Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


by Ian Mann

February 19, 2021


In the pared down setting of double bass and tenor sax they explore a variety of moods, styles and techniques in a way that is both necessarily intimate but at times highly forceful.

Andy Champion and Graeme Wilson

“Shoes For Losers”

(New Jazz and Improvised Music Recordings – NEWJAiM4)

Andy Champion – Double Bass
Graeme Wilson -  Tenor Saxophone

This duo recording by bassist Andy Champion and saxophonist Graeme Wilson is the final release in the first tranche of releases from the recently established New Jazz and Improvised Music Recordings label.

The following paragraphs, extracted from my review of the label’s début release, “Calling”  by Danish saxophonist Laura Toxvaerd, explains something of the story behind the new imprint;

“It represents a pretty courageous move to to establish a new record label during the Covid pandemic, but this is precisely what Wesley Stephenson, who describes himself as its “Project Director” has done.

Stephenson is the curator of the annual Newcastle Jazz and Improvised Music Festival and the label represents a direct offshoot of this. The decision to establish a record label came about as the result of the cancellation of the 2020 Festival, which had been due to take place in late September / early October, but which was eventually reduced to just a couple of livestream performances.

Stephenson’s main objective with regard to the establishment of a label at this time was to offer a creative and economic outlet to musicians who had been denied live performance opportunities due to the pandemic.

The label set up was assisted by a successful Crowdfunder campaign and the new imprint is currently rolling out its first four releases. An ethos of sustainability also informs the project with the label deploying a carbon neutral manufacturing plant and distribution network and using recycled and biodegradable materials wherever possible.

The new label plans to issue six releases between December 2020 and April 2021, with the first four currently available on its Bandcamp page;

In chronological release order the first four albums are;

Laura Toxvaerd – “Calling”

Paul Taylor – “Via” (solo piano)

John Pope Quintet - “Mixed With Glass”

Andy Champion and Graeme Wilson Duo - “Shoes For Losers”

I was initially inclined to publish a feature on the new label and to review all of the recordings as part of the same article. On reflection I decided that it would be fairer to the musicians involved for the albums to be reviewed as separate entities, thus granting greater exposure to the individual artists. As might be deduced from the name of the new label much of the music is at the more adventurous end of the jazz spectrum, with its roots in free jazz and the avant garde”.

This final recording in the first batch of NEWJAIM releases features two of the North East’s leading jazz musicians, bassist Andy Champion and saxophonist Graeme Wilson.

Like the other albums in the series it benefits from the support of Arts Council England and from a number of regional arts bodies in the North East, plus individual donors, all of whom receive due credit in the album packaging.

Champion and Wilson have worked together regularly as members of each other’s groups. The saxophonist was part of Champion’s prog jazz quintet ACV and appears on both of that ensemble’s albums, “Fail In Wood” (2010) and the excellent “Busk” (2013). Both are reviewed elsewhere on The Jazzmann.

Champion is also well known for his work with his wife and song-writing partner Zoe Gilby and the fruits of their labours can be heard on the albums “Looking Glass” (2010) and “Twelve Stories”  (2013), released under Gilby’s name.

The couple are also involved in a number of other projects fronted by Gilby, including the band Living In Shadows, a less obviously jazz orientated outlet for their song-writing that also embraces elements of prog and indie rock. The recently “Living In Shadows” album also features telling guest contributions from Wilson. Review here;

Gilby and Champion have also recorded the limited edition EP “Voice & Bass”, which does what it says on the tin and includes a stunning version of Nick Drake’s “River Man”.

Featuring on electric bass Champion is also part of the electro-improvising trio Shiver, led by guitarist Chris Sharkey, with whom he has recorded a series of EPs.

Glasgow born Wilson has worked as a sideman with many of the North East’s leading jazz musicians, notably pianist Paul Edis and guitarist Mark Williams, as well as leading his own quartet. Also featuring Champion and Edis, plus drummer Adam Sinclair, the Wilson quartet has released two excellent albums, “Sure Will Hold A Boat” (2016) and “Abscondit” (2019), both of which have been reviewed elsewhere on The Jazzmann.

“Abscondit” included the track “A Raised Eyebrow”, a bass and tenor sax duo recording of a Wilson composition that was recorded at Champion’s home studio in Gateshead.
This duet, plus the album as a whole, was very favourably reviewed by The Jazzmann and my review of the “Abscondit” album can be found here;

The success of this piece (and possibly the positive reaction to it) encouraged Champion and Wilson to explore the duo format further, this time taking it into the realms of freely improvised music.

