by Ian Mann
December 14, 2020
Accorsi impresses as both an instrumentalist and a composer. “The Cutty Sark Suite” takes the listener on a musical journey, with each individual movement representing a voyage of discovery in itself.
Betty Accorsi Quartet
“The Cutty Sark Suite”
Betty Accorsi – saxophone, vocals, Finn Carter – piano, Andy Hamill – electric & double bass, Scott MacDonald – drums
Elisabetta ‘Betty’ Accorsi is a Milan born saxophonist and composer now based in London.
She studied classical saxophone at the Guiseppe Verdi Conservatoire in Milan, but also found time to play other styles of music, among them folk, prog rock, and, of course, jazz.
It was her passion for the latter to brought her to London to study jazz saxophone at Trinity Laban. She is currently completing a Masters at Goldsmiths, studying jazz saxophone plus composition and arrangement, under the tutelage of Mick Foster and Paul Bartholomew.
As an outlet for her own compositions Accorsi has assembled the above quartet, comprised mainly of fellow Goldsmith’s students. The group’s début album, “The Cutty Sark Suite”, was recorded at Goldsmiths Music Studio in September 2020, financed by a highly successful Kickstarter campaign.
Accorsi’s liner notes explain the inspirations behind the four movement “The Cutty Sark Suite”;
“I lived for one year in Greenwich, where the Cutty Sark is a local monument. To me, it represented the sense of belonging to the greater, more diverse community that I found in London. I started to write a suite of four pieces, one for each country that the Cutty Sark would encounter on her journey; China, Indonesia, South Africa and England. I adopted an ‘in character’ approach to the composition of my pieces, suggestions from each musical tradition are incorporated into each piece, just like visitor disembarking at a port would be fascinated by the many sounds and languages found in that place. This suite aims to be the musical diary of a half real, half imaginary journey”.
The notes also give biographical details of the Cutty Sark herself, a tea clipper built in Scotland in 1869, following the Opium Wars of 1839 – 60, which led to the European nations forcing China to open up the tea trade route. The Cutty Sark was celebrated as the fastest vessel of her day and transported tea, coal and wood on a number of international trade routes. She was eventually retired to a dry dock in Greenwich in 1954, becoming a hugely popular tourist attraction. I remember going aboard her during a visit to London back in 1999, which helps to give this recording an additional degree of personal relevance.
The album packaging also offers insights as to the inspirations and the mechanics behind the individual movements. The suite charts the Cutty Sark’s journey from China to London and begins with “The Golden Wave”, a piece inspired by Accorsi’s immersion in traditional Chinese music, notably the repertoire for the Erhu, a two stringed bowed instrument introduced to China during the period of the Song dynasty, (960 – 1279). The Erhu is now one of the most popular instruments in China, and one that currently seems to be exerting an increasing influence on Western musicians and composers.
In Accorsi’s piece the sound of the Erhu is replicated by Hamill’s bowed double bass, which plays the melody unaccompanied, before being joined by piano and the leader’s flute like soprano, as Hamill switches to the pizzicato technique. The addition of MacDonald’s drums provides the trigger for Accorsi to probe more expansively on soprano, her horn swooping and soaring with consummate grace above an increasingly forceful and animated rhythm section. Carter then takes over at the piano as the quartet reel things back in.
A distinct second section brings more of a blues and rock feel to the music, with Hamill making the move to electric bass as Accorsi’s soprano again takes flight above a blistering rhythm, with Carter again picking up the reins with a rollicking piano solo. The initial melody eventually returns, with (to these ears) a hint of Celtic mysticism suggested alongside the Erhu inspired cadences. Melodically arresting, rhythmically dynamic and with a heady scent of Oriental exoticism this invigorating performance ensures that the Cutty Sark’s musical voyage gets off to a terrific start.
Movement Two, “In Between”, is inspired by the Javanese Gamelan tradition. The introductory piano motif is based on a scale similar to the traditional ‘Slendro’. Carter then plays the melody or ‘balungan’, with sax and bass doubling the melody and playing the counter melody respectively. MacDonald’s drums roam freely over this structure, in a style inspired by the late, great Tony Williams. It all makes for an incendiary, dramatic and attention grabbing introduction. As the opening storm dissipates Hamill’s electric bass emerges, playing a melodic theme in the style of Jaco Pastorius at his most lyrical. This provides a link into the third section of the tune, which pays homage to a third jazz great, pianist and composer Chick Corea. Carter’s sparkling piano solo and Accorsi’s dancing soprano sax lines recall Corea’s 1972 album “Light as a Feather”, which featured saxophonist and flautist Joe Farrell. The piece also includes a powerful drum feature from the consistently impressive MacDonald, plus another brief passage of electric bass lyricism from Hamill, prior to a return to the main Gamelan inspired theme.
