by Ian Mann
October 15, 2018
The real stars of the show were Davies’ timeless songs and Crosland’s imaginative, colourful & hugely inventive adaptations of them. Despite the source material this was totally authentic jazz.
Ben Crosland Quintet, ‘The Ray Davies Songbook’,
The Hive Music & Media Centre, Shrewsbury, 13/10/2018.
It shouldn’t work should it? When I told friends that I was attending a gig where jazz musicians played jazz arrangements of Kinks tunes most people looked bemused, or even baffled.
But they’d never heard the Ben Crosland Quintet’s 2016 album “The Ray Davies Songbook” which presented a dozen of Davies’ best known Kinks songs in a jazz framework and succeeded brilliantly.
The musicians that electric bass specialist Crosland chose to help him put a fresh slant on Davies’ songs were Dave O’Higgins (tenor & soprano saxes), Steve Lodder (piano, keyboards), John Etheridge (guitar) and Sebastiaan De Krom (drums). All these were present tonight with the exception of Etheridge who is currently touring in North America with Soft Machine. Etheridge’s place was taken by Chris Allard, a highly versatile guitarist and a bandleader in his own right.
The Davies Songbook project was originally commissioned by Marsden Jazz Festival and the twelve selected arrangements were premièred at the 2015 Festival. Crosland had already been into the studio and recorded the material at this point and the results were released on the album “The Ray Davies Songbook”, issued on Crosland’s own Jazzcat record label in 2016. My review of the recording can be found here;
Huddersfield based Crosland has also appeared on the Jazzmann web pages as the leader of the group Threeway, a chamber jazz ensemble featuring Steve Lodder (piano, keyboards) and Steve Waterman (trumpet, flugelhorn). The trio’s delicate but tensile strengths are heard to good effect on the albums “Conversation” (2005) “Songs Of The Year” (2009) and “Looking Forward, Looking Back” (2014), all of which placed the focus on original material. Meanwhile the Ben Crosland Brass Group featured an extended version of Threeway with the addition of Martin Shaw on trumpet and flugel plus Mark Nightingale and Barnaby Dickinson on trombones. This sextet line up released the album “An Open Place”, a collection of compositions inspired by the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, in 2012.
During the course of a lengthy career Crosland has also released a number of albums in more conventional jazz quartet / quintet formats, these featuring an impressive array of collaborators including saxophonists Alan Skidmore and Rod Mason. For me a personal favourite is 2004’s “Last Flight Out”, a quartet offering featuring Waterman, guitarist Stuart McCallum and drummer Dave Walsh.
Crosland’s Ray Davies project has been very well received by critics and audiences alike and in commercial terms has been the bassist’s most successful recording to date. Crosland has also toured widely with the project and it was the quality of a performance in Birmingham, witnessed by Shrewsbury Jazz Network stalwarts Laurie and Debbie Grey, that led to this engagement at The Hive.
Laurie and Debbie’s good judgement was rewarded with another large turnout at The Hive and the audience members loved the all star quintet’s skilled and exciting interpretations of these familiar Kinks tunes. As I remarked in my review of the Davies Songbook recording;
“The Crosland Quintet is not into artful or ironic post-modern deconstruction. Instead Crosland’s very obvious love of his source material shines through loud and clear but at the same he still manages to find something fresh and interesting to say within this context”
Tonight this was illustrated by the fact that with each piece that was played the original melody largely remained intact, and the audience members could still hear Davies’ lyrics in their heads, regardless of the changes in terms of tempo and harmony that Crosland and his colleagues brought to them. The individual soloists may have wandered thrillingly off piste but the quintet never lost sight of the course of a song. Many of the Kinks’ early hits were simple, riff based pieces making them ideal vehicles for jazz soloing, but some of Davies’ later, more sophisticated works also lent themselves well to Crosland’s interpretations. If anything Davies’ songs lend themselves better to jazz interpretations than those of the Beatles whose songs, under the watchful eye of George Martin, tended to be more tightly arranged and produced.
Also don’t forget that Davies was steeped in Music Hall and in the sounds of the big bands that played at the local Palais, as so evocatively chronicled in the latter day Kinks hit “Come Dancing”.
