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Alex Hutton Trio

Magna Carta Suite


by Ian Mann

July 20, 2015


A brave and ambitious album that includes some brilliant moments but the overall impression is still that of something of a "Curate's Egg".

Alex Hutton Trio

“Magna Carta Suite”

(F-ire Presents F-IRE CD 82)

Sheffield born but now based in the London area Alex Hutton is a talented pianist and composer who even now remains somewhat underrated on the UK jazz scene. This is somewhat surprising considering the fact that Hutton has previously recorded three excellent albums as a leader, “Cross That Bridge” (2005) and “Songs From The Seven Hills” (2008), both for 33 Records, and “Legentis” (2012) which appeared on the F-ire Presents imprint.

“Legentis” introduced Hutton’s current trio featuring the Russian born bassist Yuri Golubev and the Israeli born drummer Asaf Sirkis. The album is very favourably reviewed elsewhere on this site and I was also fortunate enough to witness an excellent live performance by the trio at The Hive in Shrewsbury in 2013.

A classically trained pianist Hutton also brings elements of rock, folk and classical music to his playing and writing but first and foremost he’s a first rate jazz pianist and composer who has expressed an ambition to create music that generates a wider range of colours than those normally associated with a piano trio. This may involve the judicious use of occasional additional instrumentation, flute, cor anglais and voice are deployed on this latest album, but more often it derives from the quality of Hutton’s writing and the bowing skills of the remarkable Golubev, one of the best practitioners of jazz arco bass around. Also classically trained Golubev was once the featured double bass soloist with the Moscow Soloists, one of the world’s most respected chamber ensembles. 

As a composer Hutton has a penchant for “le grand concept”. “Songs From The Seven Hills” was described as a “suite for piano trio” and was inspired by Hutton’s native city of Sheffield. “Legentis” was more diverse in its inspiration with influences ranging from philosophy to punk rock but the album still had an almost conceptual air about it.

Hutton’s latest work the “Magna Carta Suite” was inspired by the area in which Hutton now lives near the villages of Wraysbury and Runnymede in Berkshire where the Magna Carta was signed in 1215. The suite therefore celebrates the 800th anniversary of this event and its influence on Western ideas of liberty and democracy with particular reference to both the British and American constitutions. It has also been an influence on contemporary Human Rights administration. The music draws on baroque, classical and folk sources and charts the development of musical as well as philosophical ideas over the past eight hundred years. Two pieces also feature the words and the voice of London based poet Neil Sparkes. It is perhaps particularly appropriate that the album was recorded at the Hunting Lodge Studio in Wraysbury by an engineering team of Nick Kacal and Simon Changer.

The suite lasts for thirty nine minutes and comprises of twelve sections beginning with “Old Yew”, so named because the Magna Carta was signed beneath a two thousand year old yew tree. It’s tantalisingly brief but offers an immediate glimpse of Golubev’s bowing skills as his melodic arco lines intertwine with guest Liz Palmer’s baroque flute above a backdrop of percussive piano arpeggios.
This is followed by the even shorter “King John’s Hunting Lodge”, Hutton’s attempt to write a “simple, restful folk song that has the same emotive quality as ‘Greensleeves’”. The composer succeeds very well on this charming and delightful piece which features another guest, Liesbeth Allart on cor anglais sketching the main melody and receiving sympathetic support from Hutton at the piano, Golubev on melodic pizzicato bass and Sirkis with some perky but tasteful drum and cymbal work.
Both of these opening themes are reprised elsewhere in the suite.

“The Barons” then introduces an element of urgency and conflict into the proceedings as the nobles in question begin to press their demands upon the King. Nevertheless there’s still a flowing lyricism about Hutton’s piano solo as he begins to introduce the mediaeval motifs which also form the basis of the lively “June 15th 2015”, a kind of English jig that celebrates the date of the signing of the Magna Carta and also acknowledges the compositional influence of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). These two pieces are in fact a segue, linked by the military style drumming of Sirkis. Allart’s cor anglais is again heard to good effect on “June 15th” and this section also includes something of a feature for the ebullient Sirkis. 

