by Ian Mann
July 23, 2012
Ian Mann admires three very different albums released simultaneously on his own label by the enterprising young trumpeter and composer Jack Davies.
Jack Davies’ Flea Circus (V & V Music VAVM0001)
“Southbound” (V & V Music VAVM0002)
The Jack Davies Big Band (V & V Music VAVM0003)
The young London based trumpeter and composer Jack Davies promises to become one of the most significant figures on the UK jazz scene. Still only 26 he brings a youthful energy to all aspects of his music making, as well as being a superlative player and an excellent composer he is also a great organiser and all round mover and shaker. Davis writes a regular column for Sebastian Scotney’s London Jazz blog under the byline “Jack’s been thinking” and his contributions are always insightful, pertinent and occasionally provocative. He also helped to promote jazz at the North London Tavern, a popular and innovative series of gigs and festivals that ran for two and a half years and has only just finished, another victim of the current economic situation.
Davies gained a classical degree at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester before going on to complete the Jazz Course at the Royal Academy of Music in London. His love of orchestral music is reflected in the Big Band, perhaps the pick of these three simultaneously released CDs.
It would represent a big step even for an established artist to consider releasing three albums of new material at the same time. That Davies has been able undertake such an ambitious leap is due to his winning of the Deutsche Bank award for performance and composition in 2011 and the ?10,000 prize money that came with it. Davies ploughed the money into founding his own record label, V & V Music ,the name comes from “villainy and vengeance” a quote from Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” . The bank even gave Davies practical financial advice and provided him with a business mentor, it’s actually quite nice to say something positive about a financial institution in these troubled times, so well done Deutsche Bank.
With this creative outlet in place Davies set about documenting three of his current musical projects, the small groups Flea Circus and Southbound plus the Big Band, mainly comprised of former Academy students but also featuring a guest appearance from alto saxophonist Martin Speake. The albums are all very different but are unified not only by Davies’ excellent playing and writing but also the fact that they are packed with energy and ideas.
Southbound is the longest running of the three projects and the name refers both to the album and the name of the quartet. The fact that Davies’ name isn’t used in the title is a signifier that this is a wholly democratic ensemble featuring Davies’ long standing friends from his RNCM days with Rob Cope on tenor sax, Tom Taylor on piano and Jon Ormston at the drums. All the members of the quartet are involved in the writing process with Taylor and Davies each bringing three tunes to the project alongside two from Cope plus a whole group composition/improvisation (“The Weasel”).
Southbound embraces Davies’ many influences. There’s an almost classical discipline in some of the ensemble passages but at other times the quartet really stretch out with some far reaching improvisational work that evokes the spirit of vintage Ornette Coleman. This is the most open and spacious of the three albums and these former classical students seem to relish the opportunities for musical adventure that jazz offers. Some of the pieces, such as Cope’s “Minus Ten” juxtapose formally written passages with free-wheeling improvisations within the course of the same tune.
Davies himself is excellent throughout. He’s a superb technician who has spoken of his admiration for the playing of classical trumpeters such as Phil Smith and Maurice Murphy as well as that of Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard. Although his playing is entirely acoustic he seems to have absorbed something from Europeans such as Arve Henriksen and Nils Petter Molvaer too and there’s also more than a hint of contemporary American trumpeters such as Dave Douglas, Peter Evans and Nate Woolley.
Davies seems to have a very natural rapport with Cope (who also appears on the Flea Circus album playing clarinet, and as part of the Big Band) and their unaccompanied duet, part of Taylor’s composition “Bird’s Nest” is particularly impressive. The saxophonist takes the opportunity to wig out on his own “Minus Ten” and on Taylor’s “Churning” which offers some of the most full on playing of the set and includes an extended feature for drummer Jon Ormston.
In a bass-less line up Taylor is often the harmonic and rhythmic glue that holds the album together. He plays with great maturity and affords plenty of space to the horn players in a quartet where the overall group identity is paramount. He’s not afraid to embrace dissonance and the avant garde and even sometimes sounds like Keith Tippett on “Excuses, Excuses”. Elsewhere he displays classically inspired discipline and lyricism but his playing is always focussed and inventive.
Ormston drums with great sensitivity throughout , responding instinctively to any situation. His playing is neat, colourful and inventive and he produces an impressive array of sounds from what sounds like a fairly modest kit.
