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Brian Molley Quartet

Modern Traditions

by Ian Mann

December 31, 2021


“Modern Traditions” finds Molley and his bandmates continuing to build bridges between the jazz of the past and the jazz of the present. A worthy addition to the BMQ catalogue.

Brian Molley Quartet

“Modern Traditions”

(BGMM Records BGMM 003)

Brian Molley – tenor & soprano saxophones, flute, clarinet, bass clarinet,
Tom Gibbs – piano, Brodie Jarvie – bass, Stu Brown – drums

Scottish reeds player Brian Molley was a founding member of the acclaimed reeds/brass group Brass Jaw and appeared on their début album “Burn” back in 2006. Since those days Molley has been a busy figure on the Scottish music scene appearing with a wide variety of jazz, classical and pop ensembles including the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra.

He formed his own quartet in 2012 and this unit has produced two critically acclaimed albums, “Clock” (2013) and “Colour and Movement” (2017). Both of these releases have been favourably reviewed elsewhere on The Jazzmann.

 The quartet has toured regularly with their schedule taking them to the USA for two successful club dates in New York City (Silvana in Harlem and WhyNotJazzRoom in Greenwich Village)  plus an appearance as part of the “Made in the UK” strand at Rochester Jazz Festival in 2015.

The quartet has also worked intensively in India, playing a short series of tour dates in 2017 as well as collaborating with the Asin Langa Ensemble,  a collection of Rajasthani folk musicians. The Asin Langa Ensemble was then invited to the UK to tour with the Molley Quartet in 2018 and their collaborative track “Journeys In Hand”, composed by Molley, appeared on Songlines Magazine’s covermount CD in June 2018.

The quartet have since continued their collaborations with Indian musicians, touring India with Chennai based percussionist Krishna Kishor, including a headline appearance at Madras Jazz Festival. A remotely recorded album, titled “Intercontinental”, is scheduled for release in 2022.

Closer to home the quartet have featured at Edinburgh Jazz Festival on three occasions as part of the Festival’s “Made in Scotland” programme. They have also appeared at the Glasgow and Manchester Jazz Festivals and recorded a 2017 live session for BBC Radio 3’s Jazz Line-Up show.

One of Molley’s longest running engagements has been as a member of drummer Stu Brown’s Twisted Toons project, the critically acclaimed interpretation of the music of composer and musical inventor Raymond Scott, the man best known for the soundtracks of Bugs Bunny and other Loony Tunes cartoons. Brown released the album “Twisted Toons” in 2009 and the success of the project has ensured that he has toured it extensively (I caught his sextet, featuring Molley at Black Mountain Jazz in Abergavenny in 2012) including several prestigious jazz festival appearances including Cheltenham, Manchester, Gateshead and London. 

Brown has since broadened his remit to explore the music of other composers of music for cartoons such as Carl Stalling and Scott Bradley.

In 2013 Brown returned the favour by occupying the drum stool on the album “Clock”, a position that he still continues to hold. Pianist Tom Gibbs, also a bandleader and composer in his own right, has also been with the quartet since its inception. Gibbs is also the pianist in Brown’s Raymond Scott project and can also be heard on the “Twisted Toons” album. His own quartet album, the excellent “Fear Of Flying”, was released in 2012 on Whirlwind Recordings.

“Modern Traditions” sees Brodie Jarvie taking over on bass from Mario Caribe, the Brazilian born musician who has long been a resident of Edinburgh and a key presence on the Scottish music scene.

Jarvie is from a slightly younger generation of Scottish jazz musicians and has previously been heard as a member of a trio led by pianist and composer Peter Johnstone. A bandleader and composer in his own right he has also led his own septet (featuring Johnstone), quintet and trio and is a member of the collaborative quartet Pull. He is also part of the seven piece Guy Salomon Project, led by drummer, composer and bandleader Guy Salomon.

Turning now to “Modern Traditions”, an apt title given Molley’s obvious love of the jazz tradition and his consistently successful attempts to put a modern slant on it through the medium of his own writing and playing.

The programme on this new album features six Molley originals, plus two intriguing arrangements of two ‘outside’ pieces, both songs that originally appeared as part of movie soundtracks. I’m grateful to Brian for supplying me with his notes on the individual tracks in addition to the standard press release. His observations help to put the music into context and certainly enhance the listener’s understanding and enjoyment of the finished recording.

Molley describes album opener “Magic Ten” as “a kind of wonky blues, which should be twelve bars long but has ten instead, hence the title”. It was the last track to be written for the album and was composed during the second Covid lockdown period, with Molley attempting to bring a positive, optimistic vibe to the music. The piece also includes New Orleans style marching rhythms, these forming the basis for the lively interplay between Molley on tenor and Gibbs at the piano, both of whom also deliver fluent and expansive solos, while Brown’s colourful drums also come to the fore.  A lively, invigorating and agreeably quirky start.

