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Alex Garnett



by Ian Mann

September 04, 2011


Garnett's début as a leader is well worth the wait.

Alex Garnett


(Whirlwind Recordings WR4615)

Saxophonist and composer Alex Garnett is perhaps not as well known to British jazz audiences as he should be. The son of of a saxophone playing father, the UK veteran Willie Garnett, young Alex worked in the City before eventually becoming a professional musician, a hired gun who gained valuable experience working with leaders such as blues guitarist Otis Grand and jump jive specialist Ray Gelato among many others including big names such as Van Morrison and The Rolling Stones. He honed his jazz chops playing with the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Humphrey Lyttleton, Peter King and Scott Hamilton plus more contemporary figures from both sides of the Atlantic including Gareth Lockrane, Seamus Blake, Phil Robson and Joel Frahm

Somewhere along the way Garnett became friendly with the enterprising expatriate American bassist Michael Janisch and, with Joel Frahm and Nigel Hitchcock, was part of the “Saxophone Summit” band that Janisch led on a UK tour in early 2010 (a review of their performance at Torfaen Jazz Club appears elsewhere on this site). It was at Janisch’s suggestion that Garnett recorded this, his début album as a leader on Janisch’s Whirlwind record label. The album was recorded in New York (Brooklyn to be precise) and features Garnett and Janisch alongside leading American musicians Anthony Wonsey (piano) and Willie Jones III (drums) on a programme of Garnett originals that see him demonstrating considerable ability as a composer. I’ve been lucky enough to see both Wonsey and Jones perform live, the pianist with alto saxophonist Vincent Herring at the now sadly defunct Sweet Basil when I visited New York in late 1996. Jones I saw more recently, appearing with pianist Cedar Walton at Ronnie Scott’s as part of the 2010 London Jazz Festival. Needless to say only the latter of these appearances is documented on the site, forming part of my London Jazz Festival 2010 feature.

The album was recorded with minimal preparation or rehearsal in order to create a spontaneous “live in the studio” feel and overall this approach works well. Garnett cites saxophonists Hank Mobley, Dexter Gordon, George Garzone, Joe Lovano and Joe Henderson as influences so it’s perhaps not surprising that bebop and its later developments are a primary influence albeit with the quartet adding an agreeably contemporary edge to the proceedings.

The opening “Lydia” is a spirited call to arms, an urgent, churning piece featuring Garnett’s garrulous tenor, Jones’ busy drumming, Janisch’s rhythmic drive and Wonsey’s sparkling pianistics. It’s an impressive statement of intent.

However there’s more to Garnett’s playing than mere bluff and bluster. “Three for a Moor”  begins as a gorgeous ballad with Garnett on warm, breathy tenor. However we soon find him stretching out with a gently probing solo. He’s matched by the intelligent soloing of Wonsey with Janisch and Jones providing sympathetic, low profile accompaniment.

As the title might suggest the boppish “Blueprint” sounds like a homage to the classic albums of the Blue Note label with exuberant solos from Wonsey and Garnett and relaxed but emphatically swinging support from the rhythm section. Janisch shines with an attention grabbing arco solo and there are a series of colourful drum breaks from Jones.

The music of “Dracula’s Lullaby” focusses on the second word of the title. This is a beautifully controlled ballad performance with exquisite solos from Garnett on tenor, Janisch on pizzicato bass and the mellifluous Wonsey on piano.

The title of “Saluda Hakim” refers to Charlie Parker’s Muslim name. In a recent feature by Robert Shore in Jazzwise magazine Garnett referred to the piece as being “an amalgamation of some throwaway Charlie Parker quotes-very melodic, creative asides that people often don’t notice. So I put a tune together from his cast offs”. Not surprisingly it sounds much as Garnett describes, very Parker-ish but none the less enjoyable for that. Naturally it’s mainly about the saxophone but Wonsey and Janisch get the opportunity to shine again too and Jones weighs in with another series of explosive drum breaks. 

The Latin tinged “The Pimp” sees the quartet stepping back into broadly Blue Note territory with Garnett’s muscular tenor sharing the honours with Wonsey’s breezy comping and soloing.

The title track is an oblique reference to both Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone and its antecedent the “keyed serpent” or ophicleide, and to Joe Henderson, once nicknamed “the serpent”. Musically the piece is a tour de force, a high speed demonstration of Garnett’s formidable chops (he describes it as a “finger buster”) with the rest of the band in hot pursuit. Wonsey’s piano solo is frequently dazzling and matches the leader for brilliance and there’s a volcanic drum solo from Jones.

The album closes on a slightly gentler note with “Atonement” which includes a subtle re-harmonisation of that most famous of jazz pieces “When The Saints Go Marching In”.

Garnett’s début as a leader is well worth the wait. There may not be anything strikingly original here but Garnett’s compositions bristle with intelligence and a strong understanding of the tradition and his choice of titles reveals something of his wicked sense of humour. As Shore mentioned in his review it’s a shame that he doesn’t delve deeper into the stories behind the tunes in his liner notes.

The playing is, of course superlative throughout with each member of the quartet making a significant contribution to a well balanced programme. There seems to be a real chemistry between the musicians which is nicely captured in an excellent mix by engineers Mike Marciano and Tyler McDiarmid.

Garnett is currently touring this music in the UK with a British based quartet featuring Janisch, pianist Ross Stanley and drummer Andrew Bain. I’ll be attending the Cardiff date on September 6th and reporting on it for the site.

The remaining tour dates are;

Sept 6
Alex Garnett Quartet
Dempsey’s Jazz Club
Cardiff, Wales

Wednesday 7 September     Ronnie Scotts, 47 Frith St, Soho, London W1D 4HT     * UPDATED
020 7439 0747  Gig 7:15 (1 hour set)

Thursday 8 September:      Ronnie Scotts, 47 Frith St, Soho, London W1D 4HT   * UPDATED
020 7439 0747  Gig 7:15 (1 hour set)

Sept 10
Alex Garnett Quartet
606 Club
London, England

Sept 14
Alex Garnett Quartet- Official Album Launch
The Hideaway
Streatham, London, England

Sept 15
Alex Garnett Quartet
Watermill Jazz Club
Dorking, England



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