by Ian Mann
July 16, 2020
Three very different albums by the extraordinarily productive clarinettist & guitarist Alex Ward, featuring his quartet Item 4, Ward as a solo guitarist, and his duo with drummer/ vocalist Sean Noonan
Alex Ward Item 4 - “Where We Were” (Relative Pitch Records – RPR1106)
Alex Ward - “Frames” (Relative Pitch Records – RPR1105)
Alex Ward / Sean Noonan - “Noonward” (Copepod Records POD15)
I’m indebted to the London based musician Alex Ward for forwarding me these three recent releases, all of which have come out during the first half of 2020, for review.
Ward has been a regular presence on the Jazzmann web pages, largely due to his regular visits to one of my regular musical haunts, the Queen’s Head in Monmouth, with a variety of different line ups, among them his Noonward duo with the American drummer, percussionist and vocalist Sean Noonan.
London based Ward is a truly remarkable instrumentalist exhibiting an astonishing degree of expertise on both the clarinet and the electric guitar. His music inhabits the hinterland where composed and fully improvised music meet, although he’s generally regarded as being a “free” player following an apprenticeship that included playing clarinet alongside the late, great guitar improviser Derek Bailey.
Ward started out as a clarinettist, only taking up the guitar in the year 2000 at the age of twenty six. Influenced by Bailey he is now an extremely accomplished guitarist and an inspired improviser who performs on his “second instrument” in groups such as his own Predicate and the powerhouse improvising trio N.E.W. which pits his guitar against the rhythmic “tag team” of drummer Steve Noble and double bassist John Edwards.
Ward has recorded more frequently as a clarinettist but it’s as a guitarist that I know him best having witnessed two live performances by the Predicate quartet, featuring bassist Dominic Lash, saxophonist Tim Hill, and drummer/percussionist Mark Sanders, at the Queen’s Head in 2012 and 2014.
I’ve since reviewed Predicate’s two albums, the eponymous 2012 début and its 2014 follow up “Nails”. I’ve also covered both albums by Ward’s other quartet, Forebrace, in which he plays clarinet, this time in the company of guitarist Roberto Sassi, electric bassist Santiago Horro and drummer Jem Doulton, the latter having previously collaborated with Ward in the alt rock duo Dead Days Beyond Help. Both of the Forebrace albums, 2014’s “Bad Folds” and 2016’s “Steeped”, inhabit similar musical territory to the Predicate recordings and, like their companions are highly recommended.
I have also covered “Appliance”, a 2014 duo recording featuring Ward on clarinet and Lash on double bass, the programme featuring a mix of written and fully improvised material.
Much of Ward’s work involves totally free playing, including the 2016 release “Projected/Entities/Removal”, a wholly improvised collection featuring three extended improvisations by three different, but closely linked, line ups, the personnel including Noble, cellist Hannah Marshall, bassist Olie Brice, saxophonist Rachel Musson and clarinettist Tom Jackson.
Ward’s recorded output has been prolific and is too voluminous to elaborate further upon here. For full details of his musical activities please visit https://sites.google.com/site/alexwardmusician/biography
To purchase his recordings, including the three releases that I am about to cover here, please visit his Bandcamp page;
I intend to tackle these three 2020 releases in the chronological order that they were recorded, beginning with;
ALEX WARD ITEM 4 - “WHERE WE WERE”
Alex Ward – clarinet (tracks 1,2,4), electric guitar (tracks 2,3.4)
Charlotte Keeffe - trumpet, flugelhorn
Otto Willberg – double bass
Andrew Lisle – drums
Recorded live at the Set venue in Dalston Lane, London and just round the corner at Café Oto’s Project Space at two sessions in September 2018, “Where We Were” introduces a new quartet featuring Ward in the company of younger players, trumpeter Charlotte Keeffe, bassist Otto Willberg and drummer Andrew Lisle.
The group represents an offshoot of Ward’s large ensemble Item 10, of which all these musicians were members. The ‘Item’ series was conceived as representing a ‘pool’ of musicians and this quartet is the second smaller group to be sourced from the original ten piece ensemble.
Item 10 recorded the album “Volition” at a performance at Café Oto in September 2017, the finished product being released the following year. It is also available via Ward’s Bandcamp page.
Ward has also recorded previously with Lisle, the pair releasing the improvised duo album “Doors” on Copepod Records in 2018. This is also available from Ward’s Bandcamp page.
