by Ian Mann
November 03, 2016
This is a particularly well balanced ensemble. The writing by Rayner and the other group members is rich and varied and the arrangements combine brightness and colour with exactitude and precision.
Alison Rayner Quintet
“A Magic Life”
(Blow The Fuse Records BTF1613CD)
(Release date November 18th 2016)
Bassist and composer Alison Rayner has been a stalwart of the British jazz scene for many years and is probably best known for her membership of the Guest Stars, the all female group who emerged at the time of the 1980s jazz boom alongside Loose Tubes and the Jazz Warriors.
I recall seeing her play live with the Guest Stars on the Stroller programme at Brecon Jazz Festival back in the day and I’ve also seen her perform on a couple of occasions with groups led by the trumpeter Chris Hodgkins. More recently Rayner returned to Brecon in 2015 to appear alongside her long term musical associate Deirdre Cartwright at a Festival concert curated by Brecon Jazz Club celebrating the art of the jazz guitar. Besides Cartwright the line up also included the young guitarists Will Barnes and Tom Ollendorff.
For the past twenty five years Rayner and Cartwright have run Blow The Fuse, an organisation dedicated to raising the profile of jazz in the UK with a particular emphasis on promoting the work of female jazz musicians. Besides organising regular club nights (BTF has strong links with London’s Vortex Jazz Club and Rayner is a member of the Vortex Foundation Big Band) the organisation also runs its own record label. An in demand sidewoman Rayner has played acoustic and electric bass across a variety of musical genres including jazz, funk and soul plus various types of world music. Her credits include work with guitarist Tal Farlowe, vocalist Zoe Lewis and jazz poet Jayne Cortez while her regular regular engagements include the Cartwright and Hodgkins groups plus Terryazoome, the Greek flavoured jazz act led by guitarist/bouzouki player Terry Hunt. Rayner is also an acclaimed educator who has taught at a wide array of colleges and summer schools.
Given her long term involvement on the UK jazz scene it was, perhaps, something of a surprise that Rayner’s début recording as a leader didn’t appear until 2014. Released on the Blow The Fuse label “August” was a live recording of a performance at Rayner’s spiritual home The Vortex featuring a quintet including Cartwright on guitar, Diane McLoughlin on saxophones, Steve Lodder on piano and Buster Birch at the drums. With the exception of an imaginative re-working of the Beatles’ tune “Fixing A Hole” the programme consisted entirely of Rayner originals and the album was both hugely enjoyable and “an excellent portrait of Rayner as both a musician and a composer” to paraphrase my good self.
Encouraged by the positive reaction afforded to “August” by fans and critics alike Rayner has retained the same personnel for this worthy follow up, a studio recording jointly financed by the Arts Council of England and a number of private sponsors. The material consists of six new original compositions by Rayner with Lodder and McLoughlin also bringing one tune each to the table.
Although patently not a ‘concept album’ “A Magic Life” does have a founding principle behind it as Rayner explains;
‘I was inspired to call the album A Magic Life because of two recent incidents. The loss of a friend last year, who wrote in her own epitaph about how magic her life had been; then a chance encounter with a young boy, who asked me “Is music stronger than magic?” I replied that to me, music is a merging of magic and logic. These events set me on a course of thinking about connections between memory, mortality, magic – and music.’
As on the previous release Rayner’s notes also shed light on the individual pieces beginning with the title track which is also said to acknowledge Rayner’s mother’s Shetland roots. There’s certainly something of a folk influence on this highly melodic, tightly arranged piece which features the quintet knitting together superbly with McLoughlin’s incisive soprano carrying the melody. There are some superb individual moments too such as Lodder’s cascading piano solo and McLoughlin’s further saxophone explorations. Birch’s quirkily exotic percussion also provides a welcome touch of additional colour.