As Crosland explains;
“Strong grooves, a natural swing and strong evocative melodies characterise Ray Davies’ songs. I have attempted to harness those qualities in my arrangements”.
And so on tonight’s performance which began with “Dedicated Follower Of Fashion”, with O’Higgins on tenor and Allard on guitar exchanging melodic phrases on the opening and closing theme or ‘song’ statement while more extended jazz soloing came from the saxophonist, plus Lodder on keyboard, the latter adopting an acoustic piano sound. “The song lent itself to a straight-ahead swing treatment, albeit with some harmonic revision” Crosland has commented.
Crosland has altered the feel of some of the songs but not their essential spirit. Here “Set Me Free” was recast as a jazz ballad with subtle bossa undertones with De Krom switching to brushes to support Lodder’s flowingly expansive piano lyricism. Electric bass specialist Crosland featured next, deploying his four string fretless model to deliver a liquidly lyrical solo. Finally we heard from Allard, who adopted something of a Frisell-like twang on his guitar.
“See My Friends”, with its Indian inspired drones, was the first of Davies’ songs to tap into the kind of Eastern mysticism that so fascinated the Beatles. Crosland has re-harmonised the piece and given it a 6/8 time signature. O’Higgins’ soprano sax solo evoked the drones of the original as he beguiled the audience in the manner of a snake charmer. Lodder’s piano solo brought a fresh rhythmic exuberance to the piece while Allard favoured a pure, ringing guitar sound for his solo.
An innovative arrangement of “Tired Of Waiting For You” found Crosland slowing the song down to deliver what he described as a “sleepy time version”, the treatment inspired by the song title. With Lodder adopting a church like organ sound on his keyboard while De Krom deployed mallets in atmospheric fashion throughout. Allard played the melody on sustain heavy guitar with O’Higgins supplying answering melodic phrases on tenor. Central to the performance was Crosland’s languid, melodic solo on electric bass, this followed by the melodic twang of Allard’s guitar.
Crosland explained that in their early days The Kinks consistently backed their hits with high quality B sides. Typical of these was “I Need You”, which Davies himself still includes in his own solo sets. Originally a high octane rocker Crosland has given it a fast blues boogie cum shuffle arrangement powered by O’Higgins raunchy tenor sax. Solos her came from O’Higgins on tenor and Allard on bluesy guitar, reminiscent at times of John Scofield. Meanwhile De Krom’s forceful stick work drove the music forward with power and authority.
The success of the Davies Songbook project has led to Crosland arranging a second batch of Davies songs for a “Volume Two”, to be released in 2019. The “Volume Two” material had been premièred the previous evening, again at Marsden Jazz Festival, but the focus tonight was back on Volume One. Nevertheless Crosland still sneaked a couple of the new arrangements into tonight’s performance, including a languid, but relaxed and celebratory version of “Days”, a Kinks song that was also a hit for the late Kirsty MacColl. De Krom’s brushed grooves provided sensitive support for solos by Lodder on piano and O’Higgins on tenor.
A lengthy first set closed with the quintet upping the energy levels again with a funky, New Orleans inspired arrangement of “Everybody’s Going To Be Happy” with O’Higgins stating the theme on soprano prior to a rollicking piano solo from Lodder followed by Allard’s note bending bluesiness on guitar.
Set two commenced with a rousing arrangement of “A Well Respected Man” with solos from Lodder on piano and O’Higgins on tenor plus De Krom with a dynamic drum feature. Listening back to the album as I write it’s become clear that several of tonight’s performances differed substantially from the recorded versions, a credit both to the versatility of Crosland’s arrangements and the sheer adaptability of Davies’ songs.
Crosland has credited Lodder for the idea of the jazz / reggae arrangement of “Sunny Afternoon” with its lilting piano and wah wah guitar here underpinning O’Higgins’ jazzy tenor sax soloing. Lodder and Allard subsequently enjoyed their own features on this infectious and crowd pleasing item.
