by Ian Mann
March 24, 2017
The quality of both the writing and the playing ensures that the listener's attention is engaged throughout.
Andy Scott + Group S
“Ruby & All Things Purple”
(Basho Records SRCD 52-2)
I’ll admit to knowing nothing about saxophonist and composer Andy Scott until this CD dropped through my letterbox. However it transpires that Scott is a prolific composer for saxophone and flute, both for his own ensembles and those of others, and the intriguingly titled “Ruby & All Things Purple” represents his thirteenth release as a leader, the latest recording in a richly varied catalogue.
A BASCA (British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors) award winner Scott has had a tenor saxophone concerto premièred by Branford Marsalis in conjunction with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Clark Rundell at the World Saxophone Congress.
Scott has toured extensively with the Apollo Saxophone Quartet and with the band SaxAssault, the latter originally formed in Manchester in 1995. In 2016, inspired by Wayne Shorter, Scott changed the name of SaxAssault to Group S, a name more in keeping with the band’s current, multi-faceted approach and expanded instrumental line up.
The fourteen piece Group S still includes an astonishing ten saxophonists and lines up as follows;
Andy Scott – tenor saxophone, bandleader
Rob Buckland – sopranino & soprano saxophones
Krzysztof Urbanski – soprano saxophone
Simon Willescroft- alto & soprano saxophones
Dave Graham – alto saxophone
Mike Hall – tenor saxophone
John Helliwell – tenor saxophone
Rob Cope – tenor & baritone saxophones
Chris Caldwell - baritone saxophone
Jim Fieldhouse – baritone & bass saxophones
Gwilym Simcock – piano
James Pusey – guitar
Laurence Cottle – electric bass
Elliott Henshaw – drums
It’s an unconventional instrumental configuration but Scott’s skills as a composer and arranger ensure that it’s a highly effective one capable of generating an impressive array of collective textures, colours and timbres. The band’s ranks also include some outstanding soloists on a variety of instruments.
“Ruby & All Things Purple” was recorded at Temple Music, the studio owned by saxophonist Barbara Thompson and drummer Jon Hiseman, two hugely influential figures on the UK music scene. Both make guest appearances on the closing track “La Grand Image” with Hiseman drumming and Thompson playing tenor saxophone.
The material consists of eleven original compositions, seven of them by Scott and with Simcock, Hall and Cope also bringing pieces to the table. There’s also an enjoyable Simcock arrangement of the pop song “Sex Bomb”, once an enormous hit for (Sir) Tom Jones. Scott’s liner notes offer valuable insights into the provenance of each piece plus very welcome information as regards the featured soloists.
The album opens with Scott’s title track, named for a family member. A delicate, lyrical prelude features the delicately intertwining baritones of Caldwell and Fieldhouse, both sounding remarkably light and airy on the ‘big horn’. The rest of the piece features overlapping, increasingly complex layers of sound and rhythm that are almost orchestral in scope. These provide the backdrop for powerful solos from Pusey, Graham, Urbanski, Willescroft and Buckland. It’s a good introduction to the Group S sound, one that is less overtly funky than that of Derek Nash’s Sax Appeal band but one that is ultimately more wide ranging and multi-faceted.
Mike Hall was a founder member of the band now known as Group S and his “Sabretooth” combines complex harmonic and rhythmic ideas, explained in detail in the album notes, with an earthy blues based accessibility and a formidable rhythmic drive. This, in turn, helps to fuel blistering solos from Urbanski on soprano and the composer on tenor, the pair skilfully negotiating the tune’s many dynamic changes.
Simcock’s “Chapters”, written for Group S’s concert appearance at the World Saxophone Congress in Strasbourg in 2015 is an altogether gentler affair with lush orchestration and an underlying lyricism. The piece celebrates Simcock’s long term friendships with Cottle and Willescroft and features the pair as soloists with Cottle on liquid electric bass and Willescroft on airy soprano saxophone. The arrangement also features the composer on piano, including a reflective unaccompanied passage towards the close.