“Gutenburg Press” charts the dissemination, two centuries later, of some of the ideas enshrined in the Magna Carta. The piece is rooted in baroque harmonies and at over six minutes in length represents one of the suite’s most significant pieces. Its strong and memorable melodies form the basis for excellent solos from Hutton and Golubev as Sirkis provides subtly propulsive support.Hutton, in particular, is heard at his best as he relishes the opportunity to stretch out.
The piece is thematically linked to the following composition “Gunpowder and Compass”. Both titles are derived from an observation made in 1620 by Francis Bacon that the Gutenburg Press, Gunpowder and the Compass were three inventions that had changed the world. The tune “Gunpowder and Compass” acknowledges the part these two inventions played in the colonisation of the New World and the influence of Magna Carta upon the drafting of the American Constitution.With its pounding piano and skittering drums the piece acknowledges the savagery of war but the violence is tempered by an inherent melodicism that has its roots in J.S.Bach’s “Fugue in C minor”, a fact publicly acknowledged by Hutton on the album packaging. Both Hutton and Sirkis skilfully navigate some choppy waters, their thrillingly invigorating exchanges anchored by Golubev at the bass.

The achingly beautiful composition “Self Made Man” is an unashamedly Romantic composition as Hutton attempts to depict the mood of optimism that defined the 19th century. Melody and a lush lyricism is the order of the day with pellucid piano, exquisitely detailed drumming and a quite wonderful pizzicato bass solo from Golubev.

“The Fog of War” takes its title from a phrase by Churchill and takes our story into the turbulent 20th century. The piece begins quietly with solo piano and a melodic fragment influenced by Alexander Scriabin. A burst from Sirkis’ drums moves the music into an area more in keeping with the title as momentum and tension begin to build with Hutton’s insistent patterns the backdrop for an appropriately explosive drum feature from the excellent Sirkis.

“King John’s Hunting Lodge” is then reprised featuring Golubev’s superb arco work alongside Allart’s cor anglais.
Next it’s the turn for “Old Yew” to be revisited, this time in more energetic fashion with Palmer’s baroque flute eventually taking flight above the busy ripple of Hutton’s arpeggios and the swish of Sirkis’ cymbals.

The final two pieces feature the voice of Neil Sparkes intoning words from his book “Magna Carta Suite - Xerox Sonnets & X Ray Blues” published by Hesterglock Press. It’s a spoken word performance as opposed to actual singing and on record it doesn’t really stand up to repeated listening, although I’m sure it could be very effective in a live situation. On album it’s all rather too portentous, despite the sensitivity of Hutton’s piano accompaniment on the first instalment of Sparkes’ recitative, “Thoughts Bear Heirs To Memory”.

More of Sparkes’ words on the same Magna Carta theme can be heard on “As Sunlight Passes” which is set to the rousing theme of “Old Yew” with Golubev and Sirkis back on board and with Palmer’s flute continuing to play a vital role. Overall this is more effective than its predecessor, there’s a greater sense of drama and in any case the listener can always focus more fully on the music.

There is much to enjoy on “Magna Carta Suite”, one wouldn’t expect anything less from a trio containing musicians of the calibre of Hutton, Golubev and Sirkis. I also enjoyed the contributions of both Palmer and Allart who each play beautifully and help to enhance the historic atmosphere surrounding the project.

But overall I found that I enjoyed it rather less as an album than “Legentis”, largely because of the spoken word passages which come across as something of an unnecessary indulgence in the recorded format. The suite is also a little fragmented in its early stages and at only thirty nine minutes it’s also rather short.

For jazz listeners the heart of the album is in the middle with the thematically linked tracks “Gutenburg Press” and “Gunpowder and Compass” as the trio really start to stretch out and demonstrate the kind of interaction they’re capable of. The shorter pieces include some arresting themes and interesting arrangements and the blending of the jazz, classical and folk influences is never less than interesting - but too many are little more than inspired cameos.   

“Magna Carta Suite” is a brave and ambitious album that includes some brilliant moments but the overall impression is still that of something of a “Curate’s Egg”.     

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