The material on “Where We Were” consists of four lengthy collective improvisations based around Ward compositions. The performances are intense and uncompromising, and for me it was both interesting and surprising to hear Keeffe, a musician I’d previously only heard in more conventional jazz settings, in such a ‘full on’ improvising environment.
Keeffe studied music at the Royal College of Music and Drama in Cardiff and during her time there even contributed to The Jazzmann as a guest reviewer in 2010 and 2011.
Since becoming a professional jazz musician, following further studies at the Guildhall in London Keeffe, has turned increasingly towards improvised music and has enjoyed collaborations with artists such as saxophonists Cath Roberts, Tom Ward, Martin Archer and Kim Macari, trombonist Alex Paxton, cellist Shirley Smart and guitarist Diego Sampieri . She also regularly performs and conducts with the London Improvisers Orchestra.
Keeffe performs alongside Willberg in Lisle’s trio and also leads her own quartet featuring guitarist Moss Freed, bassist Ashley John Long and drummer Ben Handysides.
More conventional settings for her playing have included the Steve Waterman Big Band and the brass ensemble The Brass Monkeys, led by tuba player Ben Higham, in addition to sidewoman and session appearances with a wide variety of jazz and pop artists.
Turning now to the “Where We Were” album, which commences with the fourteen minute plus “Write Protect”, featuring Ward on clarinet. The piece erupts with a passage of spirited interplay featuring the intertwined sounds of clarinet and trumpet and the rumble of Lisle’s drums. Willberg introduces deep, grainy bowed bass sounds, but later switches to the pizzicato technique as the performance progresses. In the manner of much improvised music the piece ebbs and flows, the quartet sometimes sounding like a sinister and demented New Orleans marching band before shading off into more obviously contemporary directions. There’s a dazzling solo from Ward on clarinet, his sinuous, quick-fire playing shadowed by Willberg’s bass and the busy chatter of Lisle’s drums. Ward eventually drops out, after delivering a mercurial solo that amply demonstrates his phenomenal technique and his sheer inventiveness as an improviser. The rhythm team then carry the music for a short period before being joined by Keeffe, whose trumpet solo incorporates vocalised growls alongside rapid flurries of notes, with Willberg and Lisle continuing to offer appropriately energetic support. The music then fragments into something more loosely structured with Willberg taking up the bow once more as Keeffe enters into an extended conversation with the rhythm team, featuring the sounds of arco bass and the furtive rustle of drums and percussion.
The piece segues almost imperceptibly into the twenty four and a half minute “Staunch” as Ward, still on clarinet, tentatively rejoins the conversation. Gentle clarinet and trumpet fanfares lead into an ominous passage featuring grainy arco bass, almost subterranean mallet rumbles and the sounds of pecked trumpet and clarinet. The horns then clamour above a roiling forest of bass and drums, sometimes sounding a swarm of angry wasps. It’s an ear opener for me to hear Keeffe in this context, and it’s apparent that she’s thoroughly at home within this style of music, acting as a perfect foil for Ward and displaying an impressive command of improvisatory techniques.
The music then breaks down into a vigorous exchange between Willberg and Lisle, the former here a powerful and physical presence at the bass. This passage serves as the opportunity for Ward to switch to electric guitar and leads to a thrilling ‘power trio’ episode featuring clangorous guitar alongside hyperactive bass and drums. The remarkable Ward is also a hugely accomplished guitarist, it’s difficult to believe that notionally this is a musician playing his “second instrument”.
Keeffe eventually joins the fray, her ebullient, high octane trumpeting combining effectively with the quasi-metal power chording of the leader. The trumpeter then assumes the lead in a more freely structured passage featuring the sounds of bowed bass, shadowy guitar and the rustle of percussion.
There’s a passage of vigorous, unaccompanied arco bass, later joined by the gentle bustle of brushed drums, spidery guitar and the more strident sounds of Keeffe’s trumpet.
“Suffix”, the shortest track on the album at a little over nine minutes, commences with the sound of Willberg’s bass, his pizzicato motif the anchor for the intertwining lines of Ward on guitar and Keeffe on trumpet and Lisle’s consistently unfolding drum commentary. Periodically Ward and Keeffe double up on a piece that sounds more composed than some of its companions and which dips its toes in the waters of avant rock. The two front liners separate to deliver powerful solos, Keeffe going first, her strident trumpet bursts accompanied by the ongoing bass groove, the polyrhythmic flow of Lisle’s drums and Ward’s jagged guitar comping. Ward then takes over the soloing, demonstrating his abilities as a guitar shredder by wigging out above the rhythm section’s adrenaline rush, before eventually steering the improvisation into more abstract areas. This is the piece that comes closest to Ward’s work with Predicate, Forebrace and Dead Days and thus constitutes the most accessible track on the album, particularly for any curious rock listeners who have managed to get this far.
