by Ian Mann
February 03, 2022
The writing is consistently intelligent, sophisticated and varied, very much within the jazz tradition but subtly pushing at its boundaries.
Alex Merritt / Steve Fishwick Quintet
(Fresh Sound New Talent FSNT 631)
Alex Merritt – tenor saxophone, Steve Fishwick – trumpet, John Turville – piano, Mick Coady – acoustic bass, Matt Fishwick - drums
This intriguingly titled album represents the recording début of the quintet co-led by tenor saxophonist Alex Merritt and trumpeter Steve Fishwick. The band was formed in 2014 and features a group of musicians who had already become friends on the UK jazz circuit, with the famous London jazz club Ronnie Scott’s being a focal point.
Alex Merritt studied saxophone and composition at Birmingham Conservatoire, where his tutors included saxophonists Mike Williams, Julian Siegel and Jean Toussaint, pianist Hans Koller and composer Mike Gibbs.
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 has also worked with vibraphonist Jim Hart, pianists Kit Downes and Elliot Sansom, bassist Calum Gourlay, drummers James Maddren and Lorraine Baker and fellow saxophonists Alex Garnett, George Crowley, Mike Williams and Mike Chillingworth.
As an educator he has taught at Birmingham Conservatoire and at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff.
Merritt released his début album “Anatta” in 2016, recorded with a quartet featuring pianist John Turville, bassist Sam Lasserson and the highly experienced Jeff Williams at the drums. Review here;
Co-leader Steve Fishwick graduated from the Royal Academy of Music in 1998 and has since become a stalwart of the British jazz scene. I’ve always thought of the sharp suited Manchester born, London based Fishwick as the keeper of the hard bop flame in Britain, having seen him perform a number of gigs in this style in a variety of permutations.
But Fishwick is also a player with an international reputation and the list of musicians with whom he has performed is both long and illustrious, including saxophonists Sir John Dankworth, Alex Garnett, Allison Neale, Grant Stewart, Matt Wates, Art Themen, Josh Kemp, Zhenya Strigalev and Alan Barnes, bassists Ron Carter, Tim Lefebvre, George Mraz, Michael Karn, Tim Thornton, Yuriy Galkin and Dominic Howells, pianists Stan Tracey, John Donegan, Gabriel Latchin, John Pearce, Liam Noble and Rob Barron, vocalist Anita O’Day, guitarist Nick Costley-White, and drummer Eric Harland.
He has also been a member of the BBC Big Band, the WDR Big Band, the Gareth Lockrane Big Band, Robert Fowler’s Gerry Mulligan Concert Big Band, the Frank Griffith Big Band, saxophonist Paul Booth’s Bansangu Orchestra and jazz French horn player Jim Rattigan’s twelve piece ensemble Pavillon.
The busy Fishwick also finds time to lead his own quintet, and has also co-led bands with saxophonist Alex Garnett and with his twin brother, drummer Matt Fishwick. Indeed the Fishwick Brothers regularly work together and are frequently to be found sharing a stage or studio, as is the case here. It’s almost too easy to begin thinking of them as a ‘package’.
The new album features four compositions each from Merritt and Steve Fishwick plus one from the pen of pianist John Turville.
Merritt explains the philosophy (and the title) behind the new recording as follows;
“We wanted to work towards a collective contemporary jazz aesthetic and approach that had space for our own sounds and language, yet remained strongly influenced by the jazz tradition. The title of this album ‘Mind-Ear-Ladder’ is an effort to describe a process of thought becoming sound, and the ladder that must inevitably be climbed in the development of the mind, and person, in order to actualise this. To extend the analogy further, sometimes we might feel like this process of becoming is effortless, and sometimes it might feel more arduous. But to be sure, we are always somewhere on the ladder at all times and this album title attempts to represent this continuum”.
He also adds;
“Writing music for musicians you are inspired by is a joy and a privilege, and when these musicians are also great friends you are bound to create an environment for good music making”.
