by Ian Mann
February 19, 2014
Ian Mann on two very different albums from the versatile pianist and composer Geoff Eales.
“Free Flow” (33 Xtreme 001)
” The Dancing Flute” (Nimbus Alliance NI 6216)
Geoff Eales is one of the most versatile pianists on the British jazz scene, classically trained but also capable of playing in a myriad of jazz styles and idioms. I first encountered his playing in 2007 at the Brecon Jazz Festival when he presented an entertaining history of jazz piano paying homage to, and playing in the manner of , a variety of jazz greats from Art Tatum through Bill Evans to Keith Jarrett.
In 2009 I awarded a rare five star review to Eales’ superb trio album, the aptly titled “Master Of The Game” recorded with the stellar rhythm partnership of bassist Chris Laurence and drummer Martin France. These two have also accompanied the great John Taylor on disc and “Master Of The Game” is easily on a par with the best of Taylor’s recorded output.
In 2012 Eales demonstrated his versatility with an unexpected change of direction which saw him leading a five piece electric band called “Isorhythm”. The album “Shifting Sands” was intelligent and multi faceted and like its acoustic predecessor offered further evidence of Eales’ considerable composing talent. I saw this line up featuring Ben Waghorn (saxes), Carl Orr (guitar), Fred T Baker (electric bass) and Asaf Sirkis (drums) give a hugely enjoyable performance of this “fusion” material at Stratford upon Avon Jazz Club at around this time.
A glance at Eales’ website http://www.geoffeales.com reveals that he has recorded regularly since 1998 in both the piano/bass/drums and solo piano formats. However hot on the heels of “Shifting Sands” come two very different releases. “Free Flow” is the first release on 33 Records’ Xtreme imprint and features an improvising trio of Eales on piano, Isorhythm colleague Ben Waghorn on saxophones and bass clarinet and Ashley John Long on double bass. It’s the freest recording Eales has ever done and on the whole it works very well. By way of contrast “The Dancing Flute” teams Eales with classical and ethnic flautist Andy Findon on a programme of twelve Eales original compositions, most of them relatively brief. In a way the contrast between the albums couldn’t be greater but both recordings are enjoyable in their own ways and together they make for a superb demonstration of Eales’ remarkable versatility.
I’ll deal with the albums chronologically, beginning with “Free Flow”. This five track recording was captured during the course of two separate shows at Dempsey’s, Cardiff in September 2010 and May 2011. Dempsey’s is one of my favourite jazz venues and it’s good to hear it being used as the location for a highly enjoyable live recording. The music of Eales, Waghorn and Long was captured with a single microphone by promoter Alistair McMurchie and the final product, mastered by engineer Simon Haram and produced by Eales, sounds very good indeed. Eales dedicates the recording to his fellow musicians, Dempsey’s stalwarts Alistair McMurchie and Brenda O’Brien, and finally the Dempsey’s audience “who always listen with an open mind, heart and ear”. I’ll second that, it’s always been my experience on my numerous visits to the venue.
The programme consists of five fairly lengthy pieces, all in excess of ten minutes. Eales notes reveal that of these one is totally improvised from start to finish, a second is more structured and is based around a pre-composed melody while the other three fall halfway between these two extremes as the trio improvise at length around what Eales describes as “the most minimal of sketches”.
The album begins with the fully improvised “Conflict and Resolution”, a remarkably coherent statement that develops from obviously improvised beginnings to embrace harmony and melody in a genuine three way discourse that avoids many of the pitfalls of free improv (lack of melody, extended technique for its own sake, confrontational attitudes, general obtuseness). Instead Eales and his colleagues maintain a link with the tradition no matter how deeply they probe and some of Eales’ playing is positively joyous. Waghorn moves between tenor sax and bass clarinet and impresses throughout while Long rises to the challenge of playing double bass in a drummer-less group, sharing the rhythmic load with Eales but also relishing the space afforded to him as a soloist. I’m a long term admirer of Long’s playing and always get the impression that if, like Eales, he made the move from South Wales to London he’d soon become an in demand player with fellow musicians and much better known by the jazz loving public.
