Wednesday, August 01, 2012
Reviewed by: Ian Mann
Blurring the lines between composition and improvisation the quietly adventurous music of “Glimmers” deserves to establish Nick Malcolm as a significant presence on the UK jazz scene.
Nick Malcolm Quartet
(FMR Records FMRCD335-0412
At the end of May 2012 I saw trumpeter Nick Malcolm and the quartet featured on this album give an absorbing performance at the Queens Head in Monmouth, the opening date of a short Jazz Services UK tour in support of “Glimmers”. Joining Malcolm were London based musicians Alexander Hawkins (piano) and Olie Brice (double bass) plus Bristolian drummer Mark Whitlam.
Like the Monmouth gig the quartet’s début recording finds the foursome exploring the shadowy territory that forms the demarcation line between composition and improvisation. Hawkins and Brice are no strangers to the improvised world and they, like Malcolm, name the venerable improvising saxophonist Evan Parker as a key influence on their approach to music making.
Malcolm teaches jazz trumpet at Wells Cathedral School and divides his playing activities between the London and Bristol jazz scenes in a variety of projects including a quintet featuring Get The Blessing saxophonist Jake McMurchie and a trio with Brice and the leading contemporary free jazz drummer Mark Sanders. He also worked as a member of singer Emily Wright’s band Moonlight Saving Time and was recently featured on Jazz on 3’s “Introducing” showcase programme as part of the Bristolian band Dhakla (broadcast 23rd July 2012). He comes from a highly musical family and has absorbed influences from classical to jazz to world music and names Miles Davis as the prime influence on his trumpet sound.
The music on “Glimmers” features six original Malcolm compositions plus two from the pen of bassist Olie Brice. In an interview on the FMR Records website http://www.fmr-records.com Malcolm explains that every tune has a written element, intended as a way of establishing a mood or feeling around which the group can improvise. Malcolm’s interest in Zen Buddhism has led him to embrace an “egoless” approach to his music making, playing in the the moment and letting the music shape itself. He’s reluctant to “let the conscious mind take over” or to fall back on “learned stuff”. It’s an admirably open minded approach and the quartet’s willingness to let the music breathe can be heard throughout this highly promising album.
The title track begins with the unaccompanied sound of Malcolm’s trumpet, unmistakably contemporary with vocalisations and slap tonguing forming part of his sonic palette. Eventually a nagging phrase emerges which ushers in the band and leads to some excellent interplay between the members of the quartet. Brice and Hawkins lead briefly but the dominant voice on the track is that of Malcolm who shows a remarkable fluency and virtuosity throughout. At first the music seems written but the group push deeper into improvised duty with Hawkins providing dense clusters of notes, first as an accompaniment to Malcolm but then during his own solo. A band-leader in his own right and also a fine organist Hawkins is a musician with a substantial reputation on the London jazz and improv scene, a player much admired by my co-writer Tim Owen. Eventually this intriguing piece ends with the same trumpet phrase that triggered the band part of the tune. “Glimmers” the tune is a good manifesto for the quartet, with the kind of mix between the written and the improvised that is Malcolm’s avowed aim.
“Multifarious” comes from the pen of Olie Brice and finds the quartet building from a quirky opening of odd meter phrases to enter more freely improvised territory with Hawkins, Brice and Whitlam responding to Malcolm’s - dare I say it – multifarious trumpet sounds. There’s a very real sense of a musical conversation taking place albeit one eventually superseded by Brice’s double bass monologue at the close of the tune, a fascinating study in technique and extended technique.
Malcolm’s “Call Off Christmas” begins jauntily with bright and breezy trumpet from the leader. Exhibiting a high degree of technical accomplishment I fancy that I detect something of Dave Douglas in Malcolm’s sound. The piece also contains an extended feature for the excellent Whitlam who makes a colourful contribution throughout the album. He is consistently bright, inventive and responsive, and in the spirit of the quartet always avoids the obvious rhythms. The paradoxically cheerful “Call Off Christmas” sounds almost conventional next to some of the other fare on offer but is none the worse for that.
Brice’s “Tie Your Laces” begins with a dialogue between the pinched sounds of Malcolm’s trumpet and the glacial tinkling of Hawkins’ piano. The addition Whitlam’s shakers (he augments his drum kit with a variety of exotic percussive sounds) and Brice’s on bass gives the music a more orthodox sound with Malcolm again displaying an easy virtuosity alongside Hawkins’ imaginative chording and the flexible, intelligent rhythms of Brice and Whitlam. A change of gear part way through ushers in Hawkins’ solo which, like his playing throughout the album, is bright and inventive and wonderfully percussive, his style knowingly acknowledging the influences of Art Tatum and Thelonious Monk but to these ears also referencing Cecil Taylor, Myra Melford and Keiths Jarrett and Tippett. However there’s more to Hawkins playing than mere “spot the influence”, he’s a fiercely intelligent musician with an enquiring mind who has an already impressive, and still developing, musical vocabulary of his own.
The intriguingly titled “Lehman Brothers + Pak Choi” begins with long, spacious melancholic melody lines and deep bass grooves that initially reminded me of the music of Polar Bear, certainly in terms of emotional impact. The quartet use this as the starting point for an excursion into something much more freely structured with all four musicians having a strong input. Brice on arco bass is involved in a fascinating exchange with Malcolm, the trumpeter deploying breath and vocalised sounds to push his instrument to the limit. There’s a similarly intriguing exchange between Hawkins and Whitlam punctuated by Malcolm’s trumpet as he sketches the opening melody above a backdrop of turbulent piano and busily chattering drums. Later the piece breaks into a spirited post bop passage led by Malcolm’s trumpet, fluently improvising above Brice’s bass pulse and Whitlam’s neatly energetic drumming. In time Hawkins takes over from the leader in an extension of his earlier exchange with Whitlam with Brice now providing a grounding pulse.
“Mr Carr” begins with Brice’s bass ostinato, the backbone of a track that also embraces restlessly inventive drumming, fluent trumpeting and a fiendishly inventive piano solo. There is also a more reflective coda featuring a further duet between Malcolm on trumpet and Brice on bowed bass.
Many of these pieces visit a range of styles and moods within the course of a single tune.
“Green Eyes” begins life as a ballad with Malcolm emoting above sparse, insistent grooves and although the trumpeter and his colleagues later stretch the fabric of the tune it’s still one of the most straightforward pieces on the record and often rather lovely.
The album concludes with “The Three Little Words” (subtitled “Om Tat Sat”) which begins in almost minimalist fashion with Malcolm, Hawkins and Brice in intimate conversation. This is followed by a sudden but brief musical squall and finally an even more minimalist coda featuring extended trumpet techniques and exaggeratedly sparse piano. Although credited to Malcolm it’s likely that these miniatures, the three little words of the title, were almost entirely improvised.
“Glimmers” is an intriguing set superbly played by four musicians with a full command of technique who compound this with a high level of group interaction. The written content helps to keep the music relatively accessible and although there’s little conventional jazz swing here the album is less forbidding than many wholly improvised sets. Nevertheless there’s still a degree of intellectual rigour and some listeners may still find the album a little dry and austere. For all that there is much to enjoy and this is the kind of record that reveals fresh insights with each listening. The quietly adventurous music of “Glimmers” deserves to establish Nick Malcolm as a significant presence on the UK jazz scene.
JAZZ MANN FEATURES
The sun shines on the final day of an excellent festival.
Ian Mann soaks up the vibes at Cheltenham Jazz Festival.