by Ian Mann
June 14, 2017
The quintet’s multi-faceted pieces were full of delightful colour and detail but for all their sophistication remained wholly accessible and unfailingly melodic.
Alison Rayner Quintet, Brecon Jazz Club, The Muse Arts Centre, Brecon, 13/06/2017.
Bassist and composer Alison Rayner has been a stalwart of the UK 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 80s jazz boom along with Loose Tubes, Jazz Warriors and others. I’ve seen her perform live on a couple of occasions with trumpeter Chris Hodgkins’ quartet and Rayner’s other regular engagements include the Deirdre Cartwright Group and Terryazoome, the Greek flavoured jazz group led by guitarist/bouzouki player Terry Hunt.
For more than twenty five years Rayner and guitarist 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. Rayner is also an acclaimed educator who has taught at a wide array of colleges and summer schools.
Despite enjoying a long and distinguished career Rayner’s recorded début as a bandleader didn’t come until 2014 and the release of “August”, a live album featuring her highly melodic original compositions. Appropriately the recording was made at Rayner’s spiritual home The Vortex and featured a quintet line up of Rayner and Cartwright plus Diane McLoughlin (tenor & soprano saxes), Steve Lodder (piano & keyboards) and Buster Birch (drums & percussion).
“August” was very well received by critics and audiences alike and the success of the album led to a follow up studio recording, the excellent “A Magic Life” which was jointly financed by the Arts Council of England and a number of private sponsors and released in 2016. The album featured the same personnel and built upon the success of its predecessor with McLoughlin and Lodder also contributing material to the repertoire. “A Magic Life” was similarly well received and the ARQ, as the group like to be known, has toured extensively. I was fortunate enough to cover a performance by the band at a Birmingham Jazz event at the Red Lion in Hockley in November 2016.
Rayner also has close musical ties with Brecon having first performed at Brecon Jazz Festival with the Guest Stars back in the day. The seeds for tonight’s event were sown more recently when 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.
With that in mind when Alison and I spoke at that Birmingham gig in 2016 I suggested that she might like to contact Lynne Gornall of Brecon Jazz Club with a view to bringing her own group to Brecon. Contact was made and tonight’s event became a reality with BJC’s youngest recruit, aspiring young promoter Jamie Huish, organising the performance in conjunction with the Club. A capacity audience ensured that the event was a triumph for Jamie, and as I kind of had a vested interest in the success of the evening I was rather pleased too.
Frequent touring has ensured that ARQ are a particularly tight and well balanced band and their cohesion was readily apparent throughout the evening as they brought the melodic contemporary jazz compositions of Rayner, McLoughlin and Lodder to life. Performed over the course of two sets the material was largely sourced from the “Magic Life” and “August” albums and the relaxed nature of the performances suggested that the band were really enjoying themselves, something that a glorious summer’s evening and a large and appreciative crowd encouraged.
As at the Birmingham show the quintet opened with Rayner’s “Musicophilia”, a tune about the effect of music on people’s lives that was inspired by the great German bassist and composer Eberhard Weber. Rayner stated the initial melody on the bass prior to further solos from McLoughlin on tenor sax, Cartwright on guitar and Rayner again at the bass. But ARQ is about far more than just solos. Rayner’s consistently melodic brand of contemporary jazz skilfully combines melody, texture and rhythm, skilfully blending the components together in a way that Pat Metheny might be proud of. Indeed Rayner’s writing frequently exhibits a similar gift for melody and her tuneful compositions are given an impressive breadth and colour by a gifted and well drilled band.
Also from the latest album “Swanage Bay” with its bitter-sweet memories of childhood holidays in Dorset was the perfect choice for this summer’s evening with its wistful, subtly blues inflected melodies. Again introduced by Rayner at the bass this piece saw McLoughlin moving to soprano sax, her keening solo expressing a yearning and nostalgia that was balanced by the flowing lyricism of Lodder’s piano solo.
McLoughlin’s “New Day”, introduced by the shimmer of Birch’s cymbals, was very much in keeping with the ARQ aesthetic with its folk tinged melodies and theme of ‘no regrets’. Originally written as a large ensemble piece the quintet arrangement embraced a variety of colours, textures and dynamics and acted as the vehicle for expansive but absorbing solos from Cartwright on guitar, Lodder on piano and the composer on tenor sax.
The quintet harked back to the “August” album for the Rayner composition “Half A World Away”. Introduced by drums and piano the piece subtly combined modal jazz influences with Latin flavourings, almost achieving a kind of cerebral funk at times. This provided the springboard for cogent solos from McLoughlin on tenor, Cartwright on guitar and Lodder on piano prior to an unexpectedly quiet fade.
