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Alison Rayner Quintet

Alison Rayner Quintet (ARQ), The Hive Music & Media Centre, Shrewsbury, 10 / 02 / 2018.

Photography: Photograph sourced from the Gallery at the Shrewsbury Jazz Network website [url=][/url]

by Ian Mann

February 15, 2018


Rayner’s compositions gave each individual member the chance to shine and each one brought something of their own musical personality to the proceedings.

Alison Rayner Quintet (ARQ), The Hive Music & Media Centre, Shrewsbury, 10/02/2018.

This pleasingly well attended event saw bassist, composer and band leader Alison Rayner bringing her well established quintet to Shrewsbury for the first time.

I have been fortunate enough to review two previous performances by ARQ at Birmingham and Brecon, plus both of the band’s albums, the live recording “August” (2014) and the follow up studio set “A Magic Life” (2016).

Both albums featured this evening’s line up with Rayner leading from the double bass accompanied by Deirdre Cartwright (guitar), Diane McLoughlin (tenor & soprano saxophones) Steve Lodder (keyboards), and Buster Birch (drums & percussion).

Both recordings have been notable as showcases for Rayner’s compositional skills. Her pieces are inventive, colourful and unfailingly melodic, possessed of a strong narrative and cinematic quality and frequently inspired by personal experiences. From my previous sightings of the band I just knew that ARQ would prove to be a big hit with the Shrewsbury audience – and so it proved.

Rayner had been a significant figure on the UK jazz scene long before she made her recording début as a leader. The following biographical details, shamelessly lifted from an earlier review, give some indication as to her previous achievements;

“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”. 

Tonight’s performance at Shrewsbury presented material from both ARQ albums plus two new Rayner compositions which should subsequently appear on the group’s planned third album.

The quintet commenced with their usual opener “Musicophilia”, a piece from the second album inspired by the writings of the neurologist Oliver Sacks and the music of the great German bassist and composer Eberhard Weber. Introduced by Rayner at the bass and with McLoughlin stating the opening theme on tenor the piece quickly demonstrated Rayner’s mastery of colour and texture and her ear for a good tune. Solos subsequently came from Cartwright on guitar and the composer on double bass, but ultimately ARQ’s music is about more than just solos.  Rayner’s consistently melodic brand of contemporary jazz skilfully combines melody, texture and rhythm, expertly 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.

From the same album came “Swanage Bay”, not a paean to the jazz festival but instead a subtly blues tinged piece expressing a bitter-sweet nostalgia for seaside family holidays back in the 1960s. Again Rayner ushered the tune in from the bass, this time accompanied by Birch’s filigree cymbal work. The piece saw McLoughlin switching to soprano to deliver a liltingly melodic theme statement and a subtly probing solo. She was followed by the consistently inventive Cartwright on guitar and finally Lodder at the keyboard, adopting a lyrical acoustic piano sound on his Korg Kronos Music Workstation.

The group harked back to their first album for “Half A World Away”,  generally a more upbeat piece with its Latin inflected grooves generating joyous solos from McLoughlin on tenor, Cartwright on spiralling guitar and Lodder on exuberant, percussive piano.

The second album found other members of the quintet adding compositions to the group’s repertoire. McLoughlin’s “New Day”, with its message of optimism and positivity fitted perfectly into the ARQ aesthetic. Originally written as a large ensemble piece it was introduced here by Birch’s cymbals with piano and bass quickly added to the mix. Birch stated the theme on tenor before handing over to Cartwright whose solo included a lengthy passage in the guitar trio format. Lodder subsequently took over with a splendidly animated piano solo before the composer finally cut loose on tenor.

Many of Rayner’s compositions are inspired by her travels to various corners of the globe and her anecdotes about the inspirations behind her pieces added much enjoyment for the audience. Typifying this approach was the new tune “Croajingalong Bush Walk”, written after a recent visit to Australia. Introduced by Birch with a drum roll and a cymbal crash the piece evoked a genuine Aboriginal feel courtesy of Birch’s mallet rumbles and Rayner’s hand held percussion allied to the ‘jew’s harp’ like sounds generated by Cartwright’s guitar. With Rayner subsequently playing both bowed and pizzicato bass this piece was atmospheric, quirky and playful by turns – and also richly evocative. The featured soloists were McLoughlin on tenor, Rayner on plucked bass, Lodder at the piano and Birch with a closing drum feature.

