by Ian Mann
January 17, 2023
An impressive piece of work and the care and love that Crosland has put into it are apparent throughout. The quality of both the arranging and the playing is exceptional.
“Songs of Solace and Reflection”
(Jazz Cat Records JCCD 119)
Ben Crosland – electric bass, Theo Travis – flute, alto flute, Alan Barnes – clarinet, bass clarinet, Steve Waterman – trumpet, flugelhorn, Clare Bhabra – violin, Deirdre Bencsik – cello
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 his works are broadly conceptual with compositions inspired by a specific theme or place. Such a project was the 2021 quintet release “Solway Stories”, partially inspired by the passing of Crosland’s late mother, Dorothy in 2019. Mother and son had visited the South West of Scotland in 1988 and his memories of that visit inspired Crosland to compose the suite of pieces that became “Solway Stories”, a recording that is also covered on this site with my review forming the basis for most of the preceding biographical information.
In common with many recent album releases “Songs of Solace and Reflection” is very much a product of lockdown, as Crosland explains in his liner notes. By his own admission he lacked the necessary technical and computer skills to deliver livestream performances and instead devoted himself to writing new music, much of it turning up on this new album release.
A further spark for this latest project came when the musician Jeremy Platt arranged “Dulce Cor”, one of Crosland’s tunes, for digital woodwind and strings. He sent Crosland the results and the bassist, suitably impressed, decided to try the process for himself, treating some of his tunes to arrangements for flute, clarinet, flugelhorn, string quartet and bass.
In total Crosland wrote nine arrangements for tunes from his back catalogue and also composed one new piece for this unusual instrumental configuration. He sent them to his old friend Rod Mason, best known as a saxophonist but actually a talented multi-instrumentalist.
This was still during the lockdown period and Mason recorded the arrangements in his attic studio and the quality of these demo recordings suggested to Crosland the possibility of an album, with the music played by an ensemble of live musicians.
He then sent Mason’s recordings to saxophonist / flautist Theo Travis, a sometime member of Crosland’s quintet who was enthusiastic about the project and introduced Crosland to the string players Clare Bhabra (violin) and Deirdre Bencsik (cello). They were also impressed and agreed to come on board, with Crosland then recruiting old friends Steve Waterman (trumpet, flugel) and Alan Barnes (clarinets) to complete the line up.
The album was recorded in November 2021 at Livingston Studio in London with Andrew Tulloch engineering and Crosland himself producing. In his album notes Crosland is quick to praise Tulloch for the importance of his contribution.
Crosland describes the music of this project as “chamber jazz with a classical sensibility”. It represents his first attempt of writing for strings and in his album notes he observes “I had never arranged for strings before and was making it up as I went along. It seemed to work”.
His album notes also offer explanations regarding the inspirations behind the project as a whole and the individual pieces themselves. “In deciding which tunes to arrange I instinctively felt that they should be consoling and comforting in nature, but with a lightness that might cheer, an antidote to the times we were living through. So I selected those pieces with a particular emotional connection or a sense of playfulness”.
The album commences with “Sarah’s Trees”, which Crosland dedicates to the memory of Sarah Lucas (1943-97), wife of Mike Lucas, the founder of Marsden Jazz Festival. The title references one of her favourite places, a group of sycamore tress high above Marsden and overlooking the Colne Valley. Those same trees are depicted in Judith Yarrow’s cover art.
The music represents a celebration of Sarah’s life and introduces the unusual sound of this drummer-less ensemble. The music is rich in terms of colour and texture, with the strings prominent in the arrangement, but it still carries rhythmic impetus, courtesy of the leader’s underpinning bass. Meanwhile Travis’ flute swoops and soars, the sound dancing on the wind around “Sarah’ Trees”.
“Cowgill Lament” is dedicated to the memory of Crosland’s old schoolfriend Oliver Statham, a champion cave diver who tragically took his own life at a very young age. He is buried in Cowgill churchyard near Sedbergh, hence the title.
