by Ian Mann
June 25, 2019
Ian Mann enjoys the first two releases on multi-reed player, composer and improviser Tom Ward's Madwort micro-label.
Madwort’s Menagerie - “Madwort’s Menagerie (Madwort Records MW002)
Tom Ward / Adam Fairhall Duo “Susurrus” (Madwort Records MW001)
Madwort is the anagrammatic stage name adapted by the multi-reed player, composer and improviser Tom Ward.
These two releases are the first to appear on Ward’s own ‘micro-label’ and were forwarded to me by Tom earlier in the year. My apologies to him for only getting around to writing about them now. “Madwort’s Menagerie” was released in February 2019, “Susurrus” a few months earlier in September 2018.
Originally from Yorkshire Ward is now based in London where he has become a significant presence on the capital’s jazz and improvised music scene. I first heard his playing on the excellent 2007 eponymous album from keyboardist Dave O’Brien’s band Porpoise Corpus, something of a ‘lost classic’ in my opinion. Here Ward was featured on alto sax but in recent years he’s also been heard on tenor, as well as branching out to add clarinets and flute to his instrumental armoury.
Ward leads the Madwort Saxophone Quartet featuring himself on alto alongside Chris Williams (alto/soprano), Andrew Woolf (tenor) and Cath Roberts (baritone). This line up issued the excellent “Live at Hundred Years Gallery” album on the Efpi record label in 2018.
More recently he has formed a more ‘conventional’ quartet known as Mechanical Mindset featuring former Porpoise Corpus colleagues Dave O’Brien (keyboards) and Spencer Brown (bass) plus drummer Olly Blackman from Quadraceratops and the Hackney Colliery Band.
Ward works frequently in the sphere of freely improvised music including the duo Ti/om, his collaboration with double bassist Tim Fairhall. More recently the group has become a trio, Ma/ti/om, with the addition of Swedish percussionist Matilda Rolfsson.
As the life partner of fellow saxophonist Cath Roberts Ward has featured with several of the numerous ensembles led by her, including Quadraceratops, Saxoctopus and the large ensemble Favourite Animals. Through Roberts he has established strong ties with the LUME collective, co-founded by Roberts and fellow saxophonist Dee Byrne.
Ward’s other large ensemble work has included stints with Beats & Pieces Big Band, Paulo Duarte’s Overground Collective, Chris Rodgers’ Combustible Alarms, the London Jazz Orchestra and guitarist Anton Hunter’s Article XI.
Ward, Roberts and saxophonist Colin Webster run BRAK, a regular improvisation night at the London venue waterintobeer which usually features one off performances by three different duos. Ward’s collaborators at these events have included trumpeters Charlotte Keeffe and Alex Bonney, vibraphonist Corey Mwamba and double bassist John Edwards.
Internationally Ward was part of a PortaJazz commission for the Guimaraes Jazz Festival in Portugal where he worked with the guitarist Nuno Trocada and the playwright Jorge Louraco. He has also been involved with the Anglo-Belgian collective Tonus.
Ward’s latest project is the ‘strings and winds’ sextet Madwort’s Menagerie which comprises of;
Alex Bonney – cornet
Tim Fairhall – double bass
Julie Kjaer – flutes
Cath Roberts – baritone saxophone
Adam Spiers – cello
Tom Ward – bass clarinet, composer
The genesis of this distinctive line up was a big band rehearsal involving some of the players. Ward was intrigued by a briefly heard, unintended snippet of music featuring a quartet of bass clarinet, flute, trumpet and trombone. This eventually led to the formation of Madwort’s Menagerie via a process that has been described as;
“Transmogrifying some of his compositions for sax quartet, hybridising this with his free improv duo Ti/om and finally balancing woodwind, brass and strings with the addition of cello.”
The album features eight pieces written by Ward and the music features the fine balance between composition and improvisation that has come to distinguish the output of players associated with the LUME and Efpi stables and their myriad offshoots.
Opener “Fish Biscuit Standoff” commences with an intriguing extended dialogue between the leader’s bass clarinet and Bonney’s cornet. The pair are eventually joined by the other instrumentalists with Fairhall’s bass underpinning the increasingly garrulous multiple exchanges. These continue to hold the listener’s attention, even as they become less heated but more abstract in a process that Ward describes as “disintegrating into a heap, with the winner of the cat food stockpile negotiations remaining unclear”.
Fairhall’s unaccompanied double bass introduces “Islands in the Green” which features the warm sounds of Spiers’ cello and Kjaer’s alto flute above a Bulgarian influenced rhythmic pattern. As the first featured soloist Kjaer’s flute seems to imitate bird song and there’s also a more extended solo from Fairhall, his dexterous bass playing cushioned by the rich textures provided by his colleagues.
The title of “Revolution (about Axis)” tips its hat in the direction of the band Alas No Axis, led by the influential American drummer and composer Jim Black. Ward describes the piece as being “built on a long harmonic series that revolves through four key centres”. There’s a beautiful cello solo from Spiers, underscored by Fairhall’s bass, allied to some exquisite ensemble passages with the cello still at the heart of the group sound. Ward then takes over on bass clarinet, displaying a remarkable fluency on the instrument. Kjaer’s airy flute features towards the end of the piece, again underpinned by Fairhall’s bass, her playing again suitably bird like and emphasising the pastoral feel of the piece.