Rayner began playing bass guitar in the 1970s, only making the transition to acoustic double bass in 1990. Her early bass heroes included Jaco Pastorius and Stanley Clarke but it’s Eberhard Weber who is credited with being one of the inspirations behind her composition “Musicophilia”. The other is the psychologist Oliver Sachs, author of the book “Musicophilia”. “We all, to varying degrees, have music in our heads!” declares Rayner. It’s the leader’s acoustic bass that states the opening melody on a piece that combines attractive melodies with strong grooves and a typically intricate and immaculate arrangement. The featured soloists are Cartwright on guitar and Rayner on bass, both of whom make concise, fluent and eminently melodic statements.
Rayner describes “The Trunk Call” as “a paean to the beautiful and majestic elephant”. The music itself is inspired by the rhythms played by the drummers at a Keralan temple festival. Like much of Rayner’s music the piece exhibits a genuine joie de vivre, something inspired by the quirkily infectious rhythms. Birch is a colourful percussive presence and there are joyous solos from Lodder on jangling, percussive piano, McLoughlin on sinuous saxophone and the leader on appropriately big toned, but highly melodic bass.
There’s also an air of celebration about the following “Mayday” but this is tempered by the anger and frustration expressed via the heaviness of Cartwright’s urgent, rock influenced guitar solo. Rayner, who also features as a soloist, describes the tune as;
“a contrasting piece inspired by readings about the ancient and diverse origins of May Day; a fusion of red and green elements; green being the relationship to the earth and nurturance; red being the relationship to people; useless toil and class struggle”.
McLoughlin takes over the compositional reins with “New Day”, a composition originally written as a large ensemble piece and inspired by a philosophy of “no regrets”. This new quintet arrangement begins in almost courtly fashion and places the emphasis strongly on melody before taking on a harder, more riff based emphasis further into the tune, this providing the jumping off point for a typically incisive Cartwright guitar solo and an exuberant and expansive piano feature from Lodder. The composer’s lucid tenor solo helps to tie any loose ends together prior to a return to the opening theme.
Rayner’s “Swanage Bay” isn’t inspired by the town’s jazz festival as some might have assumed but by family holidays in the area in the 1960s. Therefore there is an intentionally wistful and nostalgic feel about the piece with emotive solos from McLoughlin and Lodder, the latter’s flowing romanticism feeling more like a celebration of lost innocence.
The longest composition on the record is Lodder’s “OK Chorale”, a piece that underwent many changes during the writing process. Episodic in nature and combining several different musical elements the piece fits well into the aesthetic of the album as a whole and includes authoritative solos from Cartwright on guitar and McLoughlin on tenor prior to an extended feature for Birch at the drums. The composer then takes over at the piano, soloing lyrically and expansively before the piece resolves itself.
The album concludes with a second dedication to Rayner’s mother. “Friday’s Child” takes it’s title from the 19th century nursery rhyme and the line “Friday’s Child is loving and giving”. “My mother was both, and more” observes Rayner. Musically the initial focus is very much on the composer’s melodic bass as the inspiration of Eberhard Weber becomes apparent once more – Rayner also acknowledges the late, great Charlie Haden as another significant influence. Lodder also solos with a tender lyricism as does McLoughlin on warm toned tenor. This is an exquisite ballad performance and a suitably beautiful elegy.
“A Magic Life” is a worthy follow up to the excellent “August” with the album succeeding on many fronts. The writing by Rayner and the other group members is rich and varied and the arrangements combine brightness and colour with exactitude and precision. The ensemble playing is commendably disciplined and cohesive while the solos are fluent and imaginative. This is a particularly well balanced group and the co-producers, Rayner and Cartwright, are well served by engineer Chris Lewis who delivers a pinpoint mix.
Rayner and the quintet are currently touring this music with two dates in November 2016 and further performances scheduled for 2017 as detailed below. I hope to catch up with the band at their forthcoming date at The Red Lion in Birmingham.
24 London Vortex Jazz Club (Album launch)
25 Birmingham Jazz, Red Lion
8 Sheffield Lescar
9 Nottingham Jazz Steps, Bonington Theatre
10 Lincoln Jazzpac, the Collection
11 Leeds Jazz at Heart
22 Torquay Speakeasy (tbc)
23 Poole Sound Cellar
24 Exeter Barnfield Theatre