by Ian Mann
January 25, 2016
An impressive début from Alex Merritt. “Anatta” represents a highly accomplished 'calling card'.
Alex Merritt Quartet
(F-ire Presents F-IRECD86)
Alex Merritt is a young tenor saxophonist and composer who studied on the Jazz Course at Birmingham Conservatoire. Following his graduation in 2009 he moved to New York for further lessons with saxophonists Rich Perry and Ellery Eskelin, pianist Vijay Iyer and others. Since returning to the UK he has established himself on the London jazz scene playing in a variety of jazz contexts with associates including trumpeter Steve Fishwick and pianist Sam Leak. He is involved with the Chaos and E17 collectives and has also worked with vibraphonist Jim Hart, pianist Kit Downes, bassist Calum Gourlay, drummer James Maddren and fellow saxophonists Alex Garnett, George Crowley, Mike Williams and Mike Chillingworth. As an educator he teaches at Birmingham Conservatoire and at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff.
The quartet that appears on “Anatta”, Merritt’s leadership debut for the F-ire Presents label, was formed during the saxophonist’s initial tenure at Birmingham Conservatoire. One of his tutors was the great Jeff Williams who plays the drums on this album. Williams introduced Merritt to two musicians from his London circle, pianist John Turville and bassist Sam Lasserson, who complete the line up on this record.
The title “Anatta” is sourced from the Buddhist concept of ‘no self’, the idea of total immersion in the present moment, a principal central to the work of the improvising musician. The programme includes five pieces by Merritt, two of these being ‘contrafacts’, something that I’ll deal with later. The outside pieces include interpretations of two Thelonious Monk tunes, “Ugly Beauty” and “Pannonica”, plus Eubie Blake’s ballad “Memories of You”.
Merritt explains the ideas behind the recording thus;
“I had become interested in the idea of composing material that set musical precedents the soloist can choose to follow when improvising. We are free to remain within the traditional form of the song or chart a new course into the unknown exploring motifs, rhythms or implied harmonic structures from the new melody. An exciting duality is created when these compositions are based on standard chord progressions”. Merritt credits Williams with helping to bring these ideas to life and these comments also help to explain the fascination with ‘contrafact’ material.
“With the inspired imaginations and contributions of all members of the band the approach of the quartet is ever evolving. Vitally, as our reference points develop and we balance sometimes more atonal worlds with their functional counterparts, the music remains fresh engaging and honest – with homage to the tradition but an eye to the future”.
These are qualities that can be heard in the music throughout this album, and similar values infuse Williams’ solo output too. A number of his albums including “Another Time”, “The Listener” and “Valence” ,plus a number of live appearances, have been reviewed elsewhere on this site.
“Anatta” commences with Merritt’s tune “Conn Artist”, the title presumably a subtle reference to the make of saxophone that the composer likes to play. However it’s the sound of Turville’s unaccompanied piano that introduces the piece which quickly settles into the kind of tight, highly interactive group interplay that characterises this quartet, with Williams’ distinctive cymbal touch an essential component. Merritt probes subtly and intelligently during the course of his tenor solo in a manner that has been compared with the playing of the late Warne Marsh. Indeed Merritt cites Marsh as an influence alongside Joe Henderson and John Coltrane plus a clutch of contemporary classical composers including Bela Bartok, Alban Berg and Henri Dutilleux, of whom more later. “Conn Artist” also includes a typically imaginative and inventive solo from the always excellent John Turville and there’s also a highly musical extended drum feature for Williams, the man who helped to kick start the whole project.
“Ugly Beauty” is the first of the two Monk selections and is approached by the quartet in a relaxed, unhurried manner that further emphasises Merritt’s ‘cool school’ leanings – pianist Lennie Tristano and alto saxophonist Lee Konitz are also cited as influences. The arrangement also includes a flowingly lyrical solo from the versatile Turville, a highly melodic bass feature from the dexterous and imaginative Lasserson, and some delightfully inventive brush work from Williams.