“Utopia” is the more through composed piece that Eales mentions in his notes. It grows from a lyrical solo piano introduction into a lovely piano/saxophone duet featuring Waghorn’s keening, yearning tone. Waghorn then takes a step back as Eales enters into dialogue with Long, the bassist once again demonstrating his fluency as a soloist. The pastoral, almost semi-classical mood is altered by the return of Waghorn’s reeds as Eales adopts a more insistent rhythmic approach and the saxophonist solos in a more forceful manner as the music sails more boldly into improvised waters. In a piece of shifting moods and dynamics there’s then a lengthy passage of solo piano that restores soething of the lyrical mood and draws a spontaneous round of applause from the Dempsey’s audience. The piece concludes with something of a reprise of the earlier piano/saxophone duet which is greeted with another rapturous reception.
The ten minute “Sprite” seems to take its title from the lightly dancing figures of Eales’ solo piano introduction and the ensuing impish dialogue with Waghorn. As the piece progresses the mood varies between the playful and the vaguely unsettling as the inspired sax/piano conversation continues with Long taking a back seat.
The mood of the thirteen minute “Dystopia” is darker and features Long’s considerable arco skills as the bassist adopts a more central role. It later becomes a three way exchange as Waghorn enters the fray on a piece that is the most consciously “avant garde” to date.
The closing “On the Seventh Day” also clocks in at around the thirteen minute mark and features more scintillating interplay between Eales and Waghorn. The latter’s playing throughout the album in a highly exposed setting is a good reminder of just how accomplished a saxophonist he is. Long flourishes the bow again as the music takes a darker, more experimental turn in a passage well appreciated by the Dempsey’s crowd. A return to more obviously written territory (doubtless one of Eales’ “sketches”) leads to the finale, celebratory and lyrical by turns.
Occupying an interesting niche somewhere between the orthodox and the avant garde “Free Flow” is an absorbing listen that remains accessible enough for most jazz listeners to obtain some enjoyment from a programme that combines superb individual performances with some excellent team work, the rapport between Eales and Waghorn is palpable throughout. Hard core improv fans may find it a bit tame but for Eales it represents an excursion into previously uncharted territory and to these ears a highly successful one. There’s enough conventional melody and harmony here to give most listeners something to hang on to but there’s a genuine sense of adventure about the music too. All in all an impressive effort, wish I’d been there when it was recorded.
“The Dancing Flute” couldn’t be more different. A studio recording for the primarily classical Nimbus record label it comprises of thirteen mainly short pieces and is a reflection of Eales’ more “classical” side. Although best known as a jazz pianist Eales has studied composition under Professor Alun Hoddinott and has written a symphony, a piano concerto and a number of chamber works. This album featuring his flute and piano music teams him with celebrated classical flautist Andy Findon, a musician almost as versatile as Eales. Findon also plays a variety of ethnic flutes plus clarinet, pan pipes and every member of the saxophone family. He has played reeds with the Michael Nyman Band since 1980, plays with folk band The Home Service and has released a number of multi tracked solo albums. On this recording Findon plays classical flute plus alto and bass flutes, piccolo and penny whistle.
This time round Eales’ notes explain that the music is intended as a “paean to the life enhancing qualities of the dance”. Opener “The Eternal Dance” is a good example of the duo’s approach, a piece that Eales describes as “a predominately upbeat affair” with the “juxtaposition of contrasting meters an important feature”. Indeed in this context Eales’ left hand is an even more important rhythmic component than it is with the Free Flow trio. He provides the platform for the joyous dancing and soaring of Findon’s flute and the similarly invigorating explorations of his own right hand.
“Song For My Mother” is gentler and more contemplative, a lovely and lyrical tribute with a haunting melody.
