by Ian Mann
September 05, 2022
Clarke gives an impressively mature performance in her various capacities as soloist, arranger and composer. A confident album that bodes well for her future.
Alex Clarke Quartet
“Only A Year”
(Stray Horn Records)
Alex Clarke – alto & tenor saxophones, David Newton – piano, Dave Green – double bass, Clark Tracey – drums
Midlands based saxophonist Alex Clarke was a finalist in the BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year Competition in 2020, the award eventually going to pianist Deschanel Gordon.
However the exposure provided by the Competition, including the opportunity to perform her music live on BBC 4, did Clarke’s profile no harm at all and helped to establish her reputation as a ‘rising star’ on the UK jazz circuit. She has also featured at the British Jazz Awards and the Parliamentary Jazz Awards.
Equally adept on alto and tenor saxophones, an unusual ‘doubling’ combination, Clarke is also an accomplished clarinettist and flautist. Her versatility and her willingness to work across a variety of musical genres ensures that she is a musician who is constantly in demand.
As well as leading her own groups, notably her quartet and the New Orleans inspired Alex Clarke Hot Five, Clarke works regularly with the jazz/blues/country pianist /vocalist TJ Johnson. She is also a regular member of the Jake Leg Jug Band, an outfit that specialises in Prohibition Era jazz and blues. She is also a member of the Birmingham based Ska 45s and of Detroit Magic, a six piece soul band band.
An alumnus of the National Youth Jazz Collective Clarke has also worked with large ensembles such as Swingtime and the Paul Barry Big Band. As an accomplished sight reader she is also in demand as a member of the pit band for musical theatre productions.
Clarke is an important member of the band led by trumpeter Chris Hodgkins that recently released the album “A Salute To Humphrey Lyttelton”. She appears on tenor sax and clarinet and is also featured as an arranger. A review of this recording can be found as part of a Jazzmann feature about Hodgkins here;
I recently saw Clarke perform at the 2022 Brecon Jazz Festival when she appeared as a guest soloist with two different acts, the Jane Williams Band and The Numbers Racket. She is also an acclaimed educator and prior to these two live performances had presented a workshop for young jazz musicians elsewhere in the town. She also holds teaching posts at Warwick School and on the National Youth Jazz Collective’s Summer School Short Course.
My account of Clarke’s two Brecon appearances can be found as part of my Festival coverage here;
I was able to speak with Clarke at Brecon and she was kind enough to provide me with a review copy of “Only A Year”, her second album as a leader and one recorded with a stellar line up of David Newton on piano, Dave Green on double bass and Clark Tracey at the drums, a veritable ‘who’s who’ of British jazz.
Released in July 2022 it represents the follow up to her 2018 début “Mirage”, which featured pianist Tom Kincaid, bassist Ed Harrison and drummer Eryl Roberts. In 2019 she also appeared on the album “Songs from the Jazz Country” by the TJ Johnson Band.
“Mirage” featured Clarke’s arrangements of jazz standards plus lesser known tunes by Tubby Hayes, Harold Arlen and others. “Only A Year” follows a similar pattern but also finds room for a couple of Clarke originals, among them the title track.
As a saxophonist Clarke names her main influences as being Scott Hamilton and Lester Young on tenor and Phil Woods and Cannonball Adderley on alto. Therefore it’s highly appropriate that the album kicks off with the Phil Woods composition “Brazilian Affair”, which is introduced by Green at the bass and Tracey at the drums. Clarke’s own alto playing is smooth and fluent as she shares the solos with pianist Newton, but there’s also a subtle bite about her playing that recalls her hero Woods. Newton’s quiet virtuosity informs his own solo and Green and Tracey provide empathic, nuanced, subtly swinging support throughout.
Next up is “Shake It, But Don’t Break It”, written by the pianist Errol Garner. This piece features Clarke on tenor and her playing is equally assured on the larger horn. Indeed Clarke sometimes plays entire shows focussing exclusively on the tenor. Newton, arguably the UK’s best ‘mainstream’ pianist, excels again and there’s a welcome humour and lightness of touch about the performance as a whole, with Green and Tracey again doing a terrific job behind the soloists, pushing the music forward but also adding welcome splashes of colour and detail.