The final stages of “Suffix” segue into the twenty five and a half minute title track, with Ward still operating on guitar. The piece unfolds slowly, gentle and ruminative at first, with Willberg again featuring with the bow as he exchanges ideas with Keeffe and Ward with Lisle providing appropriate drum commentary. Gradually the quartet begin to explore more rigorously and deeply, gathering momentum along the way before pushing the music into even more abstract, freely improvised areas, often involving the use of extended techniques. An extended dialogue between Keeffe and Willberg features some of the most ‘out there’ playing of the set, and also provides Ward with the opportunity to make the transition to clarinet and to subsequently take over from Keeffe. The full quartet then re-convenes and continues to collectively push the boundaries via an intense series of improvised exchanges. These are followed by an extended passage of solo drums from the impressive Lisle, which, for all the technique, remains innately musical throughout. Ward then joins him in duet, his clarinet dancing joyously around Lisle’s drum patterns, occasionally invoking the sounds of North Africa or the Middle East. Keeffe’s trumpet is added to the equation and her interaction with Ward is dynamic and instinctive as the quartet navigate their way through a further series of improvisations to an eventual resolution.
Although it sometimes represents challenging listening “Where We Were” is nevertheless an impressive piece of work. Ward has chosen his playing partners wisely and this is well balanced, highly interactive ensemble. The experience of working together in Item 10 has served the band members well and they have no problems functioning in the more spacious environment of a quartet. Keeffe performs with great assurance and inventiveness and her playing in this essentially improvised context is a revelation. I’m similarly impressed by Willberg, a new name to me, and also Lisle, another musician I’ve only seen in more conventional contexts, but who does have an improvising pedigree thanks to his involvement with the LUME organisation.
Ward excels on both his chosen instruments, moving seamlessly between the two.
Not for everybody, but an excellent recording of its type, and the kind of album currently under threat thanks to the Covid-19 crisis. Live performance is the natural environment of improvised music, but that habitat is currently gravely endangered. Let us hope that venues like Set and Café Oto can survive to accommodate future live improvised performances.
Alex Ward – electric guitar
This second album for the American independent Relative Pitch Records was recorded over the course of two sessions at Stowaway Studios in February 2019 and consists of solo electric guitar performances.
Ward’s command of an instrument that he only took up his twenties is remarkable, as evidenced on recordings by Predicate, Dead Days Beyond Help and the two Item groups among others. I actually prefer him on guitar, but that’s very much a personal predilection.
“Frames” features six different performances, beginning with the tautly structured but highly energetic “Tight Ship”, where Ward’s jagged chording and powerful strumming emphasises his love of avant rock.
The title track is more impressionistic, alternating between passages of ominous brooding and more aggressive bursts of energy. At times the music edges close to heavy metal, at others the ringing sounds of open strings reminded me of a particularly evocative description of Bob Mould’s guitar playing - “like a tray of glasses dropped in a church”.
“Alternate Flow” is more fragmented and makes greater use of effects and extended techniques. But the performance still incorporates moments of stunning virtuosity and pure energy, with Ward making use of unconventional tunings and producing some remarkable chord shapes and some dazzling runs.
Ward revisits his composition “Staunch”, a piece explored by the Item 4 group on the “Where We Were” album referenced above. Here the piece is combined with “At The End” in an eleven minute extravaganza that moves between drifting ambience, restless exploration and explosions of metal and avant rock inspired dissonance. Following the extended, multi-faceted ramblings of “Staunch” the second part of the segue represents a brief coda, more serene in feel and notably song-like in construction.
Next up is another guitar tour-de-force, the seventeen minute “Allegro Apprensivo”, another piece that traverses a wide range of moods, dynamics and guitar styles. Ward’s acknowledged influences include artists as diverse as his mentor Derek Bailey through to Eugene Chadbourne and Thurston Moore, the latter of Sonic Youth. He also cites such pillars of the British improvising community as John Coxon and John Russell. Here some of Ward’s frenzied strumming sounds like turbo-charged flamenco, at other moments he threatens to go into full metal overdrive and there’s a passage of white hot, high speed shredding . Ward is a performer and improviser with a shrewd grasp of dynamics and a similarly astute command of the electric guitar’s range of effects.
The album concludes on an elegiac note with the reflective, song-like “Humid Retreat”, yet even here there’s a certain ‘edge’ lurking just below the surface, a factor common to all of Ward’s music.
