Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


by Ian Mann

December 05, 2023


An immersive recording that sweeps the listener along in its creative wake. The improvising is consistently inventive, with each group member playing a vital role in the creative process.

Beck Hunters with Laura Cole and John Pope

“From Wolves To Water”

(New Jazz and Improvised Music NEWJAiM 19)

Mick Beck – tenor sax, bassoon, whistles, Anton Hunter – guitar, effects, Johnny Hunter – drums, percussion, Laura Cole – piano, John Pope – double bass

Beck Hunters, the improvising trio featuring multi-instrumentalist Mick Beck and the brothers Anton Hunter (guitar) and Johnny Hunter (drums) is a well established unit with two albums, “The Hunt Is On” (2014) and “Has It Been Found?” (2019), to its credit. Mick Beck is one of the few jazz musicians to utilise the bassoon and he also doubles on tenor sax and a number of whistles, the latter bringing a particularly distinctive flavouring to the trio’s music. Based in Sheffield he is a leading figure on the British free jazz and improv circuit.

From Manchester, the Hunter brothers are younger, but each is a bandleader in his own right and a regular collaborator with like minded musicians. Johnny Hunter, in particular, is a very busy presence on the British and European jazz and improv scene.

When Beck Hunters were invited to perform at the 2022 Newcastle Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music the organisers suggested to them that they might like to augment their line up with two other leading jazz / improv musicians from the North of England, pianist Laura Cole and bassist John Pope. It has been the policy of the Festival to present new and exciting combinations of musicians and this cross-generational quintet represented a perfect example of the Festival’s ethos. Having said that there are several previous examples of members of different the quintet collaborating with one another, but never in this particular permutation.

Leeds based Cole has featured previously on the Jazzmann web pages both as a solo pianist and as the leader of her Metamorphic octet. In addition to being a pianist and composer she is also a poet and photographer and has performed as a spoken word artist with Johnny Hunter’s quartet. Other artists with whom she has worked include percussionist Walt Shaw, saxophonists Martin Archer and Keith Jafrate, vocalist Julie Tippetts and vibraphonist Corey Mwamba.

Newcastle based John Pope leads his own quintet and is also a member of the electro-jazz trio Archipelago. Both of these ensembles have been featured fairly extensively on the Jazzmann web pages, both on disc and in live performance. A powerful and technically accomplished player Pope is a musician who is increasingly in demand on the jazz and improv scene and has worked with leading improvisers such as violinists Faith Brackenbury and John Garner, drummers Tony Bianco and Roger Turner and saxophonists Paul Dunmall, Chris Biscoe, Michael Moore and Joe McPhee.

The music that can be heard on “From Wolves To Water” was recorded at a live performance at The Literary and Philosophical Society (the Lit & Phil) in Newcastle on the evening of October 1st 2022 with John Martindale at the mixing desk. The music was subsequently broadcast on ‘Freeness’, Corey Mwamba’s show celebrating improvised music,  on BBC Radio 3. I missed the original broadcast so I’m pleased to be able to catch up with the music on CD. It appears on the NEWJAiM label, an offshoot of the Festival that was first conceived during the pandemic as an outlet for improvising musicians denied the oxygen of live performance. Founded by Festival Director Wesley Stephenson the label continues to thrive and has already amassed an impressive back catalogue of recordings, many of which have been reviewed elsewhere on this site.

“From Wolves To Water” is a single piece of improvised music lasting a little over thirty five and a half minutes. Audience applause greets the quintet, followed by a dramatic opening chord, but soon we’re into darker improv waters with Beck producing some extraordinary, almost animalistic sounds, presumably from the bassoon.  Pope and Johnny Hunter keep the rhythms subtle and fluid while Cole’s crystalline piano provides an effective contrast to Beck’s increasingly melodic ruminations. The group then steers back into more conventional free jazz territory with Anton Hunter’s guitar texturing introducing an additional component as Back continues to generate some extraordinary noises. Johnny Hunter adds the sounds of small percussion before returning to the drum kit as the music grows more gnarly and intense, with Cole’s increasingly percussive piano playing edging closer into Cecil Taylor territory. Eventually Beck is left alone, a solitary voice crying in the wilderness before Cole takes over at the piano, her torrential playing nimbly supported by bass and drums. During this trio episode Beck makes the switch to tenor sax and enters into a series of ferocious exchanges with Anton Hunter as Cole, Pope and Johnny stoke the fires. Eventually Cole takes over from Anton, but there’s no let up in the intensity, with Anton subsequently returning to the fray, before the fire eventually burns out. Bass and drums drop out as sax, guitar and piano engage in a shadowy three way debate that eventually becomes an atmospheric sax and guitar dialogue, with Anton deploying various electronic effects. This impressionistic episode lasts for some time, with Beck changing instruments again, this time to whistles. Piano and drums eventually return, with Beck reverting to tenor as the intensity of the music begins to grow once more. Anton Hunter’s guitar effects remain an important component as Beck’s saxophone playing becomes increasingly garrulous and impassioned, with Cole, Pope and Johnny Hunter responding accordingly as the music builds to a furious climax featuring Anton Hunter’s clangorous electric guitar. After reaching peak intensity the piece descends into a long, loosely structured impressionistic fade that variously features the sound of Clanger like whistles, bowed bass and twinkling piano. Beck’s return to tenor sax then signals a more conventional section that edges closer to orthodox jazz, albeit in an Ornette Coleman kind of way. Cole adopts a percussive piano sound as she trades ideas with Beck, supported by Pope and Johnny Hunter. The music becomes more abstract as Anton Hunter re-enters the mix, before eventually dissipating and fading away, with the solo tapping of Johnny Hunter’s drums representing the last sound. The audience applause at the end has been edited out.

It’s not always easy to describe fully improvised music, but I hope that the above, admittedly rather lengthy paragraph, does “From Wolves To Water” justice and gives some idea of the ebb and flow of the music, with its dynamic peaks and troughs,  its mix of acoustic and electric sounds and the frequent, but always apposite, instrument swappage of Mick Beck. Whilst I appreciate that it’s an album that will only suit certain ears this is an immersive recording that sweeps the listener along in its creative wake. This is a quintet that is always thinking on its feet and the improvising is consistently inventive, with each group member playing a vital role in the creative process. The standard of the playing is excellent throughout, with Beck in particular, producing some quite extraordinary sounds. It’s an album that represents a worthy addition to the NEWJAiM catalogue.

After absorbing myself in the “From Wolves To Water” recording my only regret is that I missed the broadcast on “Freeness”. It would have been interesting to hear Corey Mamba’s insights into the music, delivered from the perspective of an improvising musician.

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