“At the Edge of the Wave” finds the Cutty Sark in South African waters, with Accorsi and her colleagues referencing the Zulu, Xhosa, Sesotho and Swazi musical traditions. The piece is inspired by the powerful rhythms of Zulu Indlamu dances with Accorsi setting out to write a piece where rhythm is equal to, or even more important than melody.
Appropriately the piece is introduced by the effervescent MacDonald at the drums and the music has a strong South African flavour, drawing upon the country’s rich and distinctive Township jazz tradition. MacDonald and Hamill, on electric bass, continue to play an important role throughout, but there’s still room for Accorsi’s incisive soprano to cut a swathe through the increasingly powerful rhythms. Carter also plays a highly rhythmic role at the piano, reminding us that it is first and foremost a percussion instrument, as he trades ideas with the dynamic MacDonald. Accorsi dedicates the central part of the piece to the memory of the South African jazz-funk saxophonist Basil Coetzee (1944 – 98). The performance as a whole is intense yet joyous, and ultimately life affirming.
The final part of the suite, “All Things are Quite Silent” sees the Cutty Sark returning to England. The piece is an arrangement of an English folk song collected by the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams in Sussex in 1904 and published in the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs in 1959.
Accorsi re-arranges the song as a jazz ballad and removes two stanzas from the original lyrics. However the words that she does sing are reproduced as part of the album packaging.
The performance is introduced by Carter at the piano and features Accorsi singing the lyrics charmingly in heavily accented English above a backdrop of piano, acoustic bass and brushed drums. The words are a lament, sung from the point of view of a wife whose husband has been ‘press ganged’ into naval service. Accorsi’s melodic saxophone playing punctuates the sung stanzas.
A short passage of unaccompanied piano signals a transition into a more forceful, mambo inspired section, designed to express the anxieties of the reluctant, abducted sailor as he faces hostile and treacherous seas. Driven by MacDonald’s dynamic drumming this turbulent passage incorporates short, powerful features for soprano sax, piano, electric bass and drums into its structure as the piece, and the album as a whole, concludes on an energetic note.
Despite its relative brevity “The Cutty Sark Suite” is an impressive piece of work and represents an excellent recorded début from Accorsi. She impresses as both an instrumentalist and a composer, with each piece embracing a wide variety of musical styles and cultural references, plus a similarly broad range of colours and dynamics. “The Cutty Sark Suite” takes the listener on a musical journey, with each individual movement representing a voyage of discovery in itself.
Accorsi is mainly featured playing soprano saxophone, although she also plays alto, with the late, great Phil Woods named as a particular source of inspiration. Her other musical activities include the acoustic jazz duo Sloth in the City, which features Accorsi on saxophone and vocals alongside her partner, Andrea Martelloni, on finger picked acoustic guitar. Martelloni is also part of the engineering and production team on “The Cutty Sark Suite”, alongside Francesca Edwards and Amelia Lawn of Goldsmith’s.
More recently Accorsi has begun to experiment with electronics and has written a piece for saxophone and electronics, taking inspiration from “The Cosmicomics”, a 1965 collection of short stories by the late Italian author Italo Calvino (1923-85). She has also been involved with writing for film. Full details of her musical activities can be found at http://www.bettyaccorsi.com
Of the other musicians on the recording both Carter and MacDonald represent exciting new discoveries. Both make excellent and distinctive contributions and, like Accorsi herself, represent names that we should be hearing a lot more about in the future.
Meanwhile Hamill is a relative veteran by comparison, who has worked with saxophonists Tony Woods, Tim Whitehead and Theo Travis, pianist Jonathan Gee, guitarist James Chadwick and vocalist Karen Lane, among others. As a session player he has worked with a whole host of pop and rock musicians too, including some very big names, and appeared on a veritable string of recordings. Equally adept on electric or acoustic bass his contribution to “The Cutty Sark Suite” is invaluable. Full details of Hamill’s musical activities (and more) can be found at his website http://www.andyhamill.com
Overall I was very impressed with “The Cutty Sark Suite” and will be keeping an eye and ear open for Accorsi and her colleagues in the future.
“The Cutty Sark Suite” is available from;