The first set concluded with the Rayner composition “Queer Bird”, a piece recorded for the “August” album that had previously featured in the repertoire of the Chris Hodgkins Quartet.
With its strong bebop flavourings this was the closest that the quintet got to conventional jazz with Cartwright adopting an orthodox jazz guitar sound for her agile and fluent solo. She was followed by McLoughlin on tenor and Lodder on piano, whose lively solo, sometimes unaccompanied, threw elements of stride and boogie woogie into the mix. Finally Birch rounded things off with an engaging drum feature, a great way to end a lengthy, but hugely enjoyable first half.

Set two began with the title track from the “A Magic Life” album with its reflections on “memory, mortality, magic and music”. With McLoughlin on dancing soprano sax the melody included folkish, Celtic elements alluding to Rayner’s Scottish ancestry. Solos here came from Lodder on piano, Cartwright on guitar and McLoughlin on soprano with Birch also enjoying something of a cameo at the drums.

Another new tune, “Colloquy” began with the sound of Rayner’s bass, her melodic lines later intertwining in atmospheric fashion with McLoughlin’s tenor sax as Birch and Lodder provided subtle support. A change of pace came as Rayner established a more muscular, almost funky, bass groove which provided the platform for solos from McLoughlin on tenor and Lodder on piano, the overall ebb and flow of the piece encapsulating something of its theme of conversation and communication.

The mood changed with the ballad “Friday’s Child”, a beautiful dedication to Rayner’s late mother that was sourced from the “Magic Life” album. Initially led by the composer’s bass this was Rayner at her most melodic and Weber like, the sheer beauty of her playing matched by Lodder’s piano lyricism and the warm tones of McLoughlin’s tenor as Birch provided sympathetic brushed support.

The jocular title of Lodder’s “OK Chorale” ( I seem to recall that Ivo Neame has written a tune with the same name) belies a rather splendid composition that is the lengthiest on the “Magic Life” album. Complex, full of dynamic contrasts, but vibrant and ultimately uplifting the piece was the vehicle for expansive solos from McLoughlin on tenor and Cartwright on guitar plus a brief cameo from Birch. The piece was also notable for a thrilling exchange of ideas between Lodder and Rayner as the pianist stretched out.

Sticking with the punning titles Rayner’s “The Trunk Call” paid homage to the beauty of the Indian elephant in another piece inspired by Rayner’s global travels. Introduced by the rumble of Birch’s toms this was a piece with a strong pictorial quality with Rayner capturing something of both the magnificence and playfulness of her chosen subject. Birch’s colourful drumming included rhythmic elements sourced from Indian music while Cartwright adopted a sitar like tone for her guitar solo.
However it was Lodder who featured first on piano, followed by McLoughlin on soprano and then Cartwright, with Birch and Rayner, the latter on pizzicato bass weighing in before the close.

Remaining with the second album the quintet concluded with Rayner’s “Mayday”, a piece inspired by the different meanings of the phrase, from pagan fertility rituals to working class struggle, to the international distress call – a fusion of “red and green elements” as the composer put it. Rayner encouraged the audience to clap along with the rousing hook that opens the piece. With Lodder adopting an organ sound on his keyboard and with Cartwright delivering a powerful, rock influenced guitar solo this was the quintet at their angriest and heaviest. It was all splendidly invigorating with Lodder switching to synth setting for his solo as McLoughlin added muscular tenor sax. A vigorously plucked solo from Rayner presaged a freely structured passage that seemed to epitomise the violence of the social struggle before the ‘hook’ returned and we were clapping along once more.

The crowd loved it and an encore was inevitable. This found Rayner reaching deep into her back catalogue with “Portrait of Jaco”, one of a number pieces she has written in honour of her bass heroes, in this case the late, great Jaco Pastorius. This was pure jazz funk with Lodder now adopting a classic electric piano or ‘Rhodes’ sound as he opened an ebullient round of solos featuring all the members of the quintet. Cartwright came next on guitar, followed by McLoughlin on tenor and then by the leader who, approximated Jaco’s electric sound on acoustic double bass. Birch rounded it all off with a vivacious drum solo, a reward for the crisp, precise colourful drumming that had helped to galvanise the group throughout.

This was an excellent performance from the well honed unit that is ARQ. Rayner’s compositions gave each individual member the chance to shine and each one brought something of their own musical personality to the proceedings.

But overall this was a true band performance with each member serving the compositions faithfully. And what compositions they were, richly nuanced, vibrantly colourful and with a strong sense of narrative and place. More importantly Rayner’s pieces are unfailingly melodic and readily accessible, yet there’s no sense that she is in any way dumbing down to her audiences – rather like Metheny in that regard.

The Shrewsbury audience loved it and the fact that on this occasion I didn’t hear a single whisper of “I wish they’d played more standards” says it all. Coming (or not coming) from a provincial jazz audience after an evening of entirely original music says everything about the skill of the composers, believe me.

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