by Ian Mann
June 04, 2014
A unified concept allied to strong written themes and colourful and imaginative improvisations mark this album out as one of the best British jazz releases of 2014. A strikingly mature statement.
Nick Malcolm Quartet
“Beyond These Voices”
(Green Eyes Records GE15)
Trumpeter Nick Malcolm is a highly versatile musician whose playing can be heard in a variety of different settings from the sunny, melodic song based jazz of Moonlight Saving Time, featuring singer Emily Wright, to the deeper, darker waters of free improvisation including his collaborative trio with cellist Hannah Marshall and vocalist Lauren Kinsella. Then there’s his work as a member of the Bristol Afrobeat Collective and with folk singer Eliza Carthy’s Wayward Band - Malcolm is lavishly talented and hugely adaptable.
Arguably his main creative outlet, Malcolm’s quartet occupies the ground where written and freely improvised music meets, resulting in a consistently absorbing blend of structure and freedom that is accessible enough to appeal to most adventurous jazz listeners. The quartet’s sound incorporates both melody and nuance, for all the freedom this is no high octane free for all.
“Beyond These Voices” builds on the success of the quartet’s highly promising 2012 début “Glimmers” (reviewed elsewhere on this site) and features the same personnel of Malcolm on trumpet, Alexander Hawkins on piano, Olie Brice on double bass and Mark Whitlam at the drums.
Malcolm and Whitlam are based in the West Country, Hawkins and Brice in London and there seems to be a bit of a buzz about the Malcolm quartet this time round with the national (i.e. London) jazz media starting to sit up and pay attention. “Beyond These Voices” has been very well received by some of the UK’s most influential jazz commentators.
As good as “Glimmers” was the new album certainly feels like a progression. I was lucky enough to see the quartet perform live recently at the Queens Head in Monmouth with Corey Mwamba’s vibraphone replacing Hawkins’ piano. Mwamba guests on three of the new album’s nine tracks and at Monmouth he was on terrific form. Amazingly this was my first live sighting of him and I was highly impressed with his approach to the vibraphone, treating it as an entire instrument, with all the possibilities that conveys, rather than as a “piano substitute”. His sheer physicality plus the theatrical element of his playing reminded me of the Chicagoan Jason Adasiewicz and speaking to Corey afterwards we discussed our mutual admiration of the Sun Rooms leader plus our shared respect for the playing of similarly adventurous vibraphonists such as Claudia Quintet’s Matt Moran and the UK’s own Orphy Robinson.
For the current UK tour Malcolm has made a point of only using Hawkins if an acoustic piano is available, rather than compromise and deploy an electric keyboard he has utilised either Mwamba or guitarist Alex Roth. It’s a valid statement - in 2012 I saw the quartet at Monmouth with Hawkins on electric piano, but good as he was it didn’t compare to the gig with Mwamba. I have every respect for Hawkins’ playing (he’s a superb Hammond organist too) but he is best served by a proper acoustic instrument.
And so on to the new album which comprises of seven Malcolm originals plus two freely improvised episodes which I’ll come to later. The album boasts illuminative liner notes by pianist Liam Noble who discusses Malcolm’s use of silence in his music, how the music resembles a conversation and how the quartet are not afraid to keep things simple. “This, I think, is incredibly brave music”, Noble concludes. Malcolm himself emphasises the balance between sound and silence and speaks of the inspiration he draws from his fellow players, musical adventurers all, who both challenge and inspire him.
The album commences with “Sidereal” which features Malcolm’s vaguely Miles-ian trumpet above the flexible rhythms of Brice and Whitlam with Hawkins providing harmonic gristle whilst simultaneously acting as the wild card with a typically imaginative solo. This is music that pushes and probes with subtlety and intelligence, superficially pretty but subtly challenging.
“There’s Lead In Their Pencils” is more sparky and energetic and nods its head in the direction of Ornette Coleman. Frequently dense and knotty it teams Hawkins’ piano with the guesting Mwamba’s vibraphone to good effect. Speaking of his trumpet sound Malcolm has described his tone as “sometimes warm and round, sometimes brighter and harder edged”. If the opener was an example of the former it’s a spikier, more effervescent trumpeter that we hear here. Malcolm takes the first solo, followed by the distinctive sound of Mwamba’s vibes which includes the use of bows on the bars. Hawkins picks up the baton seamlessly, his playing also making full use of his instrument’s dynamic range. Brice’s grounding bass and Whitlam’s colourful drumming ensure that this is a great team effort, full of twists and turns and unexpected surprises.
