by Ian Mann
May 24, 2019
Another lovingly crafted set of arrangements, which in turn benefit from some great playing and a whole host of outstanding solos.
Ben Crosland Quintet
“The Ray Davies Songbook Vol II”
(Jazz Cat Records – JCCD117)
In 2016 the Yorkshire based bassist, composer and bandleader Ben Crosland released “The Ray Davies” songbook, an innovative collection of twelve jazz arrangements of classic Kinks songs. The project was originally commissioned by the Marsden Jazz Festival and the resultant arrangements were first performed there as part of the 2015 Festival.
The album was well received by critics and fans alike and was unmistakably a jazz record with Crosland skilfully adapting the songs for a jazz setting in a series of inspired arrangements. The success of the recording led to Crosland touring widely with his quintet and presenting the ‘Ray Davies Songbook’ to appreciative audiences up and down the country, introducing fresh arrangements of other Davies songs into the set as part of the process. My account of a highly enjoyable show at The Hive in Shrewsbury in October 2018 can be read here;
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). He retains exactly the same personnel for this second exploration of the Davies catalogue.
Crosland is not into artful or ironic post-modern deconstruction. As a child of the 60s his very obvious love of Davies’ music shines through loud and clear, but at the same he still manages to find something fresh and interesting to say within the context of his source material.
“Ray Davies’ music is rooted in the blues, music hall, popular song, variety and musical theatre – all perfect vehicles for jazz” Crosland explains. “After three years working together as a band we simply had so much new, outstanding material on our hands that we decided to release a second volume. Strong grooves, a natural swing and strong evocative melodies characterise Ray Davies’ songs. I have attempted to harness those qualities in my arrangements”.
The first Davies Songbook album successfully tackled some of the Kinks’ biggest and most obvious hits, among them “You Really Got Me” and “Waterloo Sunset”. Volume 2 still includes many well known chart entries but there is also a sprinkling of B-sides and album tracks. “In common with The Beatles the Kinks always produced very strong B-sides” says Crosland. “A selection of my favourites have been included on this new album”.
Like its predecessor the arrangements on “Volume 2” were again premièred at the Marsden Jazz Festival in October 2018.
Crosland’s arrangements tend to keep Davies’ original melodies intact, enabling listeners to still be able to hear the lyrics in their heads, regardless of the changes in terms of tempo and harmony that Crosland and his colleagues bring to them. The individual soloists may have wander thrillingly off piste but the quintet never entirely lose sight of the course of a song. 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.
This latest collection commences in rousing fashion with the B side “Sittin’ On My Sofa”, the fast, shuffling beat acting as the jumping off point for powerful and incisive solos from O’Higgins on soprano sax and Etheridge on guitar.
“Days” is more relaxed, the mood of the arrangement warm and gently nostalgic with solos coming from Lodder on acoustic piano and O’Higgins on fluent tenor sax.
“Til The End Of The Day” is given a funky, soul jazz treatment with Lodder featuring on organ and with solos coming from O’Higgins on earthy tenor sax and Etheridge on guitar. Lodder’s Hammond (or equivalent) is a distinctive presence throughout and he joins the ranks of the soloists as Crosland and de Krom combine to create a powerfully swinging groove. This could almost have been lifted from a late 60s Blue Note recording.
“Apeman” is given an appropriately playful calypso style treatment with Etheridge’s heavily treated guitar (I think) approximating the sound of steel pans while O’Higgins strikes out into the jungle with another expansive tenor sax exploration.
In the hands of this super skilled quintet “Victoria” sounds as if its always been a jazz standard with O’Higgins again impressing on tenor. Lodder, on acoustic piano, and de Krom deliver a series of dazzling exchanges with the latter enjoying a series of vigorous drum breaks. Etheridge then makes a brief cameo before the close.
There’s a change of mood for a wistful “Celluloid Heroes” which sees the leader’s electric bass combining subtly with Lodder’s acoustic piano on the intro. Lodder subsequently delivers a more expansive, but inherently lyrical, acoustic piano solo while Crosland himself also features at greater length with liquidly melodic outing on electric bass.
“I Gotta Move” is altogether more robust, reflecting something of the urgency inherent in its title. Like the earlier “Victoria” it feels as if it’s always been a jazz tune as O’Higgins stretches out on tenor followed by Etheridge on guitar.
“Lola” was one of the few ‘biggies’ to slip through the net on the first volume. Crosland’s arrangement verges on the ironic as he slows the piece down, transforming it into a kind of languid bossa nova. Lodder shines with an idiosyncratic acoustic piano solo while Etheridge makes maximum use of the wah wah pedal during his guitar solo. It’s a pleasingly ironic take on a song that didn’t exactly take itself seriously in the first place, not that this has in any way harmed its subsequent popularity.
O’Higgins is back on soprano for “Where Have All The Good Times Gone”, his darting melodies combining well with the guitar of Etheridge, the next featured soloist. This is another arrangement that makes the song sound like it’s always been a jazz vehicle, a fact emphasised by Lodder’s dazzling acoustic piano solo.
“Autumn Almanac” retains something of the whimsical brightness and breeziness of the original and incorporates warmly melodic solos from the leader on electric bass, Etheridge on guitar and O’Higgins on soprano, with Lodder again threatening to steal the show at the piano.
I recall “David Watts” being performed at Shrewsbury and the piece is given a slyly funky arrangement paced by de Krom’s rapidly brushed grooves and with Lodder adopting an electric piano sound at the keyboard. Etheridge’s guitar dances lithely during the course of his solo and he’s followed by the more robust sound of O’Higgins’ tenor. Then it’s the turn of Lodder, still deploying the classic Rhodes sound on a lively solo. The brisk outro sees Etheridge bringing out the wah wah pedal once more.
The classic B-side “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” is given a slowed down arrangement that, for once, seems to undermine the spirit of the defiant original. Perhaps this is deliberate, with an intentional irony being expressed via the sly funk grooves with Lodder again featuring on electric piano.
The album concludes on a high note with a spirited romp through “Dandy” that includes sparkling solos from O’Higgins on soprano and Lodder on acoustic piano plus a volcanic climactic drum feature from the consistently excellent de Krom.
Crosland has been leading bands for over twenty five years, among them the chamber jazz trio Threeway featuring Lodder and trumpeter Steve Waterman. The first Ray Davies Songbook album represented his most commercially successful project to date so this follow up comes as no surprise.
Obviously it can’t quite have the same initial impact as its predecessor, but all the virtues that made Volume I such a success are present again in another lovingly crafted set of arrangements, which in turn benefit from some great playing and a whole host of outstanding solos. The fact that it all works so well is also a testament to Davies’ remarkable abilities as a songwriter.
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