by Ian Mann
February 10, 2015
A highly competent mainstream to modern album. There's some great playing here from all five musicians.
Alex Garnett’s Bunch of 5
(Whirlwind Recordings WR4664)
“Andromeda” represents saxophonist and composer Alex Garnett’s second album as a leader for the Whirlwind Recordings label. The first, the acclaimed “Serpent”, was released in 2011 and was recorded in Brooklyn with the American musicians Anthony Wonsey (piano) and Willie Jones III (drums). The bass chair was filled by Whirlwind label owner Michael Janisch, born in Wisconsin but now based in London.
The American connection is present again on “Andromeda” which was recorded in London but features the New York based tenor saxophonist Tim Armacost with Janisch again present on double bass. The quintet is completed by two of the UK’s leading jazz musicians, Liam Noble on piano and James Maddren at the drums.
The tale of Garnett’s first meeting with Armacost is recounted in some detail on the album’s liner notes, a story of happy coincidences that Garnett suggests might hint at the possibility of a greater order at work. Despite Bunch of 5 boasting a two tenor front line Charlie Parker remains a primary influence, although the album also sees Garnett tipping his hat in the direction of Stan Getz and Benny Golson.
Alex Garnett is a popular figure on the UK jazz scene and is the son of the veteran tenor player Willie Garnett. An engaging personality with a ready wit Garnett is a mainstay at Ronnie Scott’s where he regularly fronts the Ronnie Scott’s All Stars, the usual support act for big name visitors.
He has also worked regularly as a session and touring musician with credits including Van Morrison and the Rolling Stones. In a jazz context he has worked with many illustrious musicians from both sides of the Atlantic, among them Wynton Marsalis and the late Humphrey Lyttleton.
“Andromeda” consists of six Garnett originals plus two of his arrangements of well known standards. His liner notes offer explanations as to the inspirations behind each tune, the collection reflecting a twenty year passage of time in Garnett’s musical life.
Paradoxically the journey starts with “So Long!”, a tune Garnett wrote in the early 1990s after witnessing a particularly inspirational performance by Benny Golson. Garnett attempted to create a tune in the Golson mould with a memorable melody line that would be adaptable enough to work in a variety of contexts - ballad, up-tempo or even Latin. For the recording the quintet give the piece an up-tempo straight ahead treatment with the two saxophonists trading solos over a busily swinging groove. The hook harks back to the days of classic hard bop and there’s a pleasing air of familiarity about the piece.
“Charlie’s World” was inspired by Garnett’s two year old son, named after Mr Parker perhaps? There’s a playfulness and a child like glee about the unaccompanied opening tenor exchanges and young Charlie’s cries for attention can be clearly heard in the music. The first solo comes from |Noble, one of the UK’s most inventive and versatile pianists - but is it just me or is he too low in the mix? There’s also some great bass work from the always excellent Janisch before the two reeds take over, first trading solos before finally linking up once more to renew that initial father/son conversation with a quote from “Pop Goes The Weasel” offering a neatly humorous touch.
Garnett’s liner notes inform us that the galaxy of Andromeda is hurtling through space on a collision course with our own Milky Way, but somehow I don’t think she’s going to reach us any time soon. The bleakness of this prospect is reflected in the malevolent 7/4 slash chords that occur at the end of each chorus of what is initially a gentle, Latin flavoured tune. Noble is heard to better effect here
as he shares the solos with the two saxophonists. The way in which the two reeds converge is intended as a metaphor for the collision of the two galaxies in 3.75 billion years time. The piece ends with Maddren’s cymbals tinkling eerily in the void.
The wonderfully titled “Delusions of Grandma” takes its name from a “Dogberryism”, the term derived from Dogberry, a character in one of Shakespeare’s plays. The wordplay is further enhanced by the shortened title “D.O.G” which helps to distinguish this particular little bit of verbal fun from the more familiar “Malapropism”.
The music is great fun too as the two tenors race each other to thrilling effect, superbly supported by the rest of this frantically swinging band. Loquacious saxophone solos are traded followed by sparky dialogue at closer range, particularly when the rhythm section drop out temporarily. The piece is also enlivened by an exuberant drum feature from Maddren as the two tenors blow themselves out before gathering their second wind. It’s exhausting just listening to it.
Garnett’s adaptation of the standard “Early Autumn” pays tribute to Stan Getz, another significant influence. This lush ballad arrangement allows for (in Garnett’s own words) ” a simultaneous double tenor dialogue in honour of ‘The Sound’. For me the word “sumptuous” seems to sum it up pretty nicely.
From the title one might expect “Her Tears” to be another ballad. Written specifically for this
line up the concept is of “the waveform of an argument between two lovers who are growing apart”. Garnett’s love of word play is again invoked- “the title has a double meaning” he teases, “Hurt Ears” I guess.
Musically the piece begins with the two tenors in perfect sync, complementary rather than adversarial. The promised hint of sourness only comes with the saxophone solos while Noble’s elegant piano feature fulfils the role of moderator. Not quite a ballad, but not quite a battle either.
“Holmes”, dedicated to the famous fictional detective, is another old Garnett tune, “written way back for a chordless project that never quite took off”. With the addition of piano it becomes a fiercely swinging blowing vehicle with the two saxes exchanging powerful solos as Noble brings a touch of Monk to the proceedings in a series of exchanges with Maddren.
The energy levels are maintained with Garnett’s arrangement of Irving Berlin’s “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm” which is taken at a particularly fast pace and includes thrilling rapid fire solo exchanges between the two saxophonists and a joyous and inventive piano excursion from Noble plus something of a drum feature from Maddren towards the close. The piece represents a high energy and often thrilling conclusion to a highly competent mainstream to modern album.
There is much to enjoy on “Andromeda” but for me it falls short of “Serpent” in terms of overall impact. I’m with the reviewers who are of the opinion that Garnett and Armacost are at their best when working together rather than doing the whole gladiatorial thing and I’d have liked to have heard a little more from the always excellent Noble. That said there’s some great playing here from all five musicians.
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