On the face of it “Human Eyes Humanise” may seem like a flippant title but it refers to the phenomenon of pareidolia, the process of seeing human forms in inanimate objects, such as a face in a plug socket. “What we’re actually seeing is our own humanity looking back at us”, explains Ward. Musically the piece is a feature for Bonney on cornet, who adopts a pleasingly warm and relaxed sound on the instrument as he solos, supported by the ever faithful Fairhall on bass, and also exchanges melodic ideas with the other members of the ensemble.
“Tribute to Tau” was inspired by Michael Hartl’s Tau Manifesto and is based on mathematical principles. The piece mixes the complex time signatures of 6/8 and 7/8 with some impeccable ensemble playing, with Bonney’s cornet again playing a prominent role in the arrangement. Space is found within the structure for an improvised solo by the leader on bass clarinet, his tone deliciously rich and woody.
The teasingly titled “Unfortunate Interaction with a Chair” also flips between two different rhythmic feels. Again there’s some exquisite ensemble playing alongside an absorbing dialogue between Spiers on cello and Bonney on cornet, plus a further improvised bass clarinet solo from Ward.
“Dangerous Slumberer” awakens slowly, with Ward’s bass clarinet ruminations informing Fairhall’s bass groove. Kjaer’s flute dances lightly and nimbly around the deeper sonorities generated by bass clarinet, double bass and baritone sax. Nevertheless the featured soloists here are those operating at the lower end of the sonic spectrum, Fairhall on double bass and Roberts on baritone sax, the latter cutting loose for the first time on this album.
The final track on this album is “Handbuilt by Robots”, a tune that originally appeared on the Madwort Saxophone Quartet album. The title is presumably inspired by Roberts’ sometime alter ego Cath Robots. Ward himself says of the piece “it allows the ensemble more freedom to shape the composed material than on some of the more structured pieces on this record”. There’s certainly more of a ‘free jazz’ feel to the piece, which is indeed more loosely structured than elsewhere, and makes greater use of extended techniques. There’s a more consciously avant garde feel about the music and the improvising adopts more of a collective approach. Nevertheless the hand of the composer is still very much in evidence and there are some delightfully melodic moments here, particularly in the second half of the piece.
“Madwort’s Menagerie” has attracted a degree of criticism for its ‘chamber jazz’ approach to improvisation but personally I found it an interesting and absorbing listen. It’s true that in the main there’s a greater concentration on the written material than one would normally associate with many of these musicians but the writing is full of interesting ideas and the playing is excellent throughout.
It’s an unusual instrumental configuration, particularly in view of the absence of a drummer, but despite this the music is far from bloodless with the excellent Thornton providing a sturdy rhythmic framework for the other musicians to wrap their ideas around. The music is rich in terms of colour and texture and the imaginative use of counterpoint also helps to keep both musicians and listeners on their toes. With its mix of jazz and contemporary classical elements this is highly distinctive music that avoids the clichés and pitfalls of both and makes for fascinating listening. It won’t appeal to everyone but open minded listeners should find much to enjoy here.
TOM WARD / ADAM FAIRHALL DUO
This earlier release finds Ward in a highly creative duo partnership with the Manchester based pianist, keyboard player, composer and improviser Adam Fairhall, the older brother of Tim I believe.
Adam Fairhall has worked as a sideman in bands led by trumpeter Matthew Halsall and saxophonist Nat Birchall as well as pursuing a productive solo career. Recordings under his own name include “Second Hand Blues” and the excellent “The Imaginary Delta” (2012), both collaborations with the electronics artist Paul J. Rogers. “The Imaginary Delta” also included contributions from a wider ensemble of Manchester and London jazz musicians. My review of that exceptional recording can be read here;
In recent years Fairhall has become increasingly immersed in fully improvised music in a variety of different contexts including the groups Ant Traditions (with guitarist Dave Birchall), The Markov Chain (with bassist Tim Fairhall and drummer Paul Hession) and the sextet Spirit Farm (with Corey Mwamba on vibes and percussion, Christophe de Bezenac on sax, Dave Kane on bass, Anton Hunter on guitar and Johnny Hunter at the drums). Meanwhile The Revival Room features him playing organ alongside Johnny Hunter and saxophonist Mark Hanslip.
Fairhall has an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz history and jazz piano styles and is skilled at updating these elements into a contemporary context, as evidenced “The Imaginary Delta” and by his solo piano album “Friendly Ghosts” (Efpi Records, 2017).
He has also become fascinated by arcane keyboard instruments and regularly incorporates the sounds of toy pianos, Indian harmoniums and other mechanical keyboard instruments into his work, often subjecting them to prepared piano techniques.
Earlier in 2009 he released the excellent trio album “Fragments”, a predominately improvised work recorded in the company of bassist Seth Bennett and drummer Johnny Hunter.