This has the feel of a real lament, more sombre in tone and texture and with Waterman the featured soloist on melancholic flugelhorn. He solos with great fluency and adds a subtle blues element to the music. The other instruments, and particularly the strings, add depth, colour and texture, while the whole thing is paced by Crosland’s funereal, but effortlessly elegant, bass line.
“The Gothics” takes its name from the house in the Colne Valley where Crosland’s father was born. It’s lighter in tone with Travis’ mellifluous flute initially prominent in the arrangement. But it’s Barnes who emerges as the featured soloist, exhibiting great poise and fluency on clarinet. Waterman also features once more, again on flugel, and Travis also returns on flute. As ever there’s some genuinely impressive ensemble playing too.
“Walkin’ The Cat” was inspired by a sculpture at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Crosland refers to it as “a fun piece”. The title, of course, also references the Jazz Cat record label. It’s certainly a playful piece and features Bhabra and Bencsik playing pizzicato for the first time. Travis is the featured soloist, adding vocalised flute sounds to his repertoire. Barnes’ clarinet provides an agile counterpoint and at one juncture the leader’s electric bass comes briefly to the fore.
“Hymn for Peace” is a reworking of “Hymn for Christmas”, a tune that has previously appeared in different guises on two Threeway albums. Indeed it’s tempting to think of this current septet as the natural successor to the Threeway and Brass Group projects.
The new title has been chosen as a response to the events in Ukraine but the piece has lost none of its original hymn like beauty, with featured soloist Waterman’s eloquent playing sometimes seeming to borrow from the Northern brass band tradition.
“Rockfield Lullaby” is the only genuinely new piece on the album and the title references the name of the first house Crosland lived in as a child, as opposed to the famous Monmouthshire recording studio. Suitably evocative and nostalgic in mood it genuinely has the feel of a lullaby about it, with Barnes’ graceful clarinet the featured solo instrument.
“In Memoriam” is another piece inspired by the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and appeared in another form on the Brass Group’s “An Open Place” album. The mood is appropriately reflective with Crosland expressing his wish that the piece “resonates well with those who have suffered loss during the pandemic”. Melancholic strings combine effectively with Travis’ yearning flute melodies and Waterman’s emotive flugelhorn solo.
“Song For Dorothy” is a dedication to Crosland’s late mother and is a tune that he has recorded on a number of occasions in a variety of instrumental contexts. It’s a beautiful tune that lends itself well to the lush textures of this ensemble, with Waterman’s velvet flugel and Travis’ airy flutes the leading voices.
“Heartland” has a sporting inspiration, victory of Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. There’s an air of gentle celebration and a very English feel about an arrangement that features Barnes soloing on bass clarinet, displaying a remarkable fluency and agility on the instrument.
The album concludes with “Peter The Wolf”, a piece that Crosland has described as “a blues”. It’s the only item to genuinely feature multiple solos as Barnes, again on bass clarinet, and Travis both feature. Then there’s a pizzicato duet between Bhabra and Bencsik, with these two subsequently joined by the leader’s melodic and agile electric bass. Finally we hear from Waterman before the ensemble reunite to restate the theme.
Although it only features one genuine new composition “Songs of Solace and Reflection” is an impressive piece of work and the care and love that Crosland has put into it are apparent throughout. Each arrangement casts the relevant piece in a new light and the quality of both the arranging and the playing is exceptional.
The three jazz soloists, Travis, Barnes and Waterman impress throughout and although they are allotted little genuine solo space Bhabra and Bencsik are also vital presences. The two classically trained string players are at the heart of the arrangements and bring melody, colour, texture and even rhythm to the music. Together with Crosland they ensure that the absence of a drummer is never noticed. As Crosland has observed Bhabra and Bencsik can genuinely swing and their presence is vital to the success of the album. Travis chose very well when recommending these two.
The success of the album also owes much to Crosland’s qualities as a composer of great melodies, there are some truly gorgeous tunes here and these are well served by some exceptional arrangements and playing. Like all of Crosland’s groups this is an ensemble that I would love to see playing live, but touring this group may prove to be a tricky economic prospect in 2023.
This album, plus numerous other recording by Ben Crosland, are available via the Jazz Cat website;