Friday, June 01, 2012
Reviewed by: Ian Mann
One of the outstanding UK jazz débuts of recent years. A glorious confirmation of Crowley's promise.
George Crowley Quartet
(Whirlwind Recordings WR4622)
It’s always gratifying when I see one of my phrases quoted on an artist’s publicity material. “Definitely a name to watch-The Jazzmann” proclaims the press release for young saxophonist and composer George Crowley’s début album “Paper Universe”.
I like to think that I’m a good spotter of potential (Phronesis, Kairos 4tet and Beats & Pieces Big Band also spring to mind) and that quote was lifted from a live review of a performance by Crowley and this quartet at Dempsey’s in Cardiff in September 2010. The album was recorded shortly afterwards (I suspect that Chris Hyson’s liner photo may even have been snapped at Dempsey’s) and the result is a glorious confirmation of Crowley’s promise. This is a stunningly mature début which recently earned Crowley a four star review from John Fordham in The Guardian.
The line up is the same one that played in Cardiff with Crowley specialising on tenor sax in the company of the Kit Downes trio with Kit on piano, Calum Gourlay on double bass and James Maddren at the drums. Most of the pieces to be heard here were performed at Cardiff and the programme consists of six Crowley originals plus Downes’ tune “Bela Lugosi” which closes the album. The Dempsey’s gig also included a couple of standards, interpretations of Cole Porter’s “Everything I Love” and Billy Strayhorn’s “Isfahan”.
All four musicians studied at the Royal Academy of Music and Crowley and Downes have been musical collaborators for many years. Crowley has worked extensively with the musicians of the Loop Collective and has also recorded as part of the Russian born bassist and composer Yuriy Galkin’s Nonet (“Nine Of A Kind” on the F-ire Presents label, 2011). He cites John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and Warne Marsh as key influences on his playing and although their inspiration may be clearly audible Crowley has already developed an assured and authoritative style of his own.
Before studying for his Jazz Masters Crowley graduated in English Literature at Cambridge University and he turned to the academic world for his album title. “Paper Universe” is a phrase coined by W.G. Sebald to describe the chaotic workspace of an academic but it’s a term that Crowley also regards as being applicable to the frantic life of a working jazz musician. I can sympathise with that, it probably applies to this jazz reviewer too!
The album begins with Crowley’s title track and the rapport that exists between the group members is immediately obvious and palpable. Alex Bonney’s pinpoint mix serves the musicians well and everybody’s contribution is clearly discernible. Gourlay’s bass pulse portrays something of the urgency implied by Sebald’s phrase but this is balanced by the lyrical qualities of Crowley and Downes. The tune begins quietly and accelerates organically with Downes delivering the first of a series of dazzling solos. Crowley’s own tone is smooth and fluent but never bland, some reviewers have likened his playing to that of Julian Arguelles and to these ears that’s a good match. Indeed there are moments when this album reminds me of Arguelles’ 1991 solo début “Phaedrus” The piece closes with something of a feature for the excellent Maddren, a young musician whose reputation continues to grow with each release that he appears on.
The sprightly Marty McFly is centred around Gourlay’s nimble bass pulse and Maddren’s neatly energetic drumming. Downes delivers another wonderfully inventive solo and he’s matched by Crowley’s agile, Marsh-like tenor. Like its predecessor the piece is invigorating but never bombastic. The quartet’s music sounds thoroughly unforced and totally organic and natural.
“Still Life” unfolds slowly with Crowley’s breathy tenor unfurling slinkily around Gourlay’s quietly resonant bass pulse and Maddren’s softly brushed drums. When Downes enters the proceedings his piano playing is almost unbearably delicate and this mood is matched by Crowley’s beautifully controlled playing, his altissimo lyricism reminiscent of the great Mark Turner. Stealthily the mood changes as Crowley’s playing becomes more joyous and celebratory and gradually the tune takes off, lifting the spirit with another wonderfully fluent Crowley solo.
If “Still Life” flirted with balladry then “Embracing Air” meets the challenge full on with a lovely solo saxophone introduction leading into a beautiful ballad performance incorporating a delightful solo from the excellent and highly versatile Gourlay. Crowley plays with a tenderness and maturity beyond his years.
“B Flat Man” is more freely structured with Crowley extemporising above Maddren’s fluid rhythmic flow and Downes’ instinctive chording. The pianist then stretches out on his own as Maddren chatters around him with Gourlay filling the anchor role.
Having gone out the quartet now come back in with the highly melodic “Demerera Days” which boasts an almost conventional songlike structure. This provides the jumping off point for imaginative solos from Crowley, Downes and Gourlay.
Finally comes Downes’ tune “Bela Lugosi”, a piece he originally recorded on the Neon Quartet album “Catch Me” (Edition Records, 2010) in the company of Stan Sulzmann (reeds), Jim Hart (vibes) and Tim Giles (drums). It’s different in feel to Crowley’s writing with the Gothic humour of the title clearly discernible in the music. Blurring the boundaries between structure and freedom Downes swarms all over the piano and Crowley introduces a harder, multiphonic edge to his sound as Gourlay and Maddren effect an appropriate rhythmic looseness. It’s substantially different to much of the rest of the album and is thus sequenced in exactly the right place.
Released on Michael Janisch’s Whirlwind Recordings label the album represents one of the outstanding UK jazz débuts of recent years, shading even Josh Arcoleo’s “Beginnings”. It’s good to see one’s opinions being vindicated.
“Paper Universe” is a superb team effort and while it may be Downes who’s currently the big name in this quartet there can be little doubt that this album will do much to put the name of George Crowley firmly on the jazz map. He plays superbly and with great maturity throughout and also exhibits a genuine talent as a composer with some memorable melodic themes. “Paper Universe” manages to look both backwards and forwards, drawing on some of the best elements of the jazz past to produce an exciting and convincing contemporary music.
The quartet have a number of live dates coming up. Details below;
Monday June 11th, 8:30 @ The Oxford, 256 Kentish Town, London NW5 2AA theoxfordjazz.com £5
Friday 6th July, 8:30 @ The Con Cellar Bar, Camden Town, London,NW1 0QT concellarjazz.co.uk/ £5
Tuesday 17th July, 8:30 @ The Amersham Arms, New Cross, London, SE14 6TY secollective.blogspot.com/ £5
Wednesday July 18th, 8:30 @ Dempseys, Cardiff. CF10 1BZ jazzatdempseys.org.uk/ £5
Aja Allsop says;
Well written Ian, I was recently sent the album by Lee @ Whirlwind Recordings
and I have to agree it’s a superb piece of music.
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