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Fail In Wood


by Ian Mann

October 06, 2010


An intriguing synthesis of jazz and progressive rock with an agreeably dark, gothic edge.


“Fail In Wood”

(Jazzaction Records JA17)

ACV is a quintet led by double bassist and composer Andy Champion who is based in Newcastle upon Tyne. I met Champion at the 2010 Lichfield Real Ale, Jazz and Blues Festival where he accompanied his life partner, singer Zoe Gilby over the course of two attractive sets mainly comprising of innovative arrangements of songs from the standards repertoire.

Gilby’s trio also featured the tasteful guitar work of Mark Williams who also turns up as member of ACV alongside keyboard player Paul Edis and saxophonist Graeme Wilson who features on both tenor and baritone. Perhaps the best known member of the group to national audiences is drummer Adrian Tilbrook who briefly replaced Tony Hicks as a member of Back Door back in the 1970’s.

ACV is a very different animal to the Gilby trio and the style of music to be heard here is a good indication as to the versatility of both Champion and Williams. The Gothic lettering of the sleeve design suggests something rather more contemporary than Gilby’s songbook stylings and indeed Champion’s original compositions draw on both jazz and progressive rock. The sonorities of the music also hint at the influence of such contemporary jazz acts as Polar Bear.

The eight Champion originals begin with “A Line Made By Walking” with the first notes coming from the leader’s bass. It’s a densely knit piece full of interlocking melody lines with Williams’ shadowy guitar and Wilson’s belligerent sax prominent in the mix. There are passages of more freely structured playing punctuated by Edis’s keyboard stabs and a chunky closing riff. A good start, there’s certainly plenty going on.

“Waking The Sleeper” is similarly powerful with churning Hammond underpinning some more powerful saxophone work, this time on baritone. Champion steps forward to solo on double bass, his tone huge and flexible. Again the piece is full of subtly shifting time signatures, ACV’s music is clever stuff.

ACV’s sound is dark hued and initially somewhat daunting but as the listener becomes accustomed to their distinctive sound world there is much to enjoy. “You Add To My Stress” broods darkly via Wilson’s tenor and Edis’ghostly Fender Rhodes, the whole thing underpinned by Champion’s solid bass and Tilbrook’s inventive percussion shadings. There’s a film noirish feel about this track and indeed about the album as a whole.

“Jack In The Green” takes vaguely folkish melodies and envelops them in typically tricky time signatures. The body of the tune is powered by Champion’s powerful bass groove which provides the backbone for the increasingly feisty interplay between sax, guitar and keyboards. There’s a more elegiac coda and the piece finishes with the sound of Williams’ solo guitar.

“Black Embrace (Knight Moves)” takes it’s inspiration from chess. It’s the quietest track on the album thus far but despite its increased lyricism courtesy of smoky tenor sax, limpid piano and delicately detailed percussion it doesn’t lack in complexity and builds gradually in intensity as the music progresses. Eventually there’s a return to the lyrical approach with the gentle coda.

The album takes its title from the opening lines of an Emily Dickinson poem. “Fail In Wood”, the track is split into two parts, very much in the prog rock tradition. Part 1 “Half Past Six” is a spooky nocturnal walk with creepy Hammond setting the tone. The second part, “The Heater’s On” eventually erupts into the kind of organ driven riff Van Der Graaf Generator would be proud of but here topped off with Williams’ soaring guitar. 

The fast moving “Without Bones” crosses bebop with rock influences as Williams slippery guitar runs, Edis’ knowingly dissonant piano and Wilson’s burly tenor sax vie for dominance above Champion and Tilbrook’s relentlessly ticking rhythms.

The closing “... And You Do” is another prog inspired two parter. The opening “Untitled Lullaby” shimmers prettily with trilling Rhodes and tender tenor but there’s still a sense of foreboding about what’s to come. “Never Turn Your Back On A Friend”, which I seem to recall being the title of a 70’s album by Cardiff based Zeppelin copyists Budgie, packs in some suitably monumental riffs and grooves before resolving itself in a gentle Rhodes led coda.

I rather enjoyed ACV’s synthesis of prog and jazz-after all it was this sort of thing that led me to the jazz path in the first place. It’s clever stuff with lots of tricky time signature changes and a pleasingly dark, gothic edge. There’s hints of Nucleus, Soft Machine, VDGG and other adventurous-as opposed to merely flash- seventies bands plus a contemporary slant, inspired perhaps by Polar Bear, Troyka and others of their ilk.

There are few obvious jazz rhythms on the record but ACV also avoid the four square plodding of rock. Indeed Champion and Tilbrook form an imaginative and flexible rhythm section, handling the complexities of the music with ease. Williams, Wilson and Edis mesh together well and all are effective both as soloists and colourists as ACV quickly establish a distinctive group sound and identity. There’s little jazz soloing in the orthodox sense,  but ACV are looking for something altogether darker and more organic and overall they succeed brilliantly.

The relentlessly dark tone may alienate some jazz purists but hopefully the band’s rock leanings will attract more listeners than they deter. ACV strike me as the sort of band that could well have built up a cult following by now were they to be based in London.  The group are however trying to spread the word beyond their North East heartland and have already performed at London’s influential Vortex Jazz Club.

I’d also urge anybody reading this to check out the October/November 2010 issue of Jazz UK which incorporates a highly informative interview with Adrian Tilbrook about his role as administrator of Jazzaction, the jazz agency covering the North East region from Teesside to the Scottish border.

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