Crosland’s adaptations of the Kinks’ songs have won the approval of that band’s original drummer Mick Avory (Davies himself has remained silent on the subject). Avory is currently a member of the Kast Off Kinks, not a tribute band exactly, but one formed entirely of former Kinks members that tours the country playing the Kinks repertoire. Crosland and Avory recently met up when the Kast Off Kinks played a show at the Grand Theatre in Wakefield.
We learnt this as Crosland introduced his arrangement of “All Day And All Of The Night”, the Kinks’ second hit. Propelled by a crisp bass and drum groove the piece included a spacey Rhodes solo from Lodder and an explosive guitar solo from Allard that saw him channelling his inner Dave Davies, at one point with only De Krom’s drums for company.
“Dead End Street” was one of Davies’ first ‘social comment’ songs, the cheeriness of the original arrangement helping to mask the bitterness, resentment and relevance of the lyrics. Crosland’s arrangement was more reflective, but still included incisive solos from Allard on guitar and O’Higgins on deeply probing soprano.
“David Watts”, a song also recorded by The Jam, represented a second preview of the “Volume Two” material with Lodder adopting a funky, almost clavinet like sound on keyboard, this locking in with De Krom’s rapidly brushed drum grooves and Crosland’s propulsive Motown style bass lines. This rhythmic drive helped to fuel excellent solos from Allard on guitar and O’Higgins on tenor, with Lodder also weighing in on keyboard, now using a more conventional Rhodes sound.
Crosland and his colleagues were not afraid to tackle the real ‘biggies’ of the Kinks repertoire. Next we heard what is probably Ray Davies’ best known song, the beautiful and evocative “Waterloo Sunset”. Needless to say the quintet more than did the gorgeous melody justice via Lodder’s solo piano introduction, Crosland’s gloriously liquid and melodic bass, ably supported by Allard’s guitar counterpoint, and finally O’Higgins’s lyrical tenor. Meanwhile De Krom provided sensitive brushed support throughout.
To end we heard the Kinks breakthrough hit, the hugely influential riff driven “You Really Got Me”. Crosland and his colleagues gave the old war horse a hard grooving, organ driven, soul jazz interpretation that served it well. Crosland’s underpinning bass and Loddder’s Hammond grooves helped to fuel solos from O’Higgins on lithe, piercing soprano sax and Allard on rock influenced, FX drenched guitar. Finally De Krom, a versatile drummer capable of both great power and admirable sensitivity, unleashed a volcanic drum solo that the near sell out audience loved.
Unfortunately there was no time for an encore as the venue was nearing its curfew but after fourteen songs played over the course of two lengthy sets nobody could complain of feeling short changed. This was an excellent performance, presented by Crosland with a wry, dry Northern wit, that included some superb playing from all members of the quintet. This was a great team effort and it would be invidious to pick out any one individual for special praise.
Arguably the real stars of the show were Davies’ timeless songs and Crosland’s imaginative, colourful and hugely inventive adaptations of them. Despite the source material this was a totally authentic jazz performance capable of satisfying hard core jazz fans in addition to any first time listeners drawn in by the Davies name. The arrival of “The Ray Davies Songbook Volume Two” will be awaited with much interest.
In August 2015 I reviewed a performance by Ray Davies and his Band at Brecon Jazz Festival. The choice of Davies for a jazz festival seemed a little incongruous at the time but the show at the Market Hall was a terrific event with a surprisingly youthful looking Davies in fine form as he and his colleagues performed many of the hits from the Kinks back catalogue to the delight of a capacity audience.
I was surprised at just how much I enjoyed that performance and it also served as a reminder, as if any were needed, as to just how many great songs Davies has written. Like those of the Beatles the songs of the Kinks have become like a modern folk music, a part of the British national consciousness.
Davies’ appearance at a jazz festival now makes perfect sense in the wake of these brilliant adaptations of his songs by Ben Crosland and his quintet.
My thanks to Ben Crosland for speaking with me afterwards and listening to my suggestion that it would be a good idea for somebody to come up with a set of big band arrangements of Black Sabbath tunes. Can you imagine some of those killer riffs being blasted out by a big band with trombones and baritone saxes? I can just hear it in my head.
And don’t forget that the Sabs themselves admitted to being influenced by the sounds of Count Basie, which were introduced to them by their former manager, Jim Simpson.
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