by Ian Mann
June 30, 2021
A set of carefully crafted and highly melodic compositions that are suitably enhanced by the playing of five excellent musicians.
Ben Crosland Quintet
(Jazz Cat Records JCCD 118)
Ben Crosland – bass, Steve Waterman – trumpet & flugelhorn, Chris Allard – guitar
Steve Lodder – piano, Keyboards, Dylan Howe – drums
The Yorkshire based bassist and composer Ben Crosland has been a regular presence on the Jazzmann web pages for a number of years, firstly as the leader of the chamber jazz trio Threeway, featuring trumpeter Steve Waterman and pianist Steve Lodder, with whom he released the albums “Songs Of The Year” in 2009 and “Looking Forward, Looking Back” (2014), the latter also featuring contributions from guest musician Jim Hart (vibraphone).
At one point Threeway was expanded to a sextet to form the Ben Crosland Brass Group, with the core trio joined by trombonists Mark Nightingale and Barnaby Dickinson and trumpeter Martin Shaw. This line up released the album “An Open Place” in 2012, a collection of eight compositions commissioned for the 2011 Marsden Jazz Festival and inspired by works of art at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park near Wakefield.
More recently Crosland has delivered two highly popular albums of jazz arrangements of Kinks tunes, the first “Ray Davies Songbook” appearing in 2016 with “Vol. 2” following in 2019. The quintet on these recordings featured Crosland and Lodder plus Dave O’Higgins (tenor & soprano sax), John Etheridge (guitar) and Sebastiaan de Krom (drums).
All of the Threeway, Brass Group and Quintet albums mentioned above are reviewed elsewhere on the Jazzmann and I have been fortunate enough to witness Crosland’s bands playing live on a couple of occasions, namely Threeway at the 2012 Lichfield Real Ale, Jazz & Blues Festival and the Ray Davies Songbook quintet at an excellent gig for Shrewsbury Jazz Network in 2018.
Crosland is based in Huddersfield from where he runs his own Jazz Cat record label, and although he is a proud Northerner who has resisted the temptation to move to London he is more than just a good “regional” musician. Amazingly he combines his musical activities with a legal career, working as a barrister in the courts of Northern England.
Crosland’s playing and writing skills have seen him work regularly with nationally known musicians. In addition to those musicians previously mentioned others with whom he has collaborated include saxophonists Alan Skidmore and Rod Mason, guitarists Adrian Ingham, Jim Mullen and Stuart McCallum, trombonist Dennis Rollins and drummers Dave Walsh and Dave Tyas
Running his own label has enabled him to record frequently, leading his own groups in quartet, quintet and octet formats and often adopting “northern” themes as the inspiration for his writing.
Many of Crosland’s works are broadly conceptual with compositions inspired by a specific theme or place. “Solway Stories” is no exception and was inspired by a visit that he made with his late mother to the South West of Scotland in 1988.
“We were captivated by the gorgeous landscape and engaging place names” recalls Crosland. “I decided to write a set of pieces inspired by our trip and wrote those place names down on a sheet of paper, which I duly filed away”.
The idea remained dormant for a number of years but in 2018 a chance viewing of Richard Thompson performing his song “Beeswing” on Youtube re-awakened Crosland’s memory of that trip, Beeswing having been one of those place names he had written down.
Crosland unearthed that piece of paper and began writing - “within a fortnight I had five tunes, an unprecedented creative outpouring for me”, he remembers. Over the course of the next eighteen months a further seven pieces were completed, creating the twelve part ‘suite’ that constitutes “Solway Stories”.
The project was also inspired by the passing in 2019 of Crosland’s mother Dorothy, to whom he dedicates this “very personal record”. He recalls that “right to the end of her days, at almost 102 years of age she still relished going out for a ‘spin in the motor’ “.
Since starting the project Crosland has revisited the north shore of the Solway Firth again and researched its history. His subsequent discoveries inform several of these compositions and Crosland’s album notes offer further insights into the inspirations behind some of the individual pieces.
The quintet that Crosland has assembled for this recording includes long time associates Lodder and Waterman plus guitarist Chris Allard and drummer Dylan Howe, both composers and bandleaders in their own right. Allard frequently ‘depped’ for Etheridge in the Davies Songbook band when the latter was honouring his commitments with Soft Machine. Indeed Allard was part of the quintet who gave such a memorable performance in Shrewsbury back in 2018.
The “Solway Stories” album was recorded in London in September 2020, during a period of comparatively few Covid restrictions. “It was an extraordinary session” recalls Crosland, “principally because none of us had played in a group setting for over five months. We were just raring to go. It was a truly unique and inspiring experience”.
The album commences with “Driving North” with Crosland remembering;
“I still vividly recall that original journey north, crossing the border and driving through the lovely countryside. That will always be the starting point”
Musically the piece is upbeat, funky even, with Lodder featuring on electric piano and the leader on his favoured electric bass. Waterman’s playing is suitably bright, while Allard takes the first true solo of the set, his tone vivid and luminous and drawing on elements of both jazz and rock. Lodder follows on electric piano and displays similarly imaginative qualities. There’s even room for something of a feature for Howe before the close.
“Beeswing” swings effortlessly, thanks to the excellent Howe, who prepared diligently for the session and created many of his own drum parts. The piece also serves as a feature for the wonderfully fluent soloing of the consistently brilliant Waterman. Meanwhile Crosland, whose bass is at the heart of the arrangements, also breaks cover to deliver a brief, but enjoyably melodic solo. Finally we hear from Allard, who continues to impress with his sparkling tone and sense of melodic invention.
