Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


by Ian Mann

November 04, 2014


The album represents a good portrait of Alison Rayner as both a musician and composer. There's a joie de vivre about "August" that makes for very enjoyable listening.

Alison Rayner Quintet


(Blow The Fuse Records BTF1411CD)

Bass player 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 80s jazz boom—Loose Tubes, Jazz Warriors and all that. 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 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. Rayner is also an acclaimed educator who has taught at a wide array of colleges and summer schools. 

Despite her lengthy career as a professional musician “August” represents Rayner’s début recording as a leader and the album successfully ties together many of the strands of her numerous musical influences. The album title is a reference both to the composition of the same name and the fact that this is a live recording made at her spiritual home The Vortex in August 2013. Rayner is joined by two of her closest musical associates, guitarist Deirdre Cartwright and saxophonist Diane McLoughlin with pianist Steve Lodder and drummer Buster Birch completing the line up. Guardian journalist John Fordham provides the liner notes and Rayner’s own thumbnail sketches also shed light on the mainly all original programme - an interesting and innovative arrangement of The Beatles’ “Fixing A Hole” represents the only cover.

Rayner began playing bass guitar in the 1970s, only making the transition to acoustic double bass in 1990. Her early bass heroes were Jaco Pastorius and Stanley Clarke and the opening track, “Mr Stanley II” pays tribute to the latter, a significant influence on Rayner’s move towards jazz following a childhood listening to pop, rock and soul. Rayner immediately locks in with Birch to produce a hard hitting, funk style groove that is balanced by the sweeter, soulful contributions of Lodder on piano and McLoughlin on soprano sax. It’s McLoughlin who takes the first solo on sinuously wriggling soprano, this followed by an expansive solo from the impressive Lodder. Cartwright’s entrance is delayed but she makes up for lost time with a spirited series of exchanges with McLoughlin and a brief but incisive solo. The Vortex audience give the quintet an enthusiastic reception.

There is a change of mood for the title track, a reflective piece written in the South of France, the beauty of the surroundings contrasting with the sorrows caused by family bereavements and the ending of a long term relationship. Rayner states the melody on bass accompanied only by Lodder at the piano before McLoughlin’s tenor takes over allied to Cartwright’s pure toned guitar. The composer is the principal soloist, her tone rich and resonant but unmistakably melancholy. She receives wonderfully sympathetic support from her colleagues in a beautifully controlled ballad performance.

“Half A World Away” combines modal jazz and subtle Latin flavourings with fluent and elegant solos McLoughlin on tenor and Cartwright on guitar plus a more exuberant outing from Lodder on piano as the music subtly mutates during the course of the tune.

The music of The Beatles was an important part of Rayner’s youth. She describes her arrangement of “Fixing A Hole” from “Sergeant Pepper” as “my take on this great song with a moment where the hole just isn’t getting fixed”. It’s an apt description as following an initial statement of the melody by McLoughlin’s tenor the music shades off into more obviously improvised territory with a playfully rumbustious episode of free jazz. McLoughlin and Lodder later add more conventional jazz solos and overall this is one of the most convincing jazz arrangements of a Beatles song that I’ve heard.

Rayner wrote “Vejer De La Frontera” in honour of a beautiful medieval hilltop town in Andalucia and speaks of its distinctive Moorish influence. Her bass introduces the piece in conjunction with Cartwright’s softly picked guitar and Birch’s atmospheric cymbal shimmers and percussion. It’s a highly descriptive piece with a gorgeous melody, further evidence of Rayner’s gift for coming up with memorable tunes. There’s some delightful ensemble playing plus a coolly elegant solo from Cartwright and sensuous, North African inflected soprano from McLoughlin. There follows a richly evocative passage featuring the leader’s bass on a piece that Fordham describes as a “tone poem” and one whose beauty is warmly appreciated by the Vortex crowd.

Rayner’s composition “Queer Bird” first appeared on the Chris Hodgkins Trio album “Present Continuous (2005), a recording that also featured guitarist Max Brittain. McLoughlin was later added to expand the group to a quartet. Rayner describes this swinging quintet arrangement as being influenced by “bebop, Monk and the Muppets”. I’m not sure about the latter (except maybe the sheer sense of fun) but I can hear Thelonious in there, especially on Lodder’s rollicking solo that includes a brief episode of unaccompanied piano. Birch later enjoys an extended drum break (so maybe we’re talking about Animal here). Great fun.

The good humour continues over into the following “Dig Over”, Rayner’s nod to the funk grooves of Sly and the Family Stone (it’s even subtitled “thankyoufalettinmefeelfunky”). The composer’s bass is at the heart of the infectious funk grooves and there are good natured solos from the nimble fingered Cartwright on guitar, McLoughlin on earthy tenor sax and Birch (briefly at the drums). A word too for Cartwright’s skilful, highly rhythmic comping.

Rayner originally wrote the composition “String Theory” for Cartwright’s “Dr. Quantum” album. This arrangement combines breezy funk grooves with a Metheny like sense of melody and structure. It’s a charming piece that includes solos from both Cartwright and Rayner plus Lodder at the piano.  McLoughlin rounds off the solos on tenor and there’s an essential joyousness to the piece that makes for delightful listening.

“Elegy For Art” is Rayner’s dedication to her late father and earliest musical influence, Arthur Philip Rayner. Written as a hymn for his funeral it’s an appropriately solemn piece that begins as a duet for bass and guitar, Rayner stating the melody above Cartwright’s subtle texturing. McLoughlin’s sax subsequently carries the tune in a beautiful ensemble performance that also finds room for some delightful guitar and piano fills. It’s a lovely tribute and there’s a great poignancy about the fact that neither of Rayner’s parents lived long enough to see the release of her début solo album. 

The album ends on an upbeat note with “Hyperbubble”, another up-tempo groover that Rayner describes as “a 60s style soul jazz groove”. The piece was originally written for Cartwright’s “Precious Things” album with Rayner citing the influence of such diverse figures as Cannonball Adderley and Ernest Ranglin. There are judicious splashes of dub reggae elements among the propulsive jazz grooves with lively solos coming from Cartwright, McLoughlin and Lodder, the exuberance of the playing again communicating itself to the Vortex crowd. Lodder, in particular, seems energised just by being in this quintet and he plays with a rare abandon throughout. 

There’s nothing particularly ground breaking about the music on “August” but the album represents a good portrait of Alison Rayner as both a musician and composer. It’s a well crafted and well programmed set that touches many bases and the warm atmosphere and excitement of the live event is transmitted through the CD grooves. The well established rapport between Rayner, Cartwright and McLoughlin is apparent throughout, Lodder is in terrific form and Birch’s drumming is right on the money. There’s a joie de vivre about “August” that makes for very enjoyable listening.

Blow The Fuse will be presenting an afternoon of music featuring bands led by female instrumentalists at the Southbank Centre as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival. Details as below;

Blow the Fuse presents?
Sunday 23 November 2014 | 2:00PM
Southbank Centre / Front Room
Belvedere Road

Blow the Fuse celebrate their 25th anniversary with an afternoon of groups led by female instrumentalists - Chelsea Carmichael Quartet (2pm), Baluji Shrivastav / Deirdre Cartwright Ensemble (3pm), Roz Harding’s Wave (4pm) and Alison Rayner’s ARQ (6pm).

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