Valentine’s Day 2020 found the two musicians ensconced in Champion’s home studio in Gateshead where they documented a series of ten improvised duets. Although deeply rooted in the language of jazz the duo coax an impressive range of sounds from their respective instruments and also embrace an admirably broad range of moods and dynamics.

The duo commence with the whimsically titled “Golf With Sausages”, propelled by Champion’s muscular but agile double bass, with the strings sometimes allowed to slap against the fingerboard to give a percussive effect. Wilson’s sax provides a melodic counterpoint as the duo spar playfully with each other, with Wilson’s tenor probing gently.

“The Indecision II”  is more sombre in tone and commences with a passage of unaccompanied double bass, with Champion’s deep, melodic pizzicato joined by the ruminations of Wilson’s tenor. Although entirely improvised a sense of melody and structure prevails throughout the piece, an indication of the instinctive rapport between these two highly accomplished and empathic musicians.

It’s Wilson’s tenor that introduces “Raisins Hotel”, bringing an air of urgency to the piece as the pair continue to bounce ideas off each other in highly absorbing fashion.  The mood darkens in the second half of the piece as the duo probe more deeply and begin to hint at more obviously ‘avant garde’ elements within their sound.

The ‘avant garde’ aspect gains greater traction on “Sinking Below The Horizon” as the duo begin to investigate the world of extended techniques with Champion exploring the percussive qualities of the bass as Wilson expands into the realms of multiphonics.

“It Wasn’t Always Like This” is less extreme but still contains traces of similar elements. Like all of the pieces on the album this musical conversation is rigorous but succinct, no improvisation is allowed to outstay its welcome.

Title track “Shoes For Losers” is perhaps the most atmospheric on the record. It features the deep,  grainy sounds of Champion’s bowed bass and the harsh multiphonics of Wilson’s tenor. It’s the most obviously ‘avant garde’ track thus far, and in this respect arguably the most challenging – but it’s also one of the most evocative.

“Jitters” features a suitably animated conversation, but with the two participants very much on the same musical wavelength.

“The Indecision I” is a companion piece to its similarly named predecessor, but its position in the album running order is guaranteed to leave listeners scratching their heads. Champion’s forceful plucking again makes use of his instrument’s percussive capabilities, with Wilson again providing a melodic and inventive foil.

“I Can’t Get Out” represents a second foray deep into avant garde territory and the world of extended technique. Conventional bass and saxophone sounds are abandoned as each player investigates the full scope of the percussive possibilities of their respective instruments, Champion presumably deploying the body of the bass and Wilson the keypads of the saxophone. The results are both fascinating and strangely compelling.

The album concludes with “Carom!”, which has since inspired the formation of an improvising quartet of the same name featuring Champion, Wilson, Zoe Gilby (vocals) and Christian Alderson (of the group Archipelago) on drums. This new group made its public début in Autumn 2020 as part of the Tusk Virtual Festival.

Musically the piece “Carom!” features the duo bowing out by playing hell for leather with powerfully plucked, highly percussive double bass combining with the belligerent wail of Wilson’s tenor, with Champion also flourishing the bow in dramatic fashion as the piece progresses. It’s a rousing and enthralling way to conclude this absorbing series of duets.

Fully improvised recordings are not always the easiest ones to describe, but hopefully I have managed to do some kind of justice to the efforts and Champion and Wilson.

In the pared down setting of double bass and tenor sax they explore a variety of moods, styles and techniques in a way that is both necessarily intimate but at times highly forceful. Their rapport is natural and unforced and their musical conversations flow in a highly organic manner, with each of the relatively short pieces possessing its own inner logic. The standard of the playing is excellent throughout, and this is very much a partnership of equals.

Thanks to its firm roots in the jazz tradition this is music that remains accessible to the listener,  even during its most challenging moments. But by the same token the duo never make any concessions to the merely ‘pretty’ or ‘atmospheric’.

Wholly improvised music isn’t for everybody, but this series of succinct musical conversations, conducted in the language of jazz, makes for thoroughly absorbing listening. It’s an album that could represent a good entry point to the world of free improvisation for adventurously inclined listeners.

Congratulations to Wesley Stephenson on the release of the first four albums on his new label. The next batch of releases will be awaited with much interest and anticipation.

blog comments powered by Disqus