Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019

by Ian Mann

December 14, 2017


Music that lies firmly within the jazz tradition but which is still intensely personal, and thoroughly engaged with the issues of the modern world.

Andrew Bain

“Embodied Hope”

(Whirlwind Recordings WR4715)

In late 2016 the Scottish born drummer and composer Andrew Bain assembled a stellar four piece band that became known as the “Embodied Hope Quartet”, so called after the suite of the same name that Bain had written specifically for an Arts Council supported UK tour by the group.

With the exception of the leader the band was essentially American and featured Jon Irabagon on tenor saxophone, George Colligan on piano and US born, London based Michael Janisch, founder of Whirlwind Recordings, on double bass.

I was disappointed not to be able to attend any of the gigs on the tour but a live performance by the Embodied Hope Quartet was reviewed for the Jazzmann by guest contributor Sean Wilkie who very much enjoyed their two sets at the much missed Dempsey’s venue in Cardiff. Sean’s review of the Dempsey’s show can be read here;

Shortly after the Dempsey’s performance the quartet went into Wincraft Studios in the Cotswolds to record the eight part “Embodied Hope Suite” with Bain producing, assisted by an engineering team of James Towler, Alex Bonney and Peter Beckmann.

Bain first learned to play the drums with Alan Cleobury-Jones before going on to study at the Guildhall School of Music in London and then at the Manhattan School of Music in New York where he lived between 2001 and 2007. Since returning to the UK he has been an active presence on the London, Birmingham and Scottish jazz scenes and holds posts as Senior Lecturer in Jazz at Birmingham Conservatoire and Artistic Director of Jazz for the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland.

Among those with whom Bain has performed are trumpeters Wynton Marsalis, Kenny Wheeler, Randy Brecker and Andre Canniere, saxophonists Paul Booth and Sir John Dankworth and vocalists Jacqui Dankworth and Natalie Cole. He has also been part of bands led by his Embodied Hope Quartet colleagues Janisch and Colligan.

“The Embodied Hope Suite” is a semi-conceptual work, the music inspired by the issues of human rights, community and social transformation and their relationship to jazz and improvisation. Bain takes jazz as a metaphor for positive change in the world, and the suite is based on seven aspects – listening, surprise, accompaniment, practice, responsibility, trust and, ultimately, hope.

Bain explains that, rather than counting himself as a composer, he’s a writer of music for improvisers:
“Like all good music written with improvisation in mind, Embodied Hope starts with an idea and a vibe, as well as melodies, chord sequences, solo sections and as many boundaries as I want to provide. But apart from that, it’s all in flux and very much up to the band, even in terms of suite order, solo order, etc. I trust these guys with where they take things – an experimental journey evolving on the road, night after night”. 

Bain’s point is illustrated by that Cardiff performance where the band stretched out so far on their solos that is was only possible to play five of the seven movements.
“The best music that I play is with musicians I really trust”, Bain has said. “Not that it’s cosy and we all know what we’re going to do, but that we’re comfortable to push each other, over and over, with every performance. When you’re in that space, there are so many things the music could be… and that’s as good as it gets”. 

Given the loftiness of the album’s theme and with the individual movements having significantly weighty one word titles it’s perhaps not so surprising that the music owes something to the 1960s output of John Coltrane. There’s that same sense of striving and a vague air of an undefined spirituality.

However this is not a Coltrane tribute record and Bain and his colleagues are far more than mere copyists. This is Coltrane inspired post bop with a very contemporary edge with Bain’s approach helping to generate a music that lies firmly within the jazz tradition but which is still intensely personal, and thoroughly engaged with the issues of the modern world.

Bain writes at the piano and has created an engaging set of melodic themes for his colleagues to improvise around. Opener “Accompaniment” is like an incantation as Irabagon’s tenor sketches the melody above the gently rolling thunder of Colligan’s piano and the sound of Bain’s cymbal shimmers and mallet rumbles. Colligan then takes over with a searching piano solo backed by the bustle of the leader’s brushes and the dark, resinous sound of Janisch’s bowed bass. Irabagon then returns, more powerfully and incisively this time as his colleagues orbit around him. Bain admits that the piece started life as a ballad, going on to explain;
“‘Accompaniment’ was originally intended as the ballad, a moment of solace. But as we rehearsed, it became this classic Coltrane rumble-and-tumble, elevating it with some kind of higher energy. So, importantly, I realised that together we had decided this was something different, and it became the opener to the suite.” 