Staying with the first album the poignant ballad “August” was written in the beautiful surroundings of the French countryside at a time when Rayner’s personal life was in something of a crisis. The bitter-sweet circumstances of its writing were expressed via the composer’s melodic bass playing, shades of Weber again, in an opening duet with Lodder’s keyboard. The gentle brooding of McLoughlin’s tenor and Birch’s sensitive brushwork also added to the atmosphere.
A lengthy first set concluded with “Queer Bird”, another tune from the “August” album and one that Rayner has also performed and recorded with the Chris Hodgkins Quartet, a group that also includes McLoughlin. With its bebop flavourings and tips of the hat in the directions of Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus this was the most obviously orthodox ‘jazz’ piece of the night. Lodder’s feature was a potted history of jazz piano and included some Monk-ish allusions as he shared the solos with McLoughlin on tenor, Cartwright on guitar and finally Birch at the drums as an excellent first half drew to an energetic close.
It took Rayner some time to quieten the audience down after the break, conversation was clearly king in this close knit corner of Mid Wales. One or two people even carried on chatting after the music had started, something I’ve not previously noticed at Brecon Jazz Club and something that I hope I don’t see repeated.
A shorter second set began with the title track from “A Magic Life” which began in ruminative fashion with the rich, low sound of Rayner’s bowed bass combining effectively with the higher registers of McLoughlin’s soprano sax. Despite the reflective start the mood was ultimately celebratory with Rayner’s melodies displaying a Celtic influence in honour of her maternal ancestry and acting as the framework for exultant solos from McLoughlin, Lodder and Cartwright plus a pithy drum feature from Birch. Towards the close Rayner picked up the bow again for a final restatement of the theme.
From the same album came the brief “Friday’s Child”, a delightful dedication to Rayner’s late mother, the title derived from the children’s nursery rhyme. This was another piece to feature Rayner’s melodic pizzicato bass playing with Lodder’s piano lyricism, McLoughlin’s warm toned tenor and Birch’s deft and subtle brushwork also worthy of praise.
Lodder’s three part “The OK Chorale” is the longest piece on the “Magic Life” album and is an ambitious piece of writing that combines a variety of jazz styles. Here the linked sections formed the basis for fluent solos from Cartwright on guitar, McLoughlin on tenor, Birch at the drums and Lodder himself on the closing chorale.
From the “Magic Life” album Rayner’s “The Trunk Call” has established itself as something of an audience favourite. The composer has described the piece as “a paean to the beautiful and majestic elephant” and the music itself is inspired by the rhythms played by the drummers at a Keralan temple festival. Here Birch’s colourful, polyrhyhtmic drumming introduced a piece whose melodies embodied both the lugubriousness and playfulness of the elephants and the joie de vivre of the Indian festival at which Rayner saw them. Indeed there’s a joyousness about much of Rayner’s writing, the majority of which has its roots in personal experiences. Every piece seemed to have a story that the verbally lucid Rayner was keen to share with her audience. Yes, there are moments of poignancy, nostalgia and regret but in the main Rayner’s music is a celebration, “A Magic Life” indeed. Here that joy was given voice via solos from Lodder on piano, Cartwright on guitar and Rayner on both arco and pizzicato bass.
The deserved and inevitable encore saw Rayner reaching deep into her compositional archive for “Portrait Of Jaco”, a funky but melodic celebration of the late, great Mr. Pastorius which saw Lodder adopting a classic electric piano sound on his Korg Kronos keyboard and leading off the solos, swiftly followed by the excellent Cartwright on guitar who introduced an element of humour into the proceedings and clearly relished the opportunity to ‘rock out’. McLoughlin took over on hard edged, soulful tenor with Rayner and Birch also featuring before the close with Cartwright’s guitar offering imaginative punctuation to Birch’s contribution.
Despite the unwanted audience chattering just after the break this was an excellent gig for the quintet with the Brecon audience fully buying into this original music, something reflected in very brisk CD sales after the gig. It’s comparatively rare for London based bands to visit Brecon on the regular Jazz Club programme and the universally high standard of the musicianship was greatly appreciated by a discerning, and largely attentive, crowd. The delight that this band take in playing together had clearly transmitted itself to the audience.
Perhaps even more impressive than the playing was the quality of the writing, particularly from leader Rayner. The quintet’s multi-faceted pieces were full of delightful colour and detail but for all their sophistication remained wholly accessible and unfailingly melodic.
This was one of the great nights at Brecon Jazz Club with huge credit due to Alison Rayner and her Quintet and also young promoter Jamie Huish. This was an event that will live in the memories of the audience for a long time.
Finally thanks to Alison and Deirdre for taking the time to chat with me after the gig. Hopefully we will see them in Brecon again before too long.