Scott’s “Eighteen”, a piece originally written as a composition for solo saxophone, has been arranged, at the suggestion of Iain Ballamy, as a demonstration of the full range of the saxophone family. Thus Buckland is on sopranino sax at one end of the scale and Fieldhouse on the mighty bass sax at the other. Both instruments are seen very rarely and the two musicians interact brilliantly on this lively piece as they play some pretty complex material, ably assisted by drummer Henshaw.
|Named after a magic track Cope’s “Little Glass Box” is a surprisingly tender and lyrical piece with a beautiful melody that acts as the catalyst for sensitive, intelligent solos fro Graham on alto, Simcock on piano and Cope himself on tenor.
Scott’s own “Group S” celebrates the re-naming of the group, something undertaken at the suggestion of the great Wayne Shorter. Scott, Hall and Buckland were among the members of the saxophone section of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra during a concert featuring the ‘Liverpool Phil’ playing with the Wayne Shorter Quartet. The piece is divided into three distinct parts with the intro featuring Cottle’s Jaco Pastorius style electric bass underpinned by the twin baritones of Caldwell and Fieldhouse allied to to Henshaw’s light and splashy cymbal touch. An extended ‘head’ introduces other members of the ensemble and an increasingly lush orchestration before giving way to a sparer soprano solo from Urbanski, his melodic inventions initially supported by just piano, bass and drums before additional saxophonic colours are added to the arrangement. The music then ‘winds down’ via Simcock’s lyrical but inventive piano solo prior a rousing big band climax featuring the intertwining soprano saxes of Urbanski and Buckland.
Although credited to Scott the delightful “Manyara” is a beautiful solo piano performance by Gwiym Simcock. The pianist had recorded with Scott before on the 2007 album “Sax of Gold” (what an awful title!), most notably on the piece “Whisper Goodbye”, a performance that also featured Rob Buckland. For this latest album Scott provided Simcock with a series of notated four part chords, brief instructions as to form and direction, plus a coda. Simcock was then asked to improvise around this and the results are stunning, a beautifully spacious and lyrical solo piano improvisation that has a considerable emotional impact and which is simply lovely.
The Scott original “Tin Can”takes its title from a line in David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and was originally written as a commission for tenor saxophone and piano. Angular yet melodic and encompassing a variety of time signature changes I assume that it’s Scott himself who is the featured saxophone player as he navigates his way through the rhythmic complexities of the piece in the company of Simcock, Cottle and Henshaw. The ever inventive Simcock features with a sparklingly imaginative piano solo and there’s something of a drum feature for Henshaw towards the close of this restlessly energetic piece.
Simcock then provides another oasis of calm with “Serenade”, a tune requested by Scott and featuring Simcock’s piano in a duet with the soprano saxophone of Urbanski, the newest member of the group. Again the focus is on lyricism with Urbanski’s gently searching soprano faithfully shadowed by Simcock at the keyboard.
Next up is Simcock’s remarkable transformation of the pop hit “Sex Bomb” into a swinging big band chart that adds layers of sophistication to the main riff without losing the song’s essential chutzpah. Among those prominent in the arrangement are guitarist Pusey, alto sax soloist Willescroft, drummer Henshaw and Simcock himself at the piano.
Scott’s “Salt of the Earth” is a second feature for Fieldhouse on bass saxophone. Fieldhouse solos in remarkably agile fashion on the big beast in the middle of a complex but invigorating big band chart featuring the mercurial lines of his fellow sax players and underpinned by a percolating electric bass groove. Thrilling stuff.
The closing “La Grande Image” is Scott’s homage to Thompson and Hiseman and both play on the piece. Scott’s notes make reference to the influence upon him of Thompson’s Paraphernalia and Hiseman’s Colosseum although this valedictory, almost hymnal composition sounds like neither of these. Thompson features on tenor alongside John Helliwell, once of the successful 70s rock group Supertramp, another band that influenced the then teenage Scott. As befits its title “La Grande Image” possesses a drifting beauty allied to a certain gravitas, qualities that make it the perfect way to end a very good and admirably varied album.
There’s a lot of music and a wide variety of musical styles on “Ruby & All Things Purple” but no idea is allowed to outstay it’s welcome and the quality of both the writing and the playing ensures that the listener’s attention is engaged throughout.
With an ensemble of this size live performances are likely to be few and far between. However let’s hope that this excellent album garners enough attention for Scott to consider taking Group S out on the road.blog comments powered by Disqus