by Ian Mann
March 15, 2013
"Places" builds on the melodic strengths of their first album with a stronger set of themes and a crisper production. Aquarium continue to show clear signs of artistic development.
(Jellymould Jazz JM-JJ010)
Aquarium is a London based quartet led by pianist and composer Sam Leak that features the skills of three increasingly ubiquitous young jazz talents in the persons of James Allsopp (tenor saxophone, bass clarinet), Calum Gourlay (double bass) and Joshua Blackmore (drums). “Places” is the group’s second album, a follow up to their eponymous début recording released on the Babel label in 2011.
“Places”, released on the Huddersfield based Jellymould label, builds on the melodic strengths of the first album with a stronger set of themes and a crisper production courtesy of Leak and engineer Curtis Schwarz. A graduate of the Royal Academy of Music Leak is a composer who places great emphasis on his writing and cites Keith Jarrett, Paul Bley, Lee Konitz and Charlie Haden’s Liberation orchestra as key influences on his writing and playing. He has worked with such experienced musicians as saxophonists Stan Sulzmann, Ray Warleigh and Martin Speake, flautist Gareth Lockrane and singer Anita Wardell. He helps to organise the regular jazz jams at Oliver’s Jazz Bar in Greenwich and occasionally deps for James Pearson in the house band at Ronnie Scott’s.
To list the credits of his three colleagues would take up more space than is available here, let’s just say once again that Aquarium is a super group of sorts (the guys liked that comment when I used in connection with their début).
The music on “Places” is inspired by locations, people, incidents and situations both at home and abroad. As on the group’s first record there’s an emphasis on melody and lyricism but this time out Leak’s compositions seem to have a greater depth of focus and a stronger narrative arc. The opening title track is a case in point with Allsopp sounding reminiscent of Julian Arguelles on his splendid opening solo. Leak’s flowing solo has echoes of Jarrett, even down to some barely detectable off mic vocalising. Bassist Gourlay is also heard to good effect on a brief but resonant and lyrical solo.
Comparisons aside this is a splendid piece of music that gets the album off to an uplifting start.
I recently saw Aquarium play a free early evening show in the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the 2012 London Jazz Festival. Among the material played was “Marrakech” with its subtly propulsive brushed drum grooves, lilting tenor sax and effortlessly lyrical piano. It sounds even better on record with Allsopp’s warm, lustrous tenor lighting the way.
“Milan” initially embraces a more sombre tone with brooding tenor sax and low end piano rumblings. It’s piece that owes something to the “spiritual jazz” of John Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, Albert Ayler et al and as such can be considered a companion piece to “The Treasure Chest” from the quartet’s first album. Leak’s spacious solo mid tune acts as a calming oasis between bouts of Allsopp’s tenor sermonising.
The busy “Scribbles and Scrawls” sounds much as one might expect with Leak dispensing torrents of piano above Blackmore’s bristling and bustling drum undertow. There’s a Jarrett like joyousness in Leak’s advertising as evidenced in the whoops of delight buried in the mix. Allsopp’s tenor adds a darker edge, reminiscent perhaps of Dewey Redman’s role in Jarrett’s classic American quartet.
“February” slows things down again and finds the group in more reflective mood with Allsopp adding grainy bass clarinet to Leak’s sparse piano and Blackmore’s quietly busy brushed drum commentary.
Allsopp moves back to tenor for the quirky “Clutter” which is actually more focussed than its title might suggest. A sophisticated exercise in harmony and rhythm Leak’s composition is intended to generate a sense of unease in the listener. The shifting rhythms and pulses offer Leak and Allsopp the opportunity to improvise at length, something they do to great effect with the saxophonist making occasional use of multiphonics.
“Catherine Grove” is named after a street in South east London in which Leak was robbed at knife point in early 2012. This disturbing and unsettling experience is translated into music via an urgent bass and drum groove and one of Leak’s most unfettered and expansive solos, there’s a definite sense of tension being released.
“Daybreak” marks a return to Leak’s more lyrical style and adopts a more celebratory tone. Blackmore’s contemporary drum grooves underpin the piece with Allsopp contributing some of his most smoothly melodic playing of the set.
The album is completed by a “bonus track”, a live recording of “Milan” made at the Clore Ballroom in the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall at the 2011 London Jazz Festival. For BBC Radio 3’s “Jazz Line Up” programme. It’s a slightly different edition of the band with Leak and Blackmore joined by Sam Lasserson at the bass and Sam Crockatt on tenor saxophone. The performance subtly different to the album version although the overall structure is basically the same. It’s a nice bonus but hardly essential.
Reviews of Aquarium’s first album spoke of the “story telling qualities” of Leak’s compositions. On the loosely themed “Places” this quality is even more apparent with each track assuming the self contained quality of a compelling short story. It’s altogether a more mature collection than its predecessor with a greater sense of focus and for my money the playing and production is better too. Leak the composer and musician and Aquarium the band continue to show clear signs of artistic development and should be well worth catching on their forthcoming UK tour(dates listed below).
Sunday 7 April
LEEDS: Seven Arts Centre, 31(a) Harrogate Road, Chapel Allerton LS7 3PD
£5/4 / bookings 0113 26 26 777 http://www.sevenjazz.co.uk
Tuesday 9 April
BIRMINGHAM: The Spotted Dog, 104 Warwick Street, Digbeth, B12 ONH
Free entry / bookings 0121 722 3822 http://www.spottedblog.wordpress.com
Weds 10 April
CARDIFF: Dempseys, 15 Castle Street, Cardiff, CF10 1BS
£7/5 / bookings 029 20496802 - http://www.jazzatdempseys.org.uk
Weds 24 April
CAMBRIDGE: The Geldart, 1 Ainsworth Street, CB1 2PF
£10/12 / bookings 01223 314264 http://www.the-geldart.co.uk
Weds 1 May
SHEFFIELD: The Lescar Hotel, Sharrowvale Road S11 8ZF
£5 / bookings: 0114 326 7570 http://www.jazzatthelescar.com
Thurs 30 May
LONDON: The Vortex, Gillett Square, London, N16 8AZ *LAUNCH*
£10 / 020 7245 4097 - http://www.vortexjazz.co.uk
MARLBOROUGH Jazz Festival http://www.marlboroughjazz.com
Thurs 12 Sept
POOLE: Soundcellar - The Blue Boar, 29 Market Close, BH15 1NE
£7.50 / 01202 682247 - http://www.soundcellar.moonfruit.com
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