There’s an essential joyousness about the twelve minute “Hope” which commences with the piping of Irabagon’s tenor combined with an uplifting melody played by Colligan at the piano. The saxophonist takes over the melodic reins as the piece begins to develop, using them as the basis for a fluent, probing solo that sees him taking joyous flight, very much in the spirit of Coltrane but still sounding like himself. Colligan, Janisch and, particularly, Bain offer powerful and empathic support. Colligan eventually takes over with a vibrant extended passage of unaccompanied piano that epitomises the spirit of the piece. This evolves into an ebullient Tyner-esque solo that rolls and tumbles energetically with Bain’s crisp, busy, colourful drumming providing galvanising support. Irabagon’s tenor returns in the closing stages as the energy levels build yet further and at the fade it sounds like there was actually a load more to come - no wonder the band stretched out so far at Dempsey’s. Breathlessly invigorating stuff.

Janisch’s bass introduces “Practice” and remains central to a bebop flavoured piece that moves up and down the gears but includes a barnstorming piano solo from Colligan in which he demonstrates a hurtling fluency. He’s followed by a surging tenor solo from Irabagon as Janisch and Bain again provide suitably busy and propulsive support. Bain’s hyperactive drumming, which combines power with fine detail, is a constant source of delight here and throughout the album.

Perhaps appropriately, the leader kick starts “Responsibility” from the drums. The grooves here are almost funky and Irabagon sounds more like Michael Brecker than John Coltrane. Colligan delivers another tumultuous solo, one that contains a veiled Steely Dan quote ( from “Josie”, if I’ve identified it correctly).  There’s also an excellent bass feature from Janisch that combines his customary virtues of resonance, dexterity and sheer musicality. Bain also returns to the fore towards the close with a series of imaginative drum breaks.

“Surprise” is also introduced by Bain at the drums and features a boppish theme which encourages buccaneering solos from Irabagon and Colligan, but in a deliberately fragmented way with the pair consistently interrupting one another as Bain’s writing toys with conventional tune structures. However the leader’s extended drum feature towards the close is more of a nod to jazz traditions. It’s as colourful and inventive as ever, of course.

The introduction to “Listening” initially appears to be freely structured, perhaps fully improvised but Bain reveals that it is in fact the confluence of “ten specific lines of melody written in a similar key centre (albeit with no set tempo)”. When these eventually converge the piece really lifts off with vibrant Latin rhythms underpinning the urgent surge of Irabagon’s tenor. Colligan subsequently takes over with a feverish solo that combines Latin flourishes with a Tyner-esque intensity. There’s also a set of fiery drum breaks from Bain as he exchanges ideas with the front line soloists.

The eleven minute “Trust” ends the album on a positive note, the anthemic theme acting as the springboard for richly inventive and imaginative solos from Colligan and Irabagon, the latter really soaring on tenor. Appropriately there’s also something of a feature for Bain as his drums come into focus prior to a valedictory finale reminiscent of the ‘spiritual jazz’ of the 60s and 70s.

Finally there’s a brief reprise of “Hope”, clocking in at a little over a minute and a half and featuring Irabagon’s tenor in full flight. Bearing in mind how the second track ended it feels like “unfinished business”.

After finally hearing the Embodied Hope Quartet I can now appreciate why Sean was so excited about that Cardiff performance. Bain has surrounded himself with some exceptional musicians and they all perform brilliantly. But this album is about more than the quality of the soloing, superb though it is. Bain has provided the quartet with some excellent material to work with and makes inventive use of a range of interesting and inventive compositional devices. In addition to this his own playing is a revelation as he combines power with detail and precision in a bright, busy, colourful and imaginative display behind the kit.

Let’s hope Bain gets the opportunity to tour this material again. This time I’ll be there to see it.


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