Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019





by Ian Mann

July 25, 2011


A highly mature début with the focus very much on the writing. This album shows considerable promise.



(Babel Records BDV 1195)

Aquarium features the compositions of pianist/leader Sam Leak, a recent graduate of the Royal Academy of Music. The group’s long awaited début album teams Leak with some of the rising stars of the UK jazz scene in the form of James Allsopp (tenor sax, bass clarinet), Calum Gourlay (double bass) and Josh Blackmore (drums). The quartet’s credits include work with Fraud, The Golden Age of Steam, Kit Downes Trio, Curios, Troyka, Martin Speake, Django Bates and many more. Despite their tender years it’s probably fair to describe Aquarium as something of a “supergroup” and the line up is augmented by vocalist Rhiannon Bradbury who sings her own lyrics on the closing “Shades Of Grey” and by Richard Fairhurst (of Hungry Ants fame) who mans the production chair.

Leak’s thoughtful compositions encompass a variety of jazz styles and the mood varies from the gently lyrical to the terse and probing. The opening “Strangers” commences with Leak’s insistent piano arpeggios and Blackmore’s clipped rhythms and has invited comparisons with the cyclical music of Steve Reich. A gentler second section includes a delightfully lyrical duet between Allsopp’s reeds and Leak’s piano. As a composer Leak fits plenty of information and an impressive variety of mood and pace into just five and a half minutes.

“Grasshopper” is cerebrally funky with a busy bass and drums undertow that provides the springboard for Allsopp’s fluent tenor sax soloing with Wayne Shorter this time cited as an influence. Leak’s own solo is typically thoughtful building from lyrical beginnings to something more expansive and exuberant but always with an underlying Romantic feel.

“Evensong” is more freely structured with Allsopp, Gourlay and Blackmore sparring inventively above Leak’s underpinning piano chords. There are plenty of different sounds and ideas packed into this relatively brief passage of improvisation.

The piece “Shades Of Grey” appears twice, once as a lengthy instrumental excursion and at the end in the more concise form of a song with vocals and lyrics courtesy of Rhiannon Bradbury. The instrumental theme features Leak at his most lyrical, picking out the delicate tune on piano against the gentle patter of Blackmore’s hand drums. Allsopp, on tenor, plays prettily, often in the instrument’s upper register, and there’s a warm, deeply resonant bass solo from Gourlay. Leak’s own solo has a shimmering, pellucid beauty on one of the album’s most instantly appealing pieces.

“Pisa Rain” balances Leak’s natural lyricism with the edgier probing of Allsopp’s sax. Leak sits out the beginning of the tune as Allsopp needles away above Gourlay’s bass pulse and the interactive chatter of Blackmore’s drums. The composer’s piano brings a touch of lyricism as Leak develops what proves to be another strong melodic theme.

At over ten and a half minutes in length “The Treasure Chest” is the lengthiest piece on the record and represents a real change of mood. A tense and brooding opening gives way to a slow burning Leak solo and some powerful tenor sax ruminations from Allsopp. As other observers have noticed there’s something of the “spiritual jazz” atmosphere of John Coltrane about the music here and maybe a touch of Albert Ayler too with regard to Allsopp’s ominous tenor sound. 

The concise “Shy” marks the return of Leak’s more lyrical leanings on a pretty but melancholic vignette that is played with admirable control and subtlety by the quartet. Contrast is a constant throughout the album so the following “Sleek” is very different with Allsopp’s punchy, honking tenor and Blackmore’s drum grooves setting the pace but with the journey punctuated by thrilling free jazz interludes featuring squalling tenor and drum exchanges, wryly percussive piano and adaptable, grounding double bass. Thrilling stuff. 

The vocal version “Shades Of Grey” is very different to the instrumental version. Lyrically and vocally Bradbury clearly models herself on Norma Winstone and turns in a convincing and effective performance on this voice and piano duet. The addition of a vocal track suggests that Leak and Aquarium are attempting to appeal to the same constituency as the similarly lyrical Kairos 4tet who have achieved a remarkable level of critical and commercial (in jazz terms, at least) success over the last couple of years or so.

Leak is only 24 and this eponymous first album represents a highly mature début with the focus very much on the writing. Despite his obvious pianistic skills Leak seems to be more concerned with composition than merely demonstrating his chops and this album shows considerable promise. At times it’s almost too measured and thoughtful but I suspect that the less controlled atmosphere of the live environment will bring out a different side of the band and I look forward to catching them at the forthcoming Brecon Jazz Festival.

As well as working on the next Aquarium album Leak is also writing a suite to feature a quintet including himself on piano, saxophonist George Crowley, trumpeter Richard Turner, bassist Ferg Ireland and Kairos drummer Jon Scott. He also performs in the piano trio format with bassist James Opstad and drummer Dave Hamblett and has also written new material for a piano duo featuring himself and his mentor Richard Fairhurst. I think it’s fair to say that the UK jazz scene will be hearing a lot more from Sam Leak.

blog comments powered by Disqus