The album liner notes also explain the inspirations behind the individual tracks, beginning with Turville’s “U.H.D.C”. The acronym stands for ‘Upper Holloway Dental Clinic’ and already observant jazz fans will have noted the parallels between this title and Billy Strayhorn’s “U.M.M.G” or ‘Upper Manhattan Medical Group’. The resemblance is, of course, intentional. Turville’s composition was inspired by Strayhorn’s and deploys the same chord sequence, with Turville “extending the intervals and adding interweaving contrapuntal lines in the tenor”. Turville and Merritt have worked frequently together playing standards over the years and the piece also draws inspiration from the lines played on such tunes by saxophonists Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh. “The guys read it perfectly on the first rehearsal, which is no mean feat”, enthuses Turville.
The piece features the intertwining sax and trumpet lines of the co-leaders above the colourful bustle of a highly accomplished rhythm section. The co-leaders subsequently diverge to deliver individual solos, with Merritt going first, followed by Steve Fishwick. There’s a seasoned fluency about their concise statements. The pair are followed by composer Turville at the piano, and there is also a feature for bassist Coady
Merritt’s “Pablo-ish” is loosely dedicated to the German pianist and composer Pablo Held, a musician for whom Merritt holds a high regard. The composer says of the tune; “the harmony and chord sequence is largely generated by moving a fixed collection of intervals through different transpositions, an experiment in melody led harmony, not the more conventional other way round”.
Regardless of the technicalities the listener can still enjoy the interplay between the two co-leaders and the way in which Steve Fishwick negotiates his way through the complex rhythmic changes during the course of his trumpet solo. “I love hearing Steve improvise on this tune” comments Merritt. The excellent Turville, whose playing is an asset to any recording, also rises to the challenge with a restlessly inventive piano solo. Pablo Held himself would be impressed. Finally we hear from Merritt himself, fluent and authoritative on tenor.
Fish wick’s “Hollow Man” takes inspiration from the compositional methods of Stanley Cowell, Ahmad Jamal and Tony Williams. The title references “people who are not interacting with the artistic world in any way at all, and how empty their lives must be”.
More relaxed than its predecessors, but still subtly swinging, it features some admirably tight ensemble playing in addition to elegant and eloquent solos from the co-leaders, Fishwick going first followed by Merritt. Turville also provides a typically cogent solo statement at the piano.
Also by Fishwick the title of “Dr. Wu, What’s Wrong With You” isn’t a Steely Dan reference as I first thought. Instead it refers to “an over-enthusiastic doctor who gave me a short lived health panic during what was mostly a routine hospital procedure”. The musical diagnosis is one of “a heavily altered blues sequence utilising some augmented triad root movements”, which also sounds pretty painful to the musical layman.
Musically the piece features a probing trumpet solo from Steve Fishwick above a constantly evolving rhythmic groove. Merritt follows on tenor and then Turville on piano. The quintet’s sound may be rooted in hard bop but the writing from all three of the group’s composers is adventurous and contemporary. This results in pieces that are often rhythmically challenging, but the bass and drum team of Coady and Matt Fishwick respond brilliantly to these challenges throughout, negotiating the rhythmic complexities with apparent ease.
Merritt’s “Ma Ballade” is dedicated to the composer’s mother, a cancer survivor. The tune borrows from classical music, specifically Alexander Scriabin’s symphonic work “Le Poeme de L’Extase”. As the title implies it’s a genuine jazz ballad featuring some exquisite ensemble work plus the tender, lucid soloing of both Fishwick and Merritt. The composer also praises Coady’s grounding bass playing and Matt Fishwick’s delicate brushwork.
Fishwick describes his composition “Number Nine” as “an extended minor blues with some alternate cord changes”. The title has its origins in a fascination with numerology, rather than being any kind of Beatles reference.
