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Ulia River of Time

John Crawford

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Reviewed by: Ian Mann

Album Review

4 out of 5

Ulia River of Time

A hugely enjoyable album. Every piece is highly melodic and Crawford's arrangements are consistently bright and inventive.

John Crawford

“Ulia River of Time”

(Monpas Records JCURTCD 1)

Born in London of English/Spanish parentage pianist John Crawford has grown up with a love of Latin and South American music. He has worked with a host of leading names in the field of Latin music and was a founding member of the popular band Grupo X. A highly versatile musician Crawford has also worked with an impressive list of UK jazz musicians and has also done pop session work, most notably with Tanita Tikaram. His knowledge of Latin piano styles has led to him co-authoring the book “Exploring Latin Piano” with fellow pianist Tim Richards. Crawford is currently a member of ISQ, a new jazz quartet fronted by vocalist Irene Serra and featuring bass player Richard Sadler, once of the Neil Cowley Trio.

“Ulia River of Time” is Crawford’s recording début as a leader and is a reflection of his love of Latin and South American music. Encompassing a range of Latin and other styles the programme consists of covers of tunes by leading jazz and Latin composers with “Flower of the Levant” the sole original tune. Crawford has chosen his selection of covers well and the result is a warm, bright album with excellent playing from a core quintet consisting of Guille Hill (recently described by the London Jazz Blog as the best Uruguayan guitarist in London) , percussionist Aandres Ticino, bassist Gili Lopes and drummer Eduardo Marques. There are guest slots for vocalist Emma Blackman, guitarist Jorge Bravo and Crawford’s ex Grupo X colleague Trevor Mires on trombone.

The album commences with “Irakere/Metheny Medley”, an attractive segue of Irakere’s “Flutes Notes”, written by pianist Chucho Valdes, and guitarist Pat Metheny’s “Finding and Believing” from his “Secret Story” album. This bright and breezy opener features the authentic Latin rhythms of Ticino and Crawford and the nimble acoustic guitar picking of Hill. Crawford’s exuberant soloing displays a thorough knowledge of Latin idioms as the album gets off to a winning start.

Crawford’s own “Flower of the Levant” is more lyrical with further excellent playing from Crawford and (presumably) guest guitarist Bravo with Ticino again adding convincing percussion shadings alongside Bravo’s flamenco flavourings. It’s a piece that wouldn’t appear out of place in the repertoire of guitarist Jonny Phillips’ group Oriole, which coming from me is praise indeed.

“Madrid”, written by bassist Avishai Cohen, features the sometimes lilting, sometimes soaring voice of Emma Blackman who sings the Spanish lyrics alongside the rich, fruity trombone of fellow guest Trevor Mires. There’s also a passage of mellifluous wordless vocalising plus a good natured exchange of ideas between Crawford and Mires that can’t fail to win over the listener.

Crawford dedicates the song “Mi Chiquita”, originally recorded by Inti Illimani, to his childhood friend from Chile, Estela Espindola de Carrasco. It’s a beautiful tribute to the person who first inspired Crawford’s love of South America and its music with features for Crawford, Hill, Lopes and Ticino.

Brazilian music is prominent on Crawford’s musical radar as a joyous, lovely interpretation of Milton Nascimento’s “Anima” makes clear with Bravo, Crawford and Ticino again fulfilling key roles. The pianist and guitarist both contribute dazzling, exuberant solos.

Staying in Brazil “Cortina” (credited to Vasconcelos/Sherer, I’m assuming that’s percussionist/vocalist Nana Vasconcelos) offers a gentler but no less enjoyable look at that country’s music with Crawford and Bravo again in sparkling form with Ticino continuing to add vivid splashes of percussive colour.

“Ladino Song” was originally recorded in 2004 by KT Tunstall’s former band Oi Va Voi. Here Emma Blackman sings the mix of English and Spanish lyrics. She gives an assured performance of quiet intensity and her contribution is matched by the instrumentalists, particularly leader Crawford who delivers a beautifully constructed solo. There’s also a feature for drummer Eduardo Marques who briefly steps out of his well judged supportive role. 

Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Samba do Aviado” takes us back to Brazil with Crawford’s thoughtful and imaginative solo piano improvisation opening the piece. The group then breeze through the the body of the tune with a further solo from Crawford and with Hill enjoying a rare outing on electric guitar.

Crawford casts his net yet wider with a rollicking version of “Erghen Diado” by the Bulgarian songwriter Petar Lyondev. There’s some scintillating piano from the leader as the band, with Lopes on electric bass, lay down some mighty Balkan grooves culminating in a further drum feature from Marques. Invigorating stuff. 

“Penas Luz” (Caravedo/Robles) lowers the temperature slightly but there’s still some sparkling player from the leader above a springy bass groove and the delicate patter of percussion.

“Estate” (Brighetti/Martino) places an even greater focus on lyricism with Hill’s gently picked acoustic guitar and Crawford’s flowing piano to the fore.

The album closes with “Rio Ancho” (“Wide River”) by the flamenco guitarist Sanchez Gomez. It represents a rousing conclusion with cajon driven solos from Hill on acoustic guitar, Lopes on acoustic bass and Crawford at the piano with the latter in particularly impressive form on a wonderfully percussive and exuberant closing statement.

“Ulia River of Time” is a hugely enjoyable album. Although Crawford contributes only one original tune his choice of material to cover is inspired, every piece is highly melodic and Crawford’s arrangements are consistently bright and inventive. In his notes Crawford thanks his band mates, referring to them as “Galacticos”, and he’s right, the quintet really do sound great together, something enhanced by the production team of engineers Jim Gross, Dick Hammett and Andy La Fone plus producer Crawford. Reports also suggest that the quintet is easily capable of carrying the qualities displayed on the album into their live performances. Perhaps the closest UK parallel to this album is bassist Alec Dankworth’s excellent Spanish Accents project, a stellar line up that also delivered the goods live and on album with a similarly inspired choice of outside material.

At around seventy minutes long the Crawford album represents great value for money. Hopefully he will be able to keep this line up together to record a second album with a greater focus on original material. I was tempted to dock half a star for a lack of original content but these performances are so appealing that I suspect this album may continue to be regular visitor to my turntable and as such can be very much recommended to other listeners.

In the meantime I’m looking forward to seeing Crawford perform live tomorrow night (February 1st 2013) as part of ISQ at The Edge Arts Centre, Much Wenlock, Shropshire.   

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