With its blend of composition and improvisation and European and American influences allied to excellent playing from a well balanced quartet Southbound has much to offer the listener. This highly democratic unit covers an impressive range of sounds and styles and like its two companions this album has much to offer the adventurous jazz listener.
Davies’ other small group has a very different sound courtesy of James Opstad’s double bass and particularly Aidan Shepherd’s accordion. With the versatile Cope now credited with clarinet and bass clarinet the music adds a strong folk music element to the already extant jazz and classical influences. This time the music is all Davies’ with the exception of a version of Gustav Mahler’s “Sehr Gesangvoll”. Davies has mentioned the influence of accordionist Gus Viseur, a regular musical partner of Django Reinhardt, and also cites early European music and polka music as further sources of inspiration.
Shepherd gives the music of Flea Circus a very different feel to that of Southbound but the sense of adventure and the commitment to a degree of improvisation are common to both groups. The more obviously eclectic Flea Circus seems to owe something to the English pastoralism of the Loose Tubes school of breakaway groups-the Arguelles brothers, Perfect Houseplants, Iain Ballamy and Stian Carstensen etc. There’s a whimsicality about some of the music that reminds me of those groups and individuals. Davies mentions the influence of Dave Douglas’ “Charms of the Night Sky” group, bal musette and the music of Bulgarian musician Ivo Papasov and his band.
Also common to both of Davies’ small groups is the uniformly high standard of musicianship and high degree of group interaction. Shepherd helps to give the group a highly distinctive sound but the contribution of the others shouldn’t be overlooked with Opstad carrying out his rhythmic duties with aplomb and periodically starring with the bow. Davies is particularly adept at playing above the drone of the accordion and provides some excellent, sometimes bravura solos such as on the opening folk tinged “Zapushalka” where he appears to toss in a quote from “Flight Of The Bumblebee”.
Other pieces adopt an appealing air of noirishness, particularly apposite on “All The Night’s Adventures” and “Three Miniatures”, a set of tunes encompassing the cartoon grotesqueness of “Monster”, the yearning of “So Let Us Melt” and the gentle folk whimsy of “Lamp Post”. Later there’s the brooding “The Wood” with its grainy textures of bowed bass, accordion and bass clarinet. Davies’ vocalised trumpet and Cope’s bass clarinet pecking add to the growing sense of unease.
“La Puce” sounds like a woozy folk dance with the interplay between Davies’ trumpet growls, Cope’s woody bass clarinet and Shepherd’s droning accordion particularly enchanting, the whole underpinned by the rock of Opstad’s bass. Introduced by a passage of unaccompanied pizzicato bass the later “I Never Saw A Star So Bright” explores broadly similar territory.
The Mahler piece becomes a melancholy folk tune with some excellent interplay between Shepherd and Opstad allied to the melancholy sound of Davies’ trumpet. The clarity of Davies’ “classical” trumpet sound is consistently impressive but as these records show he has total command of the jazz lexicon of smears, half valves and vocalisations (from a whisper to a growl) too.
Flea Circus is a charming, original and adventurous album with its own distinctive sound world. Once again the standard of musicianship is excellent and the production, by the team of Ben Lamdin, Alex Bonney and Peter Beckmann, razor sharp, capturing every nuance of the music (the same team also worked on Southbound).
Davies has created two distinctive small group recordings with much to recommend them but the pick of this prile of aces has to be;
THE JACK DAVIES BIG BAND
With the young Manchester based big band Bits & Pieces making such a splash on the national jazz scene surely the time is right for a London equivalent to emerge. In the wake of the Tom Richards Orchestra and B&PBB comes The Jack Davies Big Band conducted by the leader (Davies doesn’t actually play on the recording although he composed all the pieces) and featuring many of his former Academy colleagues. Some of these, notably saxophonists Josh Arcoleo, Mike Chillingworth and Joe Wright are already making names for themselves and trumpeter Reuben Fowler was recently awarded the 2012 Kenny Wheeler Prize. For this recording Davies has also called on the more experienced talents of trumpeter Percy Pursglove and saxophonist Martin Speake and the album is produced by Colin Towns, no stranger to writing for and leading large ensembles himself, who contributed valuable arranging ideas and expertise to the project. Nineteen strong the ensemble makes an impressive collective sound and the album is littered with excellent solos from a variety of musicians from within the ranks. The centre piece of the album is a five part suite inspired by the dystopian visions of the George Orwell novel “1984”.