Here the group up the energy levels again with some fiery horn ensemble work accompanied by crisp, propulsive rhythms. The composer leads off the solos on trumpet, soaring and blazing in a style that has evoked comparisons with the great Lee Morgan. Merritt follows with a muscular and assertive statement on tenor, before Turville cuts loose with his most exuberant solo of the set. Matt Fishwick adds a dynamic extended drum feature, really rocking the tubs.
“Linda” is Fishwick’s dedication to his own mother. It appeared on one of his earlier albums, “The Outer Periphery”, but has been re-worked for this group. With Matt Fishwick again deploying brushes it represents the album’s second ballad and acts as a showcase for Turville’s piano lyricism.
There’s also some exquisite ensemble playing featuring the gentle melodicism of the two horns.
The final two pieces are composed by Alex Merritt. The first of these, “At St. George’s” homages St. George’s church in Camberwell, SE London where Merritt studied and practised while preparing the music for this album. It was written as an up-tempo ‘blowing vehicle’, intended to let Fishwick and the others blaze away on it, despite the harmonic challenges the composer places in their way. In the event it’s Merritt who goes first, stretching out on a marathon tenor solo, swiftly followed by Fishwick with a suitably incendiary trumpet feature. Turville’s piano solo represents an outpouring of ideas and there are also some fiery exchanges between the co-leaders.
The album concludes on a gentle note with Merritt’s “New Waltz”, introduced by a passage of solo piano from Turville. The pianist’s “lyricism and sensitivity” were very much in the composer’s mind on a piece informed by the compositional methods of Bela Bartok. With Matt Fishwick initially deploying brushes the feel is very much of a jazz ballad, with Merritt and Steve Fishwick’s delicate horn interplay leading to thoughtful and sensitive individual solos. Turville’s solo morphs into an unaccompanied piano intro, elegantly bookending a piece that also contains some exquisite ensemble playing.
A casual first listen might suggest that “Mind-Ear-Ladder” is just another Blue Note inspired hard bop album but closer scrutiny reveals that it’s far more than that. The instrumentation and general feel of the music may come from this template but the writing of Merritt, Fishwick and Turville introduces other elements, sometimes borrowing from the classical tradition, at others introducing more contemporary jazz grooves and rhythms.
Commendably the quintet present an all original programme and the writing is consistently intelligent, sophisticated and varied, very much within the jazz tradition but subtly pushing at its boundaries. The rapport between the co-leaders is apparent throughout, but each also impresses with their fluency as soloists. Turville is an asset to any recording and he excels as both soloist and accompanist. The sometimes complex rhythmic demands of these pieces are brilliantly dealt with by Coady and Matt Fishwick, both are excellent throughout. The album was recorded at Sansom Studios in Birmingham back in 2018 with Andrew Cleyndert engineering and the co-leaders co-producing – the sound quality is excellent throughout.
The release of this album comes just before the quintet sets out on a UK tour with dates as listed below. It will no doubt represent an interesting and enjoyable experience to see this music being performed live.
9th February - Pizza Express Jazz Club, Soho
17th February - Bebop Club, Bristol
18th February - Cambridge Modern Jazz Club
2nd March - The Lescar, Sheffield
3rd March - The Blue Lamp, Aberdeen
4th March - Leeds Conservatoire Workshop and concert
19th April - Norwich Jazz Club
27th April - Bristol Fringe Jazz
29th April - Birmingham Jazz
Alex Merritt: https://www.alexmerritt.co.uk
Steve Fishwick: https://stevefishwickjazz.com
Fresh Sound New Talent: https://www.freshsoundrecords.com
From Alex Merritt via Facebook;
Really happy with this 4* review of ‘Mind-Ear-Ladder’ by The Jazz Man, very detailed, thoughtful and obviously lots of time put in to this! Thanks Ian Mann, much appreciated.
From John Turville via Facebook;
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Thanks as always to Ian Mann for a thoughtful and thorough review of our new quintet album.