by Ian Mann
January 13, 2022
It’s a hugely ambitious recording that embraces elements of jazz, classical, pop, soul, r’n’b and more and does so brilliantly, blending them into a cohesive and convincing whole.
(Jazz re;freshed JRF0023)
Daniel Casimir – double & electric bass, Moses Boyd – drums, Al MacSween – piano, keyboards, Nubya Garcia – tenor sax, James Copus – trumpet
Sean Gibbs, Andy Davies – trumpets
Tom Dunnet, Rosie Turton – trombones
Faye MacCalman, Sam Rapley – clarinets,
Gareth Lockrane – flute
Rebekah Reid, Rhiannon Dimond – violins
Julia Dos Reis – viola
Miranda Lewis – cello
Ria Moran – vocals
Bassist, composer and bandleader Daniel Casimir grew up in Greenford, West London and later graduated from the Jazz Course at Birmingham Conservatoire. He subsequently returned to London to complete a Masters degree at Trinity Laban. He has also been involved with the Tomorrow’s Warriors organisation and in recent years has begun to emerge as one of the rising stars of the UK jazz scene.
I first remember seeing Casimir play way back in 2011 during his student days in Birmingham, when he appeared with alto saxophonist Chris Young’s band at the Mostly Jazz Festival.
In 2012 he was part of a student ensemble that performed alongside the great American saxophonist Chris Potter at that year’s Cheltenham Jazz Festival.
Since he joined the professional ranks I have enjoyed seeing and hearing Casimir’s playing in bands led by drummer Clark Tracey, guitarist Leo Appleyard, pianist Sarah Tandy and saxophonists Camilla George, Nubya Garcia, Jean Toussaint and Binker Golding. Others with whom Casimir has worked are pianists Ashley Henry and Jason Rebello and the American musicians Makaya McCraven (drums) and the late Lonnie Liston Smith (keyboards).
However none of this had prepared me for the magnificent achievement that is “Boxed In”. The album reveals Casimir to be far more than ‘just a bass player’, instead he emerges as a composer and bandleader of considerable substance. The success of the album also led to him being awarded the prize for “Instrumentalist of the Year” at the 2021 Jazz FM Awards.
“Boxed In” is actually Casimir’s third recording under his own name following the 2017 EP “Escapee” and the 2019 album “These Days”, a jointly led project with vocalist and songwriter Tess Hirst.
The new album features a core quintet comprised of Casimir’s old friends, all of them rising stars on the London jazz scene, with drummer Moses Boyd and saxophonist Nubya Garcia already well established. Trumpeter James Copus, who released his own impressive début “Dusk” in 2020, and versatile pianist Al MacSween complete the line up.
The album also features Casimir’s highly accomplished writing for orchestra, the core quintet being augmented by an eleven piece brass / woodwind / strings ensemble featuring leading players from both the jazz and classical spheres. Two pieces feature the vocals of Ria Moran, which broadens the scope of the album even further to embrace pop, soul and r’n’b influences.
“Boxed In” is a reflection on the institutional barriers black musicians and composers face in today’s music industry. Even during his time studying at two of the UK’s leading music education establishments Casimir was never given the opportunity to write for an orchestra, as he explains;
“I’ve always been interested in writing for orchestra but I’ve never really been given the opportunity, despite going to conservatoires, doing a masters etc. I was just never given that choice. I was one of only two black musicians in the conservatoire during my four years. These things have become so normalised that you can almost miss the injustice of it”.
“I really respect the conservatoire experience and what they have done for me but I feel that there is a problem in the division between classical music and jazz in this setting. With jazz having more black musicians than classical music this divide affects black creators and lessens opportunities to explore classical orchestration. It was the support that I have found within the jazz community that has allowed me to explore this project despite the barriers”.
With regard to the “Boxed In” project Casimir has drawn inspiration from saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s orchestral projects and also from the great composer and producer Quincy Jones, with whom he has been able to converse.
Even