A passage of unaccompanied piano introduces “Bye Bye Baby” (Leo Robin / Jule Styne), which promises to shape up as a ballad before suddenly gaining momentum with the addition of the rest of the band, with Clarke’s incisive alto leading the way. Green and Tracey lay down a propulsive groove that fuels inventive solos from Newton and Clarke.
The promised ballad finally arrives with Billy Strayhorn’s “Ballad For Very Tired And Very Sad Lotus Eaters”, which features the suitably mournful sound of Clarke’s tenor in an extended and very beautiful duet with Newton’s piano. There’s also a passage of solo piano from the peerless Newton and Green and Tracey sit out entirely. Clarke gives a deeply emotive ballad performance that amply demonstrates the maturity of her playing.
The first Clarke original is “Beetroots Burn”, an intriguing and quirky title that immediately caught my eye when Alex handed over the album at Brecon. “It’s an anagram of Bourbon Street” she explained, a title which makes perfect sense when listening to the track and also discovering that she has a band called the Hot Five. Tracey’s martial rhythms underpin Clarke’s tenor soloing before the piece adopts a more conventional jazz groove that fuels further soloing from Clarke and Newton. The marching rhythm then returns towards the close, the drums gaining greater prominence as Clarke restates the opening theme.
“It’s You Or No One” is a second Jule Styne tune, this time co-written with Sammy Cahn. The quartet’s performance is ushered in by Green and Tracey and features Clarke on alto. The latin inflected rhythms underpin fluent solos from Clarke and Newton and there’s also an extended drum feature from the excellent Tracey.
Clarke describes the title track as an “original bossa nova”. There’s a great piece of youtube footage featuring her performing it as a ‘saxophone quartet’. Recorded at the height of lockdown in April 2020 it features ‘four Alex Clarkes’ on alto x 2, soprano and tenor and can be found here;
The quartet version features an extended version of this elegant composition with lyrical solos from the composer on alto and Newton on piano. There’s also a delightfully melodic bass feature from the incomparable Dave Green, a master musician who isn’t heard nearly enough as a soloist. The bossa influences are there in Clarke’s writing but never become too overt, this is very much a jazz performance.
The quartet’s version of the Richard Rogers song “Where Or When” is relaxed and swinging with Newton positively sparkling at the piano and Clarke soloing fluently on tenor. And in a case of ‘London bus’ syndrome Green is featured again.
The album concludes in invigorating fashion with Clarke’s arrangement of the Cuban born alto saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera’s composition “Who’s Smokin’ Now?”. The answer to that appears to be the Clarke quartet who tear through the tune at a fair old clip, with solos from Clarke on alto and Newton at the piano as the Cuban and bebop influences merge. Tracey then enjoys a series of effervescent drum breaks.
I was impressed by Clarke’s performances at Brecon and I’m similarly impressed with this album. For a young musician Clarke has a remarkably wide knowledge of the jazz repertoire as online reviews of her live shows around the country reveal. She’s also willing and able to diversify into other genres of music.
This album focusses on her jazz credentials and she gives an impressively mature performance in her various capacities as soloist, arranger and composer. Of course, she’s helped enormously by her more experienced bandmates, all British jazz royalty. Newton, Green and Tracey are exceptional throughout and praise is also due to recording engineer Andrew Cleyndert for an excellent mix that ensures that everyone is heard at their best.
Ultimately the triumph is Clarke’s, there’s nothing radically new here but this is still a mature and confident album that bodes well for her future. I’d like to hear a bit more original material next time round as the two Clarke compositions here are both engaging and impressive and stand up well in the context of the album as a whole.
I enjoyed Clarke’s performances at Brecon and I’m looking forward to seeing her again on 25th January 2023 when she will visit Black Mountain Jazz in Abergavenny for a performance by the BMJ Collective that will team her with the young Welsh saxophonist Daniel Newberry. Newberry is best known as a tenor specialist, so I guess Clarke will mainly feature on alto. We shall have to wait and see.
With what looks like a long bleak winter ahead it’s good to have something to look forward to. In the meantime there’s this highly enjoyable album to warm the soul of the jazz listener.
“Mirage” and “Only A Year” are both available via Clarke’s website;