Ward rises to the challenge of his first totally solo album with aplomb. The mix of written and improvised material and the combination of a variety of guitar styles ensures that the recording retains the listener’s attention throughout. Not bad for a latecomer to the instrument.
SEAN NOONAN & ALEX WARD
Alex Ward - clarinet, electric guitar
Sean noonan - drums, percussion, vocals
Recorded in October 2019 this studio recording appears on Copepod Records, the label founded by Ward and pianist Luke Barlow.
“Noonward”, the title now adopted as a band name, features the duo of Ward and the American drummer, percussionist and vocalist Sean Noonan.
Originally from Boston, MA and of Irish heritage Noonan was based for some time in New York and has collaborated with many leading US improvisers as well as leading his own projects. Now based in London Noonan has been a regular visitor to the Queen’s Head in Monmouth, both with this duo and as a leader of his own groups.
Noonan is a highly flamboyant and theatrical presence behind the drum kit and his material embraces elements of musical humour with off the wall lyrics and a general air of eccentricity that has evoked comparisons with the late, great Frank Zappa.
Noonan’s combination of musical virtuosity and surreal humour has proved to be highly popular with Monmouth audiences, and his appearances have always drawn a large crowd to the Queen’s Head venue. In the live environment one can’t help becoming absorbed in his decidedly wacky and offbeat sound-world.
Words and vocals have always played an important role in Noonan’s music and he describes himself as a “rhythmic storyteller”. Truth to tell he’s more accomplished as an instrumentalist than he is as a singer, but his recordings also include the contributions of others, most notably former Can vocalist Malcolm Mooney, who sings with Noonan’s “harmolodic jazz-rock ensemble” Pavee’s Dance, a group that also includes former Ornette Coleman electric bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma.
In over twenty years as a bandleader Noonan has released around thirty albums under his own name with a variety of different line ups and embracing a wide array of musical styles, some of them exploring his Irish heritage. A fuller overview of Noonan’s musical activities can be found at his website
For all Noonan’s eccentricities the “Noonward” album is still the most conventional or “straight ahead” of the three recordings investigated in this feature. The nine tracks here place a greater emphasis on composition and with Noonan singing on some of the pieces some of them actually constitute “songs”.
The compositional credits are split almost equally with Ward contributing four pieces and Noonan five.
Things kick off with Ward’s instrumental composition “Packed”, an appropriate title that features the composer on electric guitar, a bustling slice of avant rock that is chock full of musical information. With a guitarist of Ward’s ability involved one hardly notices the lack of a bass, most so called ‘power trios’ would struggle to summon up the kind of energy that Ward and Noonan achieve here with this brawny chunk of math rock. And for anyone who has ever been distracted by the theatricality and general craziness of Noonan’s live performances this track offers aural evidence of just what a monster drummer he is. Both he and Ward have talent to burn, and here both are positively blazing.
Ward switches to clarinet for the introduction to Noonan’s “Wrinkles of Time”, his opening dialogue with the composer’s brushed drums seeing his clarinet swoop and soar in lively musical conversation. But this piece is also a song, and as Noonan’s woozy vocal comes in Ward makes the move back to guitar. Reflective passages featuring Noonan’s vocal ruminations contrast with blistering instrumental interludes featuring both guitar and clarinet, with Ward making effective use of overdubbing. “I walk a line through the wrinkles of time”, intones Noonan, his chants taking on the qualities of a mantra, before the duo wrap things up with a ferocious instrumental passage that combines musical complexity with raw power. Like the Predicate, Forebrace and Dead Days recordings “Noonward” has the capability to appeal to curious rock listeners, particularly those schooled in the court of King Crimson.
Ward’s “The Stated Aim” is another tensile guitar / drums instrumental that bristles with intent, combining sophisticated musical ideas with near heavy metal power and occasionally an over-driven surf guitar sound that sounds like Dick Dale on steroids. These episodes are punctuated by more reflective semi-ambient passages, but even here an ominous, nascent power remains.
Noonan’s “White Light” commences with the combination of clarinet and drums in sprightly duet, with Ward eventually making a seamless switch to guitar, bringing another voice to the duo’s still ongoing conversation. This is really a song of two halves and the second half of the piece features Noonan’s semi-spoken incantations above a backdrop of slightly sinister guitar chording and the shimmer and rumble of percussion. This section grows in intensity, rising to a peak before Ward takes advantage of the studio setting to make the switch back to clarinet for a luminously beautiful instrumental coda.