Crosland’s album notes inform us that the village of Beeswing was formerly known as Lochend but was renamed in the 19th century after the champion racehorse Beeswing, owned by the local innkeeper and racehorse owner Robert Orde.
As a writer Crosland has always exhibited a strong flair for melody and this quality is apparent throughout “Solway Stories”. Following the two energetic openers this becomes even more pronounced on “Dulce Cor (Every Step Of The Way)”, a composition dedicated to the memory of Crosland’s mother and partly inspired by the legend of Dervoguilla, founder of the Sweetheart (Dulce Cor) Abbey in Galloway.
The piece is introduced by a passage of solo acoustic piano from Lodder, which is joined in gentle dialogue by the leader’s electric bass. The velvet melancholy of Waterman’s tone on flugel is just right for this heartfelt tribute, as is Lodder’s flowing lyricism on acoustic piano and the atmospheric keening of Allard’s electric guitar. Waterman then takes flight as the music gathers momentum, this is a piece that is also a celebration of a life well lived.
Crosland recorded an earlier version of the piece with saxophonist Rod Mason and that recording was played at Dorothy Crosland’s funeral.
There’s a change of mood with the sinister funk of “Powfoot”, a village that became the site of a Second World War munitions factory specialising in the production of cordite. Lodder delivers a fascinating range of electric keyboard sounds here and is featured as the principal soloist, alongside the melodic spiralling of Allard’s fusion-esque guitar.
The gently melodic “Islesteps” calms things down a little with Waterman featuring on flugel alongside Allard’s coolly elegant guitar and Lodder’s flowing acoustic piano. As the successor to Etheridge Allard clearly has big shoes to fill, but his playing is superlative throughout the album and with his distinctively melodic and inventive style he very much puts his own stamp on the music.
Sunlit skies inspired “Almorness Point”, one of Crosland’s prettiest tunes and one exhibiting a Metheny-like gift for melody. Waterman’s soloing combines his customary fluency and inventiveness with a suitably burnished quality, and he’s followed by the ever resourceful Allard, who again performs with a pinpoint clarity.
The jaunty, playful “I Do” pays homage to the famous Blacksmith’s shop at Gretna Green with Lodder taking a suitably appropriate solo on Hammond organ, bringing a distinct gospel quality to the music. He’s swiftly followed by Allard as Crosland explores the classic organ/guitar combination, while still fulfilling the bass function himself.
“A Lil’ Sark Funk” is named for the River Sark, the “modest little river” upon which Gretna stands. “I thought it would be fun to liken it to its big brother, the Mississippi, flowing past New Orleans into the Gulf of Mexico” explains Crosland. Thus the piece commences with Howe’s military style drumming and features some of Crosland’s most propulsive bass lines. This powerful rhythmic impetus fuels some admirably tight ensemble playing, with Waterman’s trumpet to the fore, and with subsequent solos coming from Allard on guitar and Lodder on acoustic piano.
A dramatic sunset inspired the more lyrical “Auchenreoch Loch”, the album’s lengthiest track, which gives the music time to build in melodic and atmospheric fashion with Waterman taking the first solo on flugel and stretching out majestically. Allard follows on guitar, as imaginative and inventive as ever.
“Cross Border Blues” is more succinct but swings impressively, with Crosland’s buoyant electric bass walk and Howe’s crisp drumming fuelling Waterman’s bop influenced trumpet solo. Lodder, on acoustic piano, then trades ideas with Howe, with the latter enjoying a series of effervescent drum breaks.
The gentle “Carsethorn” commences with a delightful duet between Waterman and Allard and later features Lodder on Hammond. Crosland features with an expansive electric bass solo that emphasises his melodic capabilities as a soloist. Waterman later solos in more conventional fashion, improvising around one of Crosland’s most melodic and memorable themes.
The album concludes with “The Devil’s Porridge”, another piece inspired by the region’s wartime past. During World War 1 a huge munitions factory was built between Gretna and Eastriggs, the women workers mixing gun cotton and nitro-glycerine in huge containers to make cordite, a substance that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, then working as a newspaper journalist, dubbed “The Devil’s Porridge”.
Howe’s drums introduce the piece, which again sees Crosland mixing his funk and fusion influences with something more conventionally jazzy. Lodder’s use of electric keyboards helps to bring the funk and fusion element and Waterman’s trumpet sounds the jazz. Allard’s guitar solo mixes the two ingredients as the quintet stir their own musical porridge, with Lodder taking over to solo expansively on electric piano.
Waterman then steers the piece home, still soloing as the music fades out.
“Solway Stories” represents another highly accomplished piece of work from Crosland.
The very personal circumstances behind the album’s creation have resulted in a set of carefully crafted and highly melodic compositions that are suitably enhanced by the playing of five excellent musicians.
The mix of jazz, funk and fusion elements works well, but overall this is unmistakably a jazz recording. Crosland’s gift for melody also ensures that it’s a highly accessible one.
As a bassist / composer his style sometimes reminds me of that of Alison Rayner, in whose quintet Lodder also plays. Like Crosland Rayner possesses a strong melodic sense and her compositions are also frequently inspired by specific places or experiences.
The members of the quintet all perform superbly, but arguably it’s newcomer Allard who threatens to steal the show with his consistently inventive soloing. I haven’t heard Allard’s playing on disc for a while, but he’s in tremendous form here. One has come to expect quality from the others, and nobody disappoints.
At over seventy three minutes duration this is a pretty lengthy album, and arguably there’s a bit too much music here. That said a performance of the entire record, split over two sets in a live environment, would be quite something. Let’s hope that’s something that can happen sooner rather than later.
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