It’s a characteristic of Malcolm’s playing that he’s not afraid to deploy his trumpet in very exposed and open situations, witness the trumpet /drums dialogue that opens “Grimes”, a tribute to Henry of that ilk perhaps? This is a bravura display from the leader as Whitlam chatters around him and Hawkins lays down huge,chiming block chords. Eventually the music falls away to near silence, from which almost subliminal, gossamer like piano eventually emerges, still making sublime use of space. Noble references the moment in his liner notes and it’s a prime example of the musical bravery of which he speaks.
“Improvisation 1” is an animated free exchange between Malcolm’s trumpet and Brice’s bass. Brice is no stranger to these situations and he makes effective use of both pizzicato and arco techniques. Malcolm’s tone is darker than hitherto and sometimes deploys slurs and vocalised sounds. This is an example of free improv at its most uncompromising but it’s a consistently interesting and absorbing one, all the more so in the context of the album where it acts as something of an interlude or chapter marker.
It’s Brice’s bass that introduces “Views”, a more conventionally pretty piece that features Malcolm’s fragile trumpet and an uncharacteristically gentle Mwamba on vibes. It’s a kind of abstract ballad that draws on the heritage of Miles Davis but also bears the influence of Chris Batchelor and Ralph Alessi, two of Malcolm’s former tutors, particularly when the trumpeter adapts a more assertive style of playing during a lengthy solo. Whitlam’s subtly detailed drumming also impresses as Hawkins adds spare but pithy support at the piano.
The wonderfully titled “A Very Blusterous Day” also begins with Brice, the bassist joined by the colourful and imaginative Whitlam for a sparkling improvised dialogue that eventually sees Brice picking out a motif on his bass that forms the backbone of the tune. This in turn supports Malcolm’s trumpet squalls and Hawkins’ swarming piano runs, think Cecil Taylor, Myra Melford, Keith Tippett etc. So far, so Ornette but the tune then takes another turn, pausing briefly for reflection following the introduction of Mwamba’s vibes but gaining momentum again as the guest instrumentalist delivers a bravura solo that exemplifies his approach.
“Improvisation II” is the second of two spontaneous duo episodes, the conversation this time being between Hawkins and Whitlam as the leader sits out. Things begin in near silence, a recurring theme, with delicate, glacial piano and delightfully detailed small percussive shadings, the piece gradually opening like a flower. With Hawkins at his most thoughtful and with Whitlam playing the role of colourist this is a wonderful example of how improv can be genuinely beautiful.
Lone trumpet opens “It’s Alright We’re Going To The Zoo” as Malcolm once again puts his chops on the line. He’s eventually joined by Brice and Whitlam on a solo that blends the traditional with the contemporary in a fine demonstration of the modern trumpeter’s art. Hawkins distinctive, often powerful chording adds weight and colour to Malcolm’s impressive tour de force.
If “Zoo” was outgoing and rumbustious the closing “Where, Beyond These Voices, There is Peace” is its diametric opposite, developing from near silence to incorporate dark and brooding textures and extended techniques, Malcolm’s distinctive vocalised trumpet a human cry. It concludes with a passage of exaggeratedly sparse solo piano chording with Hawkins making an ECM like use of space between his phrases. It represents a convincing final example of the “play between sound and silence” (Malcolm’s words) that informs the entire album.
With Malcolm’s trumpet at its heart “Beyond These Voices” is a superb team effort and establishes the Malcolm quartet as one of the UK’s best contemporary jazz ensembles. A unified concept allied to strong written themes and colourful and imaginative improvisations mark this album out as one of the best British jazz releases of the current year. It’s a strikingly mature statement that builds upon the early promise of “Glimmers” and it’s gratifying to see Malcolm attracting the interest of a national audience.
The quartet have been touring this music and at the time of writing have one date left at The Hive Music & Media Centre in Shrewsbury on Saturday June 7th 2014. The line up will feature Malcolm, Brice, guitarist Alex Roth and drummer Ric Yarborough who appears to be a permanent replacement for Whitlam who is currently working with saxophonist Jake McMurchie in the trio Michelson Morley. I’ve watched Yarborough’s development since his days as a student at Birmingham Conservatoire and can confirm that he is fully attuned to Malcolm’s aesthetic after seeing him give an excellent performance with the quartet at Monmouth. He’s another musician who is maturing nicely and it would seem that the Nick Malcolm Quartet still has a bright future.