The first of the ‘contrafacts’ is “Justin Time-berlake”, the rather laboured pun concealing a work of greater wit and invention. Inspired by the ‘conrafacts’ of Tristano, Marsh and Konitz the piece is based around the standard “Just In Time” and is the perfect encapsulation of Merritt’s approach with the structure of the standard acting as the spur for some sparkling interplay between the members of the quartet plus elegant but rigorous solos from Merritt and Turville. There is also an extended passage of unaccompanied playing from Lasserson, a musician who is something of a rising star among the ranks of young British bassists.
Merritt’s admiration of contemporary classical composers is expressed in his dedication “For Henri Dutilleux”. One of the giants of 20th century French music Dutilleux (born 1916) died as recently as 2013. The piece is based on Dutilleux’s writing methods and is a genuine lament that showcases Marritt’s ability to play with genuine sensitivity and emotion in slower tempos. His thoughtful, coolly elegant playing in his instrument’s higher register is sympathetically supported by his colleagues with Turville providing a lyrical solo of his own to the accompaniment of Lasserson’s sonorous bass undertow and further exquisite brush work from Williams.
The album’s second dedication is to the Dutch composer Peter Schat (1935 – 2003). It’s also the second ‘contrafact’ with Merritt turning to the chord sequence of John Coltrane’s “Satellite” to form the basis of the piece. The music here is altogether more urgent but Merritt’s cool school inspired fluency ensures that he sounds very different to Coltrane as he digs in to deliver his solo. With Lasserson and Williams offering crisp support there’s also an ebullient solo from Turville plus something of a cameo from the drums.
“Anatta”, the title track expresses something of the philosophy behind the title with a suitably lengthy and immersive solo from Merritt which unfolds slowly, gradually and organically as Turville, Lasserson and Williams offer appropriately selfless support. There’s also a gently probing but keenly intelligent solo from Turville as Williams provides splashes of colour with his consistently inventive drum and cymbal work.
“Memories of You”, written by the ragtime pianist Eubie Blake (1887 – 1983), may seem like a strange choice for this quartet but their treatment of the ballad is delightful. Merritt has expressed a particular fondness for ballads and his playing here exhibits great maturity and sensitivity. Similarly accomplished performances from his colleagues further enhance the piece with Turville’s inventiveness and lyricism again to the fore and with Williams delivering more assured and sensitive brush work. There’s also a lovely duo episode featuring just Lasserson and Turville.
The album concludes with a lengthy trio exploration of Monk’s “Pannonica”, a discursive three way conversation between Merritt, Lasserson and Williams. The drummer is particularly adept at playing in the exposed situation of a ‘saxophone trio’ as his live recording “Valence”, made with Lasserson and American alto player John O’ Gallagher reveals. In this sparse setting Merritt reveals another kind of maturity, resisting the temptation to resort to bluster but still playing in a style that is both rigorous and questioning, yet all the while maintaining his trademark coolness and elegance.
“Anatta” represents an impressive début from Alex Merritt and the album has garnered a host of favourable reviews. The production, by an engineering team featuring Antonio Feola and Alex Bonney serves the quartet well and the considerable nuances of the playing are well captured throughout.
Merritt has already established a highly distinctive and personalised sound on tenor, his ‘cool school’ inspired sound makes a nice change from all the Coltrane influenced saxophonists out there. The presence of Williams is obviously a huge plus with regard to the album’s success but there are excellent performances from Turville and the increasingly impressive Lasserson too. Personally I’d have liked to have heard a little more genuinely original material but it may be that Merritt is saving that for the second album that will surely come. In the meantime “Anatta” represents a highly accomplished ‘calling card’.
The Alex Merritt Quartet play at Dempsey’s in Cardiff tomorrow (Tuesday 26th January 2016) with further dates at The Hidden Rooms, Cambridge on Thursday March 10th and The Castle in Wellingborough on Thursday 28th April. Please visit http://www.alexmerritt.co.uk for further details.