Review here; http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/fragments-fragments/
Ward and Fairhall first performed together at one of LUME’s then regular improvised music events “The Hat Speaks”, wherethe names of collaborators are literally drawn out of a hat. The pair immediately struck up a rapport and subsequently performed again at BRAK, at the Vortex Jazz Club in Dalston, London and at Manchester Jazz Festival.
The Ward/Fairhall duo is particularly indicative of the fertile links between the London and Manchester jazz scenes that have been fostered by the LUME and Efpi organisations in recent years.
“Susurrus” was recorded at Limefield Studios in Manchester on 12th April 2018 by engineers Will Faulkner and John Ellis and was subsequently mixed and mastered by Alex Bonney. It features nine freely improvised pieces and embraces a surprisingly wide sonic palette. In addition to the studio’s Steinway grand piano Fairhall also deploys a number of keyboard instruments from his personal collection and is also credited with accordion, prepared Dulcitone and harmonium. In addition to his usual alto sax Ward is also featured on bass clarinet and tambin, a type of diatonic flute traditionally played by the Fula people of West Africa.
The album commences with “Personable Pedantry” which focusses on the core combination of grand piano and alto sax with Ward’s melodic playing of the latter instigating a lively but amicable instrumental dialogue that sees the duo exchanging phrases in friendly but animated fashion. The pair stick to instrumental sounds that could largely be considered to be ‘conventional’, but still find much to say during the course of an enthralling and increasingly energetic set of exchanges.
Still featuring piano and alto “Grue”, named for a predatory monster that lives in the dark, is more crepescular in mood and tone. More ruminative than the opener it is nevertheless thoroughly absorbing, while still remaining relatively orthodox in terms of technique.
“Caliginous”, which Ward describes as being “dark, misty and gloomy” is more uncompromising and features an increasingly garrulous and fractious alto / piano dialogue, but again essentially within the realms of conventional technique.
The title track, “Susurrus” features the first change of instruments with Ward moving to bass clarinet and Fairhall to Dulcitone, a 19th century keyboard instrument which features hammers striking metal bars. The name of the piece means “a whispering or rustling sound” and here we encounter the first real examples of extended technique. Ward incorporates the sound of his instrument’s keypads into his playing while Fairhall uses prepared piano techniques on the already exotic Dulcitone to create a range of effects that variously recall the shimmering of a glockenspiel or the sound of an African ‘thumb piano’. The overall effect is beguiling, occasionally unsettling, but often downright beautiful.
The piano / alto combination returns for “Tatters” which Ward describes as being a piece “in which scraps of early jazz are torn up and re-purposed”. As a concept it’s not a million miles away from “The Imaginary Delta” or “Friendly Ghosts”, but the feisty, rumbling exchanges between Fairhall and Ward sound very different to either of these.
There’s another change of instrumentation for “Spumous”, the title meaning “to foam or froth”. Here we encounter the sound of Fairhall’s Indian harmonium which emits a suitably whale like drone as well as supplying beguiling melodic flourishes. It’s teamed with Ward’s tambin to create a possibly unique combination of instruments. The resultant sounds are never less than fascinating and one can imagine this track fitting very nicely into the format of BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction programme – although this now seems more unlikely following the Beeb’s outrageous decision to reduce the transmission times of this niche, but vital and much loved, institution.
It’s back to the core instrumental combination for the final time for the spiky “Rule of Thirds”, which Ward describes as “exploring larger intervals on piano and alto”.
“Gleam” presents a final instrumental variant as Ward’s bass clarinet is combined with a modified Azerbaijani garmon, a type of accordion. Ward’s slap tongue technique is augmented by the fluttering of the garmon in a lively series of opening exchanges before the duo adopt a more relaxed sound featuring deeper bass clarinet timbres and the churchy, organ like drone of the garmon. Ward describes the track as “starting with bright sparkles and growing into a warm glow”, which sums things up very neatly.
The final piece, “Liminality”, again features the winning combination of harmonium and tambin, and sounds just as exotic and beguiling as before. The title refers to “the quality of being in transition from one state to another”, another succinct summation of the duo’s enchanting music.
The “Susurrus” album represents another highly impressive statement from Ward. The core alto and piano pieces all maintain the listener’s attention but it’s the even more exotic offerings featuring rarely heard combinations of unusual or arcane instruments that really put the icing on the cake. The result is a wholly absorbing duo recording that is a credit to both musicians, their efforts further enhanced by the quality of the recorded sound, so hats off to the engineering team too.
These two first releases on his own Madwort label show Tom Ward to be a highly creative musician with an excellent technique on a variety of reed instruments. He’s also a skilled and consistently interesting composer and a highly fluent and intuitive improviser. This is serious music that doesn’t take itself too seriously, always a winning combination in my book, and although it may be a little esoteric for some ears there is still much here on both recordings for the adventurous listener to enjoy.
Long may Tom Ward continue to flourish as he embraces a variety of musical styles (jazz, world, classical) with musicians drawn from the cream of the London and Manchester jazz and improv scenes.
For further information on Tom Ward and the Madwort record label please visit http://www.madwort.co.ukblog comments powered by Disqus