The album kicks off with the other worldly sounds of “Entropy” which builds from a spooky, “Space Odyssey” style intro through Arcoleo’s initially dry but increasingly unhinged tenor solo with Joe Wright’s glitchy electronics adding a highly contemporary feel to the piece. It’s an intriguing and evocative piece of writing.
The freewheeling “(I Had) A Bad Dream” is an uproarious piece of controlled madness with Pursglove on trumpet and Chillingworth on alto the featured soloists. It’s a musical white knuckle ride and tremendous fun.
Davies’ writing covers an impressive range of moods and styles. The brooding “Some New Infection” represents a kind of contemporary tone poem, sinister yet stately with cogent solos from Speake on alto and Richard Foote on trombone. The title is derived from a quote from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”.
The jokily titled “I Will Wait For You To Get Up / You Will Wait For A long Time” sees Davies exploring free jazz in the first part of the piece, evoking memories of Keith Tippett’s large ensemble projects such as the Tapestry Orchestra. The second half is more composed and controlled, similar in mood to “Some New Infection” with Mike Chillingworth on alto and Kieran McLeod on trombone the featured soloists.
“Circle” is a sumptuous piece of contemporary big band writing that unfolds leisurely and includes major solos from Nick Smart on trumpet and Mike Chillingworth on alto and with bassist James Opstad, tenor saxophonist Joe Wright and guitarist Alex Munk making substantial contributions to the ensemble sound.
The second half of the album is given over to the 1984 Suite. The opening movement “Telescreen” depicts a militaristic, totalitarian state with a warped march section immediately followed by a squall of noise led by Alex Munk’s wigged out rock guitar, presumably an aural illustration of the “Two Minute Hate”. From this Munk develops a rather more conventional rock solo but there’s no let up in the heaviness as the marching motif returns again towards the end of the piece.
Joe Wright’s solo tenor ushers in “If There Is Hope” and it’s tempting to think of Wright as Winston Smith, the lone voice in the wilderness. Wright also adds an element of his electronic artistry, whistles and glitches adding to the eerie, edgy sense of isolation.
“Dance of the Proles” is less obviously celebratory than the title might suggest but there is real beauty here in the solos played by Reuben Fowler on flugelhorn, Martin Speake on alto and Josh Arcoleo on tenor.The melody is loosely based on the nursery rhyme “Oranges and Lemons”.
The brief “Thrush Song” incorporates transcribed bird song into an eerie, glacially tinkling solo piano meditation from Tom Taylor (shades of Keith Tippett once more) that morphs into the closing “Mr. Charrington’s Shop”, an atmospheric piece featuring Speake and Arcoleo plus the frosty needling of Munk’s guitar. It’s a sophisticated piece of writing of a sort that Towns himself would be proud of.
The full big band line up is;
Composer & Conductor - Jack Davies
Trumpets/flugels- Andy Greenwood, Tom Walsh, Percy Pursglove, Nick Smart, Reuben Fowler
Saxophones- Martin Speake, Mike Chillingworth, Josh Arcoleo, Joe Wright, Rob Cope
Trombones- Kieran McLeod, Richard Foote,Patrick Hayes, Ed Hilton
Bass- James Opstad
Drums- Jon Ormston
Electronics - Joe Wright
In purely artistic terms Davies’ bold move to simultaneously release these three albums has succeeded brilliantly. Southbound and Flea Circus are both excellent small group performances that repay repeated listening but both are rather specialised and may only appeal to a limited audience.
As alluded to previously the success of Beats & Pieces suggests that the large ensemble recording has the potential to reach a wider demographic. The writing on the big band album is intelligent and varied, borrowing from rock and other sources (Davies cites his admiration for the music of Charles Ives), skilfully arranged and there is some superlative playing from the featured soloists. The most immediately accessible of the three albums it is also arguably the best. Collectively these three works reveal Jack Davies to be a young musician of enormous promise and an admirable maturity. On this evidence he is surely destined to become a hugely important figure on the UK jazz scene.