Following the high energy opener Molley demonstrates his versatility with the tender ballad “Lullabye -Bye”, a tune that has been in the quartet’s repertoire for some time. Molley’s tone on tenor is lush and lyrical, qualities matched by Gibbs at the piano as Jarvie and Brown offer sympathetic, nuanced support. “There’s a sense of ebb and flow throughout, with builds in dynamic intensity followed by more considered passages”, explains Molley as he and Gibbs share lyrical solos.

Jarvie’s bass introduces Molley’s arrangement of the song “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes”, sourced from the Disney film “Cinderella”. The tune, credited to Mack David, Al Hoffman and Jerry Livingston, dates back to the ‘Great American Songbook’ era but is a favourite of Molley’s six year old daughter. The saxophonist admits to having “added a new meter and moved the harmony around a little bit”, but states that it was still his aim to capture something of the spirit of the original. With Molley still on tenor the performance retains something of the warmth and lyricism of the previous piece, while the rhythmic and harmonic alterations add an element of intrigue that help to give the arrangement a contemporary edge. Gibbs and Molley share the solos whilst continuing to demonstrate a high level of mutual rapport. Jarvie steps out of the shadows with a melodic and neatly constructed bass solo.

The title of “Bletchley” represents a particularly creative piece of wordplay from composer Molley. The piece is part inspired by the 1985 Wynton Marsalis album “Black Codes from the Underground”, a recording that also featured Wynton’s brother, saxophonist Branford Marsalis. The “coding element” in the album’s title led to the more obviously British “Bletchley” reference.
This composition finds the quartet ramping up the energy levels again on a piece that Molley describes as having “a high energy bustle throughout, in driving contemporary swing”. This facilitates a sparkling piano solo from Gibbs and a lithe and incisive solo from the leader on tenor, all driven along by Jarvie’s propulsive bass lines and Brown’s neatly energetic drumming.

“The Trolley Song”, written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, was made famous by Judy Garland in the 1944 movie “Meet Me in St. Louis”. It was later performed as a jazz instrumental by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Molley’s version is a vehicle for his arranging skills as he overdubs the intro deploying flutes, saxes and clarinets. Once again the harmony is altered, giving this version “a melancholic, monochromatic feel as a little antidote to the striking vivid technicolour of the original”. The rest of the quartet eventually join in, but the mood of introspection remains throughout, with Molley and Gibbs contributing fluent, thoughtful solos on tenor and piano respectively.

The title of “Nimble Royal’s” is an anagram of Molley’s name, but also a homage to jazz royalty in the shapes of saxophonist Charlie Parker and pianist Thelonious Monk. Molley’s composition seeks to take something of their styles and to incorporate them with “a few more contemporary ideas”. The result is a lively, agreeably be-boppish performance featuring Molley’s appropriately agile tenor soloing and Gibbs’ similarly skilled, but not slavishly Monk-ish,  piano feature. Jarvie impresses with an extended double bass solo and Brown enjoys a series of brisk, colourful drum breaks as he trades fours with Molley and Gibbs. Parker and Monk remain a huge influence on modern day jazz musicians and as Molley observes; “it seems odd, even after eighty or so years, to consider these musicians as anything other than contemporary”. It’s a comment that typifies the concept behind “Modern Traditions”.

“Sinkapace for Mary and Philip” brings about another change of mood and pace. Molley describes the piece as a “rather morbid waltz” and states that it was written as “a kind of first wedding dance for Queen Mary and King Philip of Spain, the 16th century spouses who were quite possibly the most disastrous couple in the history of the Royal Family”. He goes on to explain that a sinkapace is an “ancient form of dance, that like the melody begins with five paces”.
The piece is reflective in feel, stately yet sombre, with the emphasis on the ebb and flow of the overall group performance rather than the individual solos, even allowing for the lyrical contributions of both Molley and Gibbs.

The album concludes with “Sarah Said”, inspired by the great vocalist Sarah Vaughan. Molley began to re-work the singer’s version of the jazz standard “Tenderly” before it became “moulded into something quite different”. The result is a vibrant composition that mixes latin and swing elements and which elicits a suitably joyous and celebratory performance from the quartet, with Molley and Gibbs contributing vivacious solos above the infectious rhythms laid down by Jarvie and Brown.

“Modern Traditions” finds Molley and his bandmates continuing to build bridges between the jazz of the past and the jazz of the present. Their ‘modern mainstream’ approach continues to attract critical acclaim and the reaction to “Modern Traditions” has been overwhelmingly positive, with the album even gaining a four star review in the rock magazine Mojo.

After nearly ten years of existence it remains a very well balanced group, subtly led by Molley’s tenor but with a strong level of mutual rapport between founder members Molley, Gibbs and Brown and with new bassist Jarvie fitting in seamlessly. The intelligence and quality of the writing and the arrangements raises the album above the level of the average ‘standards’ session, but without frightening the horses too much. A worthy addition to the BMQ catalogue.

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