by Ian Mann
November 20, 2021
There’s an impressive stylistic & emotional range on “Dream Band” and despite the fact that the album deploys 3 different core line ups there is also a pleasing sense of cohesion and unity of purpose.
(Fresh Sound New Talent FSNT 625
Alex Hitchcock – tenor sax
with; Midori Jaeger – cello, vocals, Deschanel Gordon, Noah Stoneman, Will Barry – piano, Will Sach, Ferg Ireland, Joe Downard – bass, Jas Kayser, Jason Brown, Shane Forbes – drums, Luisito Quintero – percussion, Cherise Adams-Burnett – vocals, David Adewumi – trumpet, Chris Cheek – tenor sax
“Dream Band” represents a major new statement from saxophonist and composer Alex Hitchcock. It is his second album for the Barcelona based label Fresh Sound New Talent, a pioneering imprint that rarely records British artists, guitarist Tom Ollendorff is another, but which was the first to record such jazz superstars as pianists Brad Mehldau and Robert Glasper, guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire. My review of “All Good Things” can be found here;
The following biographical details are largely sourced from that review;
Hitchcock completed an English degree at Cambridge University before embarking on the Jazz Course at London’s Royal Academy of Music as a post graduate. Here he studied with leading saxophonists Iain Ballamy, Julian Siegel, Martin Speake, James Allsopp and Barak Schmool, plus pianist and course leader Pete Churchill.
Hitchcock graduated in 2016 and has since been making a name for himself in a variety of musical contexts. Among those with whom he has worked are trumpeter Nick Smart, bassists Laurence Cottle, Misha Mullov-Abbado, Joe Downard, Matt Ridley and Liran Donin, trombonist Dennis Rollins, pianist John Donegan and fellow saxophonists Soweto Kinch, Stan Sulzmann, Art Themen and Tom Smith. He is also a member of Resolution 88, the funk quartet led by pianist and composer Tom O’Grady. Internationally he has collaborated with American drummer John Hollenbeck and the Franco/Belgian duo of drummer Andre Charlier and pianist Benoit Sourisse.
In 2018 Hitchcock was the recipient of the prestigious Peter Whittingham Award, presented by the Help Musicians UK organisation, which helped to finance the recording of “All Good Things” and the subsequent promotional tour.
Hitchcock is also a talented and versatile large ensemble player whose credits include the Cambridge University Jazz Orchestra, the Royal Academy of Music Big Band, the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, the Laurence Cottle Big Band and the Andy Panayi Big Band. He is also a member of the increasingly lauded Patchwork Jazz Orchestra, a hugely talented collective of young London based jazz musicians, many of them graduates of the Academy. I was fortunate enough to witness an exciting performance by the PJO at the 606 Jazz Club in Chelsea at the 2016 EFG London Jazz Festival. Hitchcock appears on the PJO’s excellent début album “The Adventures of Mr Pottercakes”, released in 2019. Review here;
Hitchcock is also a great organiser and general ‘mover and shaker’ who has previously co-ordinated the jazz programme at Camden’s award winning Green Note venue. He has worked as an Ambassador for the National Youth Jazz Collective, and in 2015 worked with promoters Serious to produce concerts at London’s Rich Mix venue through their Young & Serious programme. A genuine fan of the music and an all round nice guy he is often to be found in the audience at gigs, supporting the work of fellow musicians.
More recently Hitchcock has joined forces with fellow tenor saxophonist Tom Barford to form the group AuB (pronounced Orb), a chordless quartet that also incorporates electronics into its sound and which also features bassist Ferg Ireland and drummer James Maddren. AuB released its excellent début for Edition Records in early 2020 and in 2021 I reviewed an exceptional livestream performance by the quartet, augmented by keyboard player Maria Chiara Argiro, from the Peggy’s Skylight venue in Nottingham.
Hitchcock’s other releases include the quintet recording “Live at the London and Cambridge Jazz Festivals” (2018), which features Hitchcock, Barry, Downard, trumpet James Copus and drummer Jay Davis. “Outside In” (2019) is a digital only offering featuring a quartet of Hitchcock, Barry, Ireland and Forbes with Adams-Burnett guesting on one track.
In early October 2021, shortly before the album release, Hitchcock brought a quartet featuring Gordon, Sach and Forbes to a Shrewsbury Jazz Network event at The Hive venue. This particular permutation of the album personnel gave an exceptional live performance that included sneak previews of some of the album material. On the evidence of the rapturous audience reaction at a venue finally freed from Covid restrictions demand for this new album is certain to be high. Gig review here;
In a recent interview with Hugh Morris for Jazzwise magazine Hitchcock explained the rationale behind the “Dream Band” recording
Before lockdown I was getting to play with a wide variety of musicians on a regular basis. The breadth of these musicians’ creativity meant that you could be playing the same music but it would sound totally different between line ups. I wanted to document how that would play out across one record. The main pleasure is definitely ‘hearing’ a particular musician’s playing in your mind’s ear and writing for them – and I got to do that multiple times on this album. I wanted to create a snapshot of the strength and variety of musicians in London and see how far different collaborators can stretch my music”.
Musicians and composers regularly talk of assembling their ‘dream bands’, often featuring famous US names, or sometimes extending the concept into the realms of fantasy by naming deceased musicians (Miles, Trane, Monk, Parker etc.). Hitchcock has taken a more practical approach, calling upon his talented peers to create not one but three ‘dream bands’.
The core of each of these is a quartet, the first of these featuring Gordon, Sach and Kayser with Midori Jaeger added on vocals and cello for album opener “Wolf and Nina”. Named after Hitchcock’s pet cats this was a piece that was performed in an all instrumental format at Shrewsbury, but which sounds very different with the addition of Jaeger’s voice, lyrics and plucked cello. The presence of vocals gives the piece even more of a pastoral and lyrical feel and brings a very English sense of melancholy to the music.