The breezy “In The Pocket” combines jazz syncopation with Irish dance rhythms with a reflective mid tune passage offering an element of contrast before a rousing finale.
Maintaining the “dance” theme the quietly ruminative “Remembrance” is a beautifully melodic waltz which Eales describes as “intimate”. As elsewhere Findon’s flute playing is flawless, striking in its classically inspired purity.
“Elf Dance” is cut from the same cloth as the opener, a strong flute melody combining with well with Eales’ sophisticated piano rhythms in a piece that once again varies in mood between the celebratory and the contemplative.
Findon switches to alto flute for “Lochria’s Rhumba” adding a woody resonance to this gently slow burning tune, one that eschews all the usual Latin clich?.
Another change of instrumentation sees Findon taking up the penny whistle to bring a captivating and effective Celtic wistfulness to the waltz “In The Eyes Of A Child”.
The vaguely ethnic theme continues into the rousing tango “Farewell Patagonia” in which Eales demonstrates an admirable mastery of the style.
“The Sad Little Geisha Girl” was inspired by Arthur Golden’s novel “Memoirs Of A Geisha” and at a little over eight and a half minutes is the lengthiest track on the record. Findon’s flute sounds convincingly oriental and the piece unfolds slowly and luxuriously in a style that has been described as “rhapsodic”.
The brief “Force 11” is intensely rhythmic and another paean to the art of the dance with Findon featuring on effervescent piccolo. By way of contrast “Ice Maiden” features the deep sound of the bass flute and mirrors the “slow burn” aesthetic of the earlier “Lochria’s Rhumba”.
“Pan Dance” is an another excellent example of the “juxtaposition of contrasting meters” that Eale’s mentions in his notes. Although largely lively with lots of frothy flute there are also brief passages of darker introspection. Eales command of meter and rhythm is masterful throughout.
The album ends on an elegiac note with the gorgeous melodies of the waltz “The Last Kiss”, the two instrumentalists summoning a beguiling lushness from the arrangement.
“The Dancing Flute” is a very proposition to “Free Flow” but both albums offer an admirable insight into the breadth of Eales’ talent. “Free Flow” is obviously the recording that will hold greater appeal to jazz fans but “The Dancing Flute” has much to recommend it too and the album has received favourable reviews from the classical music press for the quality of both the writing and playing and also for the quality of the recording, a typically immaculate Nimbus Records production.
Although these albums are very different Eales’ playing is terrific throughout, consistently inventive in terms of melody, harmony and rhythm. “Free Flow” is a successful and accessible step into improvised waters, the more disciplined “The Dancing Flute” a good showcase of Eales’ writing skills across a variety of jazz and classical idioms. He receives great support from jazzers Waghorn and Long on the former and from the versatile Findon on the latter, the flautist’s CV suggesting that like Eales he’s something of a musical “Renaissance Man”.
It’s an ironic fact that Eales’ versatility may actually count against him gaining the widespread acclaim that his talents deserve. Also (and I don’t think he’ll mind me saying this) he’s not in the first flush of youth and thus not a “bright young talent” or “rising star” ( a la Kit Downes or Gwilym Simcock) and there’s definitely a tendency for the UK jazz press to take his talent for granted. But like John Taylor he gets better with age and it’s possible that belated recognition might yet come knocking.
In the meantime Geoff Eales will bring these two sides of his talent together with a performance at The Spice of Life in Soho, London on March 13th 2014 at 8.00 pm. The event will be a celebration of Geoff’s birthday and he writes;
“I hope many of you will be able to make it. It promises to be a fun evening of music-making with the fabulous Austrian singer Iris Ederer who is making huge waves on the contemporary London scene these days, the amazing ethnic and classical flautist Andy Findon and the groovy rhythm team of Julie Walkington ( bass ) and Simon Pearson ( drums ) - see you there !”
The Spice of Life - Soho
6 Moor Street, W1D 5NA London.
t 020 7437 7013