The drummer retains the compositional reins for “Circle Of Willis”, which announces itself with a barrage of volcanic drumming and belligerent electric guitar. This is followed by a change of mood and instrumentation as Ward again switches to clarinet, his dialogue with Noonan’s drums now downright playful. Then it’s back to guitar for a frantic, riff driven section featuring Ward’s malicious riffing and the composer’s bravura drumming. The final twist comes with a disarmingly gentle coda.
Ward’s “Leaf Count” introduces a more subdued mood as he specialises on clarinet during an intimate conversation with Noonan at the kit, the drummer here displaying a more subtle side of his playing, while still functioning as an equal partner in this highly creative musical dialogue. The players become increasingly animated as the music progresses, the mood still playful with Noonan producing an intriguing array of sounds and colours, ranging from mallet rumbles to the clatter of sticks on rims.
“Concrete Sleeper” is Ward’s final contribution with the pen and finds the composer making the move back to guitar. He also doubles on clarinet, but here his all round performance is more aggressive ‘in your face’ than it was on “Leaf Count”. However that spirit of playfulness remains, particularly in the quicksilver clarinet and drum exchanges. This is another piece that evolves through clearly delineated sections and the final passage finds the composer moving back to guitar for a spooky episode punctuated by bursts of murky, threatening guitar driven thrash.
It’s back to Noonan the composer for the last two pieces on the album. “Man No Longer Me” commences with a typically puckish set of clarinet and drum exchanges before quickly morphing into a lively guitar and drum dialogue with the composer steering the music from the kit. The rhythms are constantly evolving and embrace a variety of time signatures. Along the way there’s a dynamic burst of unaccompanied drumming from Noonan and a searing guitar solo from Ward.
With characteristic abruptness we then switch back to the quirky clarinet and drum dialogue, with Ward briefly deploying slap tongue techniques, then just as quickly we flip back for a high octane guitar and drum thrash, eventually crowned by Noonan’s declamatory vocals.
The album concludes with Noonan’s “Funnel Weaver”, quiet and atmospheric at first with Ward at his most reflective on guitar and Noonan on mainly brushed drums. But gradually the pair begin to ramp up the tension, culminating is a series of jagged guitar riffs and runs from Ward accompanied by Noonan’s pummelling drums. But in a duo with a shrewd grasp of contrast and dynamics there are more reflective episodes too. The Noonward duo’s performances frequently constitute a switchback ride, and the pair round of this piece, and the album as a whole, with a barrage of tumultuous riffing, the energy levels now turned up to full.
With its greater focus on composition “Noonward” is the most accessible of the three albums under consideration here. Having enjoyed seeing the duo perform together at Monmouth I have to say that the album actually exceeds my expectations. The compositions of both musicians are consistently interesting and engaging and their ability to constantly and adroitly change direction during the course of a single tune is genuinely impressive. Ward’s ability to move between guitar and clarinet, and to perform with equal facility on both instruments, adds to the variety and helps to ensure that the duo frequently sounds like a larger unit.
I’ve also heard a number of Noonan’s solo albums but despite the undoubted quality of the playing I’ve often found myself distracted by the vocals and found the records to be rather too rambling and self consciously eclectic. The relative discipline of this particular duo seems to suit Noonan, and I actually found his occasional vocal contributions here to be a positive addition.
“Where We Were” and “Frames” both have much to recommend them, but the former is a largely improvised performance that works best in the situation in which it was recorded i.e. a live gig.
Meanwhile “Frames” displays Ward’s mastery of his “second instrument”, the electric guitar, but without the input of other musicians it can be a demanding record for the listener.
This makes “Noonward” the album that I’m most likely to re-visit on a regular basis, sitting as it does on the cusp of composition and improvisation. There’s also a rock element here that will hold appeal for adventurous listeners of that genre and although not an obviously ‘easy’ listen this album is thoroughly recommended.
The other two are more likely to appeal to committed improv listeners, but taken as a whole all three albums represent evidence of Ward’s astonishing creativity, and his stunning virtuosity on two very different instruments.
The restlessly productive Ward has since released a further two albums – that’s a staggering five so far in 2020.
“Proper Placement” teams Ward, featuring on both clarinet and guitar, with Sam Weinberg on tenor and soprano saxes.
A second duo recording, “(VU)”, finds him specialising on clarinet in the company of Pascal Marzan on ten string microtonal acoustic guitar. Sounds intriguing.
Both of these recent releases are also available at https://alexward.bandcamp.com/
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