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Mells Bells

Sam Crockatt Quartet

Monday, February 01, 2016

Reviewed by: Ian Mann

Album Review

4 out of 5

Mells Bells

Another strong showing from Sam Crockatt. The sophistication of the writing is complemented by the spontaneity and joyousness of the performances,

Sam Crockatt Quartet

“Mells Bells”

(Whirlwind Recordings WR4681)

Saxophonist and composer Sam Crockett first came to prominence as a member of the North London based Loop Collective and released “Howeird”, his recording début as a leader on the Collective’s own label back in 2008. Critically well received the disc won the award for ‘Best Album’ at that year’s Parliamentary Jazz Awards.

Tenor sax specialist Crockatt has always enjoyed working alongside talented pianists. “Howeird” featured the then rising star Gwilym Simcock with Kit Downes taking over the piano stool for 2011’s “Flood Tide” which appeared on the Babel label. 

“Flood Tide” signalled a more robust approach from Crockatt and included some excellent writing from both himself and Downs. It’s release also coincided with the saxophonist’s move out of London to rural Somerset where he still resides.

“Mells Bells” sees Crockatt moving to the Whirlwind label while retaining the services of Downes on piano and the ever present Oli Hayhurst on double bass with James Maddren replacing previous incumbent Ben Reynolds at the drums. All of the pieces this time round are Crockatt originals, many of them inspired by locations in the West Country.

Much of the material was tested in live performance before Crockatt returned to London to record the album during the course of a single day at Eastcote Studios with Philip Bagenal engineering. Alex Bonney subsequently mixed the album before it was mastered by Tyler McDiarmid in New York. I like the idea of these compositions inspired by the English countryside being brought to full fruition in two of the busiest jazz cities in the world.

“Mells Bells” builds on the success of its immediate predecessor and adopts a similarly forthright style. As I remarked in my view of “Flood Tide” (and I quote);
“Crockatt is by far the most “straight ahead” member of the Loop Collective, eschewing the overt experimentation and use of electronics embraced by many of his colleagues. He plays in a strictly acoustic setting and isn’t ashamed to show a degree of deference to the jazz tradition. Not that Crockatt should be considered a “young fogey”, “Flood Tide” is full of interesting and thoroughly contemporary jazz compositions”

These qualities apply to “Mells Bells” too, beginning with the rousing opener “Canon” which begins with the sound of Crockatt’s unaccompanied tenor, swiftly joined by Downes at the piano, their intertwining lines subsequently joined by Hayhurst’s anchoring bass and the patter of Maddren’s drums. The music then suddenly shifts up a gear with Crockatt leading the way, - it swings infectiously, but not in an obvious or clichéd manner. Downes takes the first solo, a wildly inventive excursion that throws down the gauntlet to Crockatt who follows him with a solo that impresses with both its power and its fluency. 

The success of the opening piece had much to do with the rhythmic intelligence and flexibility of Hayhurst and Maddren. The latter is at his most inventive on the bustling, high energy “The Masterplan” as his drums weave their way in and out of Crockatt’s knotty but wildly exciting composition. The group temporarily goes into saxophone trio mode during the course of Crockatt’s thrillingly ebullient solo. Downes’ wildly tumbling piano solo is positively torrential, a feverishly scintillating outpouring of ideas, a veritable “flood tide” of notes. 

The title of“I Found You in the Jam” is, perhaps, an indication of the tune’s provenance. It begins with the sound of Hayhurst’s bass, accompanied only by the quietly shadowing presence of Maddren’s brushed drums. Gradually the pair become more animated which prompts the introduction of saxophone and piano but overall the mood remains relaxed, there’s a kind of post Loose Tubes English pastoralism about the music -think Bates, Ballamy, Lockheart, Arguelles. Searching solos by Downes and Crockatt stretch the fabric of the piece and threaten to drag it into fresh areas but the air of gentle whimsy somehow remains intact throughout.

There really is a village called Mells in Somerset, close to the town of Frome (where I believe Iain Ballamy now lives). It’s now Crockatt’s home village and the album’s title track is inspired by the rhythmic pealing of the bells of the parish church. A furious opening drum salvo from Maddren rings out before tenor sax and piano combine to imitate the pealing of the bells, gradually summoning some kind of order from the apparent chaos. But make no mistake, this is not impressionistic music, no fey approximation of a rural idyll, instead the music bristles with the kind of urgent, vibrant energy that one more closely associates with London or New York. There’s a sense of abandon about Downes’ jangling piano solo that draws on the energies of free jazz and Crockatt’s declamatory tenor playing embraces a similar urgency and aggression, even when sticking close to that “Mells Bells” motif. Meanwhile the busy Maddren continues to drum up a storm around them.

In a well programmed collection the gentle ballad “Breath” comes as something of a relief. It’s a beautiful piece that also helps to demonstrate the versatility of the group. Crockatt now plays with an admirable tenderness and Downes with a corresponding lyricism. There’s even a prolonged duo passage between these two mid tune as Hayhurst’s melodic bass and Maddren’s almost subliminally brushed drums drop out altogether. It’s all rather lovely.

I assume that the title “A Stroll on the Knoll” also references a geographical location somewhere in the West Country. The tune itself is a jaunty blend of bebop inspired hooks and riffs with more contemporary jazz developments. It’s played in the saxophone trio format, in a style reminiscent of Sonny Rollins, with Crockatt displaying a commendable fluency as he ‘digs in’. With Hayhurst in his familiar holding role Maddren is free to play with considerable dynamism and his high energy, polyrhytmic drumming is vital to the tunes success, particularly in his spirited series of exchanges with the leader’s tenor.

Meanwhile “Tiny Steps, Top of the Mountain” has something of the effortless elegance of a jazz standard with its attractive melody and relaxed quartet performance plus flowingly lyrical solos from Downes and Crockatt. There’s also a brief feature for the excellent Hayhurst as Maddren deploys brushes with great sensitivity. The tune draws on mainstream jazz sources and is the composition that perhaps best reflects Crockatt’s admiration for Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson and others.

I suspect that the title “The Land that Time Forgot” is a reference to Somerset – but before anybody takes umbrage it could easily apply to my native county of Herefordshire too, probably more so. At a little under nine minutes it’s the lengthiest track on the album and begins in suitably laid back, pastoral fashion with a duet between Crockatt and Downes before gradually gaining momentum and urgency with the addition of Hayhurst and Maddren. The bassist is at the heart of the piece and his presence allows Crockatt and Maddren room to soar and explore with the busy Maddren a galvanising presence behind them. Despite the quiet start the energy of the performances ensures that the listener is left quite breathless by the end.

In the wake of “Flood Tide” “Mells Bells” represents another strong showing from Sam Crockatt. The sophistication of the writing is complemented by the spontaneity and joyousness of the performances, it’s an effective combination that is well captured by producer Crockatt and the engineering team. It’s an album that combines a respect for the tradition with a youthful energy and urgency and as such it’s a record that should appeal to a broad cross section of jazz listeners. Crockatt is a musician who deserves a higher profile, let’s hope that this album and the move to Whirlwind will help him to achieve this.       

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