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Alex Wilson Trio

Alex Wilson Trio


by Ian Mann

June 04, 2013


Wilson brings the various strands of his rich musical knowledge to bear in a piano trio context, the music embracing a wide dynamic and stylistic range.

Alex Wilson Trio

“Alex Wilson Trio”

(Alex Wilson Records AWCD09)

Pianist and composer Alex Wilson is a true world musician with an encyclopedic knowledge of African, Caribbean and Latin American music styles in addition to more conventional Western popular music genres -jazz, soul and r & b. He has frequently merged these elements on a series of album releases including “Afro Saxon”, “Anglo Cubano”, “Salsa Con Soul” and “Mali Latino” - you get the idea. Skilful as they are Wilson’s fusions have largely been geared toward the dance floor rather than the jazz club or the concert hall.

Wilson’s first release in the conventional jazz piano trio format promises to change all that. I saw Wilson’s trio featuring bassist Davide Mantovani and drummer Frank Tontoh play an excellent support set opposite David Sanborn’s organ trio at the Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of the 2011 London Jazz Festival. The same trio forms the core line up on this new CD with Tristan Banks replacing Tontoh on three of the album’s nine tracks. The recording presents a mixture of studio and live recordings with the concert items captured at Warwick Arts Centre and at London’s Pizza Express Jazz Club. Naturally several of the pieces also appeared in the 2011 QEH set.

Wilson’s liner notes offer informative insights into his choices of material and the album begins in the studio with “Fly”, Wilson’s tribute to Steve Winwood, a musician with whom many leading jazz players have worked including Wilson’s friend, the saxophonist Paul Booth. “Fly” originally appeared on the Winwood band’s album “Nine Lives” and lends itself well to the piano trio format. The unexpected subtlety of Tontoh’s playing impressed me at the QEH and his drums lead things off here, subsequently providing sympathetic support to Wilson’s initial piano lyricism.
Using the chords of Winwood’s song as a starting point the trio later stretch out in a lively and exuberant exploration of Afro-Puerto Rican and Cuban rhythms as Wilson brings the various strands of his rich musical knowledge to bear in a piano trio context, the music embracing a wide dynamic and stylistic range.

Another studio cut “Kalisz” recalls the trio’s visit to the International Jazz Piano Festival in Kalisz, Poland. The competitive atmosphere led to a certain intensity and an emphasis on sheer virtuosity. Something of that is captured on this energetic, fast moving piece with Wilson again demonstrating his formidable technical abilities. There’s also an extended feature for drummer Tontoh who plays here with a sense of joyous abandon in a series of fiery exchanges with Wilson.

The traditional Malian melody “Remercier les travailleurs” was taught to Wilson by the kora playing griot Madou Sidiki Diabate. The tune appeared on Wilson’s “Mali Latino” album with a vocal by Kandia Kouyate. This version, recorded live at Warwick Arts Centre, makes a highly effective piano trio piece with Wilson’s piano initially approximating the role of the kora and with bassist Davide Mantovani, also a musician thoroughly at home in a variety of world music contexts, excelling on the bass. Wilson’s arrangement goes on to embrace conventional jazz swing in this fascinating blend of styles and traditions.

Tristan Banks replaces Tontoh on the three selections recorded at London’s Pizza Express Jazz Club. The first of these is an arrangement of Miles Davis’ much covered “Solar”. Wilson explains that it was Italian drummer Davide Giovanni who first suggested the idea of arranging the Davis tune as a Cuban danzon. This novel twist works extremely well with Banks’ extensive experience in Cuban bands a positive asset. There’s also an excellent solo from Mantovani, whose own globe-trotting 2012 album “Choices” is reviewed elsewhere on this site.

The QEH set that I witnessed included an impressive and effective interpretation of Sting’s “We Work The Black Seam”. The presence of the late, great Kenny Kirkland at the piano in Sting’s 1980’s band was a formative influence on the teenage Wilson and this version, recorded live at the Pizza, is a tribute to the impression KK left on Wilson all those years ago. The trio’s often hypnotic take on the tune explores Jamaican and hip hop rhythms.

Recorded in the studio Frank Tontoh’s tune “Jasmina” is a joyous celebration of his Ghanaian roots and embraces the Highlife music of West Africa. Frank’s father Mac Tontoh (trumpet) was a founder of the ground-breaking London based Afro/Jazz/Rock group Osibisa back in the 1970’s and Frank later played in subsequent editions of the band (they reformed in 1996). There’s something of the jubilant Osibisa spirit here in the catchy piano melodies and buoyant rhythms with Mantovani delivering a positively celebratory bass solo. Frank’s colourful drumming also features strongly.

From the Warwick Arts Centre performance comes Wilson’s “The Quest”. The pianist’s liner notes explain that he sustained a serious ankle ligament injury just prior to the recording but was determined to press on regardless. He dedicates the piece to anyone engaged on some form of quest. It’s the closest the album gets to a straight ahead ballad, developing from Mantovani’s solo bass introduction to embrace a gently insistent narrative quality. Wilson and Mantovani turn in their most lyrical playing of the album and Tontoh’s sensitive drumming is full of delightful small details. Crucially, however, it could never be considered as bland. 

Also from Warwick bassist Mantovani’s appropriately turbulent “Arab Spring” tosses Middle eastern and North African flavours into the pot. Mantovani describes the piece as “a composition that reflects the ebb and flow of revolution”. Sometimes heavily syncopated it has a restless quality and is the vehicle for some truly virtuoso playing from all three protagonists with Wilson in dazzling form throughout. There’s also an extended feature for the consistently excellent Tontoh.

The album ends at the Pizza with the trio’s take on the jazz standard “What is This Thing Called Love”. As Wilson explains he started out as a house pianist in a variety of London clubs playing at jazz and Latin jam sessions. The choice of this tune harks back to that period and a spirited, sometimes Latin flavoured take includes features for bass and drums with Banks climaxing the piece in a series of exhilarating exchanges with Wilson.

It’s good that Alex Wilson has finally got the music of this excellent trio on to disc. Since I saw them in 2011 they’ve moved on from the American/European model of the piano trio to embrace the various influences of the members and to incorporate the various forms of world music the individuals perform elsewhere. The result is a highly distinctive, some might even say exotic, piano trio that nonetheless still has jazz and improvisation at its core. Both editions of the band sound well integrated and the playing is first class throughout on a selection of material that covers many styles and sources.

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