Straw, Sticks & Bricks
Monday, April 04, 2011
Reviewed by: Ian Mann
Outhouse's most varied record yet and arguably their best.
“Straw, Sticks & Bricks”
(Babel Records BDV1190)
When the Loop Collective band Outhouse first emerged with their twin tenor sax line-up it was initially tempting to regard them as Loop’s answer to the more established Polar Bear. Their eponymous début album didn’t entirely dispel this opinion but over time Outhouse have very much carved out their own niche on the UK jazz scene, ironically perhaps by way of their collaborations with others.
First came “Ruhabi”, an innovative album that teamed the London quartet with five Sabar drummers of the Wolof people from The Gambia. The project was instigated by Outhouse’s own drummer Dave Smith who initially visited The Gambia as a student in 2002, subsequently returning several years later with his band mates to write and play with the Sabar musicians. In time they brought their African friends to Britain to record the album and to undertake a successful UK tour , including an exciting and highly acclaimed performance at Cheltenham Jazz Festival. “Ruhabi” met with almost unanimous critical praise and established Outhouse as one of the UK’s brightest young bands, also giving them an identity quite distinct from that of Polar Bear.
The band’s third album “Straw, Bricks and Sticks” maintains the high standards set by its predecessor. This time round the group have collaborated with New York based, Icelandic born guitarist Hilmar Jensson, a musician perhaps best known for his role in the group AlasNoAxis led by American drummer Jim Black. Jensson is an excellent guitarist who introduces a strong rock element to the Outhouse sound but without ever overwhelming it. He brings with him the same qualities he gives to Black’s group; the ability to blur the lines between jazz and rock, composition and improvisation. But there’s more to Jensson’s playing than sheer power, he also adds colour and texture to the music, something the group already possess in abundance courtesy of their two saxophonists. Consequently this is Outhouse’s most varied record yet and arguably their best, a considerable achievement after the riches of the excellent “Ruhabi”.
The group’s origins jamming in an outhouse in North London have been well documented. Joining Smith and Jensson on this record are bassist Jonny Brierley and twin reed men Robin Fincker (tenor sax, clarinet) and Tom Challenger (tenor sax). Challenger is the new boy in the group replacing original member Mark Hanslip who appeared on the first two records but is now busying himself with other projects. Like his band mates Challenger is an integral part of the Loop Collective and also leads his own electro improvising group, Ma.
The album kicks off in powerful fashion with Fincker’s “Kitchen In The Middle” which juxtaposes a thumping opening riff with more reflective passages of tenor sax dialogue and stuttering, oddly phrased guitar from guest Jensson. It’s mainly “in yer face” stuff that often rivals Led Bib for pure elemental power.
But Outhouse are capable of subtlety too. Challenger’s “Bleak Sylvette” is a moody textural exploration with Jensson’s shadowy guitar chording stalking the two reeds underpinned by Smith and Brierley’s slow motion grooves. Jensson sometimes sounds a little like Bill Frisell which is a recommendation in itself.
The lengthy Fincker composition “Fool” builds from impressionistic, almost free jazz beginnings through to edgy, urgent riffing and some dazzling unison passages. Jensson’s heavy, rock influenced solo almost seems to explode out of the body of the song and his echoing chords also form the backdrop to a rather less frenetic saxophone solo before the piece resolves itself in the same shadowy manner as it began.
Also by Fincker “Luna Verde” has a similar narrative arc and incorporates eerie “space station” guitar from Jensson, a range of atmospheric percussive effects from Smith and resonant, grounding double bass from Brierley. Much of it is as other worldly as its title suggests with the later introduction of the long lined tenor saxes eventually helping to bring it back to earth.
The lively “Golfo”, the latest in a series of Fincker compositions features the band at their most accessible with its infectious grooves and effervescent saxophone melodies and solos. Jensson also brings his rock credentials to bear on a powerful solo shadowed by Smith’s energetic drumming and the piece closes with some coruscating band passages.
The brief “Reverse”, Fincker’s final contribution with the pen, is a brief episode featuring the composer on clarinet in dialogue with the receptive rhythm team of Smith and Brierley.
Jensson’s clangorous power chords introduce Challenger’s “We Need Two” but elsewhere he forms more of a spectral presence, his eerily treated guitar shimmerings providing the backdrop for the brooding saxophone ruminations of Challenger and Fincker. Smith and Brierley provide considerable rhythmic impetus throughout on this dramatic and highly effective piece.
Smith’s sole contribution with the pen is is “Alignment”, one of the album’s more abstract pieces which features Fincker’s clarinet in conversation with the composer’s almost minimalist drumming.
At times it almost feels as if they’re playing in slow motion on what is overall the most impressionistic item on the record.
The closing “Long Notes” is attributed to “Outhouse” and presumably grew out of a group improvisation. The shadowy presence of Jensson is in there, behind the languorous sax lines and Smith’s skittering drum grooves. Here he is concerned with noise and ambience rather than any kind of orthodox guitar playing. As elsewhere his contribution is well judged and he complements the London based quartet perfectly.
Jensson’s presence brings an element of New York cool to Outhouse’s essentially very English music. Over the course of the album the quintet strike just the right balance between power and intimacy. For every rock moment from Jensson there’s an intimate dialogue between the reeds or other instruments and the constantly unfolding nature of the music consistently holds the listener’s attention. Many of the compositions have a strong narrative framework but these are still flexible enough to allow for plenty of inspired improvisation, conversation and dialogue. Outhouse and Jensson have been working together for some time and the understanding that they’ve built up is readily apparent on this recording.
Outhouse plus Jensson are due to tour the UK and Europe shortly including an appearance at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival which I’m hoping to catch. I’ve seen Smith and Fincker play before in other contexts but this will be my first taste of Outhouse in the flesh. I’m very much looking forward to it.
The group’s tour dates are shown below;
2011 Live Dates
21/04: Bonnington Theatre, Arnold Notts
22/04: Fleece Jazz, Stoke by Nayland Golf Club
23/04: The Forge, London
24/04: 7 Arts Centre, Leeds
25/04: Gumble’s Jazz festival, Stafford
26/04: Schmazz @ The Cluny, Newcastle upon Tyne
27/04: Jazz Bar, Edinburgh
30/04: Cheltenham Jazz Festival
13/05: Le Periscope, Lyon (France)
14/05: AMR, Geneva (Switzerland)
30/06: Bishopsgate, London
01/07: Vortex, London
19/11: Africolor Festival (Paris)
More information is available at http://www.outhousemusic.com
JAZZ MANN FEATURES
Ian Mann on two excellent, but very different, performances by Joanne Shaw Taylor and Lianne La Havas.
Guest contributor Trevor Bannister interviews alto saxophonist Johnty Wilks and enjoys a live performance of his mellow, meditative music at the South Street Arts Centre, Reading.