by Ian Mann
May 02, 2018
A warm and distinctive duo recording. The musical chemistry between the pair is pleasingly obvious throughout.
Alcyona Mick and Tori Freestone
(Whirlwind Recordings WR4722)
This duo recording brings together two of the UK’s leading female instrumentalists, pianist Alcyona Mick and saxophonist/flautist Tori Freestone. The pair have worked together in various ensembles including the London Jazz Orchestra and it was their casual duo explorations of Thelonious Monk tunes that encouraged Steve Mead, the artistic director of Manchester Jazz Festival to invite them to develop their partnership on a more formal basis for a performance at the 2015 MJF.
The success of the Manchester performance encouraged Mick and Freestone to continue their collaboration and this début album was recorded at the famous Artesuono Studio in Udine, Italy by studio owner and engineer Stefano Amerio. Co-produced by Mick and Freestone the recording features four original compositions by Freestone, three by Mick and one arrangement of a traditional folk tune. The title track was written by one Thelonious Monk, the original inspiration for this project. Two pieces feature the singing of guest vocalist Brigitte Beraha, whose contribution adds greatly to the success of the recording.
Alcyona Mick is a graduate of the Jazz Course at Birmingham Conservatoire and played at Cheltenham Jazz Festival as part of the “Jerwood Rising Stars” series as far back as 2003. She subsequently formed her own quintet featuring trumpeter Robbie Robson, saxophonist Mark Hanslip, bassist Steve Watts and drummer Paul Clarvis, releasing the album “Under The Sun” in 2006. She and Clarvis subsequently teamed up with French born saxophonist Robin Fincker to form the improvising trio Blink, releasing albums on the Loop and Babel labels.
Other jazz ensembles with which Mick has worked include Rachel Musson’s Skein, Eddie Parker’s Debussy Mirrored ensemble, the John Warren Nonet and a trio featuring Clarvis and multi-instrumentalist Stuart Hall.
She also plays in another duo with Egyptian violinist and electronic musician Sammy Bishai.
Mick has also been involved in numerous world music projects and has enjoyed a long tenure in the band of Anglo/Egyptian vocalist Natacha Atlas, a line up that also includes Bishai. She has also written and performed music for film and television, with an emphasis on silent film. She holds a Masters degree in Composing Music for Film from the National Film and Television School.
Tori Freestone has been a regular presence on the Jazzmann web pages both as a band leader and as a prolific sidewoman. She leads her own chordless trio featuring Dave Manington on double bass and Tim Giles at the drums with whom she has recorded the albums “In The Chop House” and “El Barranco”, both of which have been reviewed elsewhere on this site.
Freestone has also recorded with trumpeter Rory Simmons’ Fringe Magnetic, pianist Ivo Neame’s quintet and octet ,saxophonist Pete Hurt’s Jazz Orchestra, bassist Riaan Vosloo’s Examples of Twelves and with the band co-operative sextet Solstice. She co-led the quartet Compassionate Dictatorship with guitarist Jez Franks and has also been part of trumpeter Andre Canniere’s Darkening Blue ensemble. Her versatility as a saxophonist and flautist has led to regular large ensemble work with notable engagements including the London Jazz Orchestra, the Julian Siegel Jazz Orchestra, the E17 Jazz Ensemble, Neil Yates’ N Circle Orchestra, Orquestra Timbala and Hermeto Pascoal’s All Star UK Big Band.
The sleeve design for “Criss Cross” is cleverly presented as a crossword puzzle with each track having its own ‘cryptic clue’. First up is “complete and airtight love of a famous Brazilian jazz musician” and the Freestone composition “Hermetica”, inspired of course by Hermeto Pascoal. This piece also features the wordless vocalising of Beraha, one of Freestone’s bandmates from the Solstice group. The piece is a joyous celebration of Pascoal and his music, written in an adventurous 8/11 time signature and featuring Beraha’s vocal tics in conjunction with Freestone’s frothy flute and Mick’s rhythmic, underpinning pianistics. Inspired by Brazilian music Beraha’s voice is allowed to soar, forming a high register alliance with Freestone’s flute as Mick’s piano helps to keep the music grounded. The exchanges between the three protagonists are thrilling, with Beraha also engaging with Mick in a vivacious musical dialogue. There’s also a lively exchange between flute and piano but ultimately it’s the sound of the three musicians interacting collectively that represents the greatest highlight.
“Someone exhibiting magical qualities may have led this” is the next clue and alludes to the Freestone composition “Charmed Life”. This piece first appeared in a very different form on the 2016 trio album “El Barranco” and was one of that album’s gentler offerings. Here an even greater premium is placed on lyricism and beauty with Freestone’s warm toned, economical, subtly probing tenor combining with Mick’s sensitive accompaniment as the pianist luxuriates in the sound of the Fazioli Concert Grand at Artesuono Studio.
“Overeating shrub (anag)” is the clue to Mick’s compositional début on this recording, “Strange Behaviour”. The spirit of Monk can be found in this blues tinged piece with its Thelonious inspired sax melodies and Mick’s authentically Monk-ish piano, her playing clearly influenced by the master but transcending mere pastiche thanks to its fluency and inventiveness.
“A short conversation with folk roots” provides the clue for Mick’s appropriately titled “Exchange”, a piece originally written for quintet and later arranged for two pianos. Freestone switches to soprano and dances lithely around Mick’s busy, bustling piano figures, the influence of Monk still there but less overt. There’s also a lengthy, but thoroughly absorbing, passage of solo piano during which Mick demonstrates an impressive virtuosity.
A trilogy of Mick compositions concludes with her “Goodnight Computer” (clue “Sweet dreams, tech lovers”). The lengthiest piece on the album this is an ambitious work that evolves slowly and organically and which possesses a strong narrative arc. There’s something of a classical music influence at times and the way in which the work is carefully structured also acts as a reminder of Mick’s skills as a film composer. It’s a piece that demonstrates the extraordinary rapport between the two musicians, a genuine musical meeting of equals with both piano and tenor sax speaking with great fluency and elegance.
“ A female constable who won’t speak her mind” is the clue to Freestone’s “Mrs PC”, a tune that first appeared on the composer’s 2014 trio album “In the Chop House”. The piece represents Freestone’s homage to John Coltrane, and, of course, Paul Chambers, and the playful nature of the performances reflects the cheekiness of the title.
“A Monk tune intersecting angrily” provides the clue to the Thelonious composed title track. Mick and Freestone tackle the piece with the same blues informed vivacity that they brought to “Mrs PC”. They capture something of Monk’s essential quirkiness with Freestone enthusing “I love how the form of the middle eight is so weird!”.
Freestone grew up in a family steeped in folk music before going on to study jazz flute at Leeds College of Music. Thanks to her folk background she’s also a talented violinist and both of her trio albums have included arrangements of traditional tunes from her folk heritage. The traditional folk tune “Press Gang” (clue “Bullying that may have taken place on Fleet Street”) originally appeared in two different arrangements on “El Barranco”, one of these featuring Freestone on both violin and vocals. There’s no fiddle here and the vocal duties are taken over by Beraha who sings with great clarity and beauty, imbuing the dark lyrics of this tale of the notorious naval press gangs with great gravitas. With Freestone and Mick providing suitably sympathetic accompaniment I was sometimes reminded of the jazz/folk trio Quercus featuring saxophonist Iain Ballamy, pianist Huw Warren and singer June Tabor. However Beraha’s willingness to stretch the phrases and divert into wordless vocalising is far more obviously ‘jazz’.
Finally, presented as a “bonus track”, we get to enjoy an arrangement of Freestone’s title track from “El Barranco” (clue “A beautiful Spanish ravine”). This version is less intense than the original recording by the trio. There’s a lighter feel to Freestone’s tenor playing and a greater emphasis on the melody and the sheer tunefulness and beauty of the piece.
Freestone and Mick have enthused about their collaboration with the saxophonist saying;
“We have great understanding and confidence in each others’ playing. Though the duo format can present a degree of vulnerability, this project especially engenders warmth, enjoyment and openness amongst the intensity and complexity. It’s both fun and heavy – a developing journey through the material and styles we love, all with the sheer joy of playing. We are delighted to have covered that range of emotions, which is so important to us.”
Comparing this duo with her trio with Manington and Giles Freestone states;
“Here we both shape the rhythm in a different way, following whatever direction the music takes us in; and with such amazing piano playing I can bring out the harmony in new and existing compositions”.
“There’s plenty of space for creativity; and though a duo can be more challenging I have much more freedom to use the whole piano”.
These observations are backed up by the performances. There’s nothing dry and academic about the playing on “Criss Cross” despite the awesome instrumental techniques of both musicians. That warmth, enjoyment and openness of which Freestone speaks is immediately apparent to the listener and the musical chemistry between the pair is pleasingly obvious throughout. The engineering and production is suitably pristine and enables both performers to be heard at their best. This is a warm and distinctive duo recording that casts the existing compositions in a new light and represents a highly rewarding listen in its own right. Highly recommended.
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