nine minute plus title track in which the music mirrors the ever changing desert sands of the title. With Garrick’s violin providing added exotica the music flirts with Middle Eastern, North African and Latin flavours as well as the energy and power of rock. Orr and Waghorn make fiery contributions on guitar and saxophone respectively but there’s also a central passage of contemplative solo acoustic piano. The piece eventually builds to a storming climax featuring Sirkis’ dynamic drumming but it’s a well structured piece that embraces an element of dynamic contrast, it’s not just about being loud and flash.
“Five Steps from Eternity” features the brooding sound of Waghorn on soprano, Eales on flowing acoustic piano and Baker on liquid fretless bass. Again there’s a broad compositional scope, a mix of acoustic and electric instruments and that “desert” feel that seems to imbue much of the album.
With its drum salvo opening and deep, funky bass groove “Hot Night In Vindolandia” is more frankly about “getting down”. Eales switches to subtly funky Fender Rhodes and Waghorn blows big fat tenor. Eales takes the first solo on electric piano followed by an impassioned duel between Waghorn and Orr. There are cameos from Sirkis and Baker but it’s Orr who finally takes the instrumental honours with a powerful guitar solo. “Just hear him roar” notes Eales.
The Stratford performance revealed a political element to Eales’ writing. A product of the South Wales Valleys it’s perhaps no surprise to learn that he sympathises with the poor and under privileged. He dedicated one song to the mining communities of South Wales and the proceeds of Isorhythm’s performance at Blackwood Miner’s Institute were donated to the Jacob’s Starz Children’s Cancer Fund. On the album the tune “They Can’t Harm You Now” is dedicated to the memory of children killed in wars and civil conflicts. It’s a suitably tender piece of writing with Eales essaying a lengthy introduction on solo piano and with the rest of the band exhibiting delicate and sympathetic restraint.
Orr’s guitar tone is now gentle and bell like,the excellent Waghorn is lyrical on bass clarinet, Baker’s bass supplies depth and gravitas and Sirkis provides suitably sympathetic percussive embellishment.
“When The Spirit Soars” also opens with a passage of solo piano, initially impressionistic, but when Eales strikes up a gospel feel things really begin to take off, building through solos by Baker, Waghorn on big toned tenor, and Orr on suitably soaring guitar. It’s an infectiously joyous piece that worked particularly well in concert.
“Ultimate Journey” is also well named as it abruptly shifts from a gently impressionistic opening featuring Rhodes and languid electric bass to a funk groove of epic proportions. This provides the propulsion for a blistering solo from Waghorn on soprano followed by gentler contributions from Eales on Rhodes and Baker on electric bass. Baker’s solo mutates into a bubbling groove which provides the impetus for Garrick on heavily treated electric violin, his solo punctuated by Sirkis’ explosive drum breaks.
“The New Arrival” is a lovely piece for solo piano with an almost hymn like quality. It stands alone as an excellent piece of music in its own right but also forms a kind of prelude to the closing “Getting Down With Dukey”. This is not a homage to Duke Ellington as one might immediately suspect but a tip of the hat to veteran keyboardist George Duke with whom Orr and Baker have both played. This is unashamedly funky with Eales immediately setting up a gospel style vamp on the Rhodes which forms the bedrock for the muscular tenor swagger of Waghorn’s solo. Eales own solo is joyous and funky before the turbo charged guitar of Orr takes over. Baker struts his stuff on electric bass before Waghorn comes back for more.
Fusion is a genre of jazz I don’t tend to listen to very often any more and some of the music of that style from the 70’s and 80’s now sounds horribly dated. Nevertheless there’s a joie de vivre about Isorhythm’s playing that makes “Shifting Sands” a very enjoyable listen. Everybody plays well and there are some stand out moments but what holds it all together is the quality of Eales’ writing. These pieces are all “proper compositions” rather than mere blowing exercises or vehicles for flashy soloing. As a result this is a far more balanced album than many in an often discredited genre. “Shifting Sands” is an excellent example of intelligent fusion and an album that rewards repeated listening.
JAZZ MANN FEATURES
The sun shines on the final day of an excellent festival.
Ian Mann soaks up the vibes at Cheltenham Jazz Festival.