Hitchcock says of the piece;
“I wrote this about the reassurance you get from having non-human companions in situations of stress. In this case my cats in the pandemic; their blissful ignorance to whatever’s going on in the human world, and their lack of change in behaviour being a comfort”
“Yeshaya” introduces the second quartet of Stoneman, Ireland and Brown, who bring a more obvious contemporary jazz feel to this all instrumental affair. Hitchcock takes the first solo on tenor, followed by Stoneman, a rising star on piano, whose inventive solo rides the turbulent rhythmic rapids generated by Ireland’s bass and Brown’s dynamic drumming.
“Intro” is a thoughtful and lyrical duet between Hitchcock and pianist Will Barry, which leads onto the composition “to love itself”, which adds Joe Downard on bass and Shane Forbes on drums, plus the soaring wordless vocals of Cherise Adams-Burnett. These bring something of a Brazilian feel to the piece, with the melodic deployment of the voice sometimes reminiscent of a Pat Metheny record. Downard features with a melodic bass solo, followed by a more expansive excursion from Barry at the piano. Hitchcock also acquits himself well on tenor, but it is perhaps appropriate that on this “Dream Band” album he also gives plenty of room for self expression to his colleagues. The closing stages of the piece are truly dramatic with Cherise’s still wordless voice reaching for the stars, supported by sax, piano, bass and the powerful drumming of Forbes. Having reached a peak the music segues into the Minimalist inspired “Outro”, a more extensive sax and piano duet that brings this ‘mini-suite’ to a close – the album packaging lists the three parts as separate tracks.
Even now Barry’s piano provides a link into the next composition, “FSTL”, which also includes contributions from trumpeter David Adewumi and second tenor saxophonist, the American Chris Cheek. It was Cheek who first introduced Hitchcock to the Fresh Sound New Talent label and I assume that the title of this tune represents some kind of tribute to the imprint. This is a gently atmospheric piece that first features the breathy trumpet sounds of Adewumi, followed by further wordless vocalising from Adams-Burnett, the two also exchanging melodic lines. Eventually tenor sax takes over, presumably that of Cheek, as the piece continues to unfold, with voice and trumpet returning to weave further beguiling melodic spells.
“Move 37” re-introduces the Stoneman, Ireland, Brown axis with Luisito Quintero added to the group. The latter’s pattering percussion brings a welcome touch of exotica to a pleasingly melodic piece that also incorporates a hugely impressive double bass solo from Ireland. There is also a series of sparkling tenor sax and piano exchanges between Hitchcock and Barry.
The album’s only cover is an arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “Azalea” which features the duo of Hitchcock and Jaeger, the latter on plucked cello and voice. Hitchcock’s wispy, smoky tenor sketches the melody above the pizzicato rhythms. Jaeger then delivers a wistful, slightly woozy rendition of the lyrics. It’s a delightfully sparse and tender duo arrangement that reveals Hitchcock’s sensitivity as a ballad player. Hitchcock first heard Jaeger performing as a guest with the band Glasshopper and subsequently approached her with regard to appearing on the “Dream Band” recording. The success of this collaboration suggests that they will continue to work together.
“Embers” is a knotty contemporary jazz composition played in the saxophone trio format. The fluency of the leader’s tenor is complemented by a busy and powerful performance from Brown, whose drums feature prominently in the mix throughout as Ireland fulfils an anchoring role on bass.
“Overcome Any Obstacle with a Horse” features the last appearance from the Gordon / Sach / Kayser group and also includes Jaeger on bowed cello. This is a multi-faceted composition that moves through several distinct phases, beginning with the lyrical and atmospheric intro featuring the melancholy ring of Jaeger’s cello. Subsequently the music gathers momentum, fuelled by Kayser’s dynamic drumming and with Hitchcock stretching out powerfully and fluently on tenor, eventually followed by Gordon at the piano. At a little under nine minutes in duration this is the album’s lengthiest track and it packs a lot of musical information and a strong narrative arc into its running time. It may also have provided the inspiration for the album cover art.
The fast moving “Simulacra” features the final performance from Stoneman, Ireland and Brown. Stoneman, like Gordon a rising star of UK jazz, relishes the opportunity to cut loose at the piano, delivering a dazzling solo energetically supported by Ireland and Brown. In another multi-faceted composition Hitchcock actually slows things down on tenor, before gradually ramping things up again. The maturity of his playing and writing is a consistent delight throughout the album.
The album concludes with “And Then”, performed in the company of Barry, Downard and Forbes. Again the pianist shines as Barry solos alongside Hitchcock, with drummer Forbes also featuring strongly in the closing stages as this bop and Latin inflected composition closes the album on an energetic note.
“Dream Band” represents a highly impressive statement from Hitchcock. It sees him moving away from his initial hard bop / Blue Note inspirations to create music that is both more personal and more varied. There’s an impressive stylistic and emotional range on “Dream Band” and despite the fact that the album deploys three different core line ups there is also a pleasing sense of cohesion and unity of purpose. That it all flows together seamlessly and logically is a tribute to Hitchcock’s growing compositional maturity.
The standard of the playing is exceptional throughout and the promise exhibited by the Gordon, Sach, Forbes quartet at Shrewsbury – a player from each line up, as it happens - is fully realised on this recording. Hitchcock has attracted critical plaudits for “Dream Band” and rightly so. He has even hinted that the project might become a series with subsequent albums featuring further different line ups. Following the success of this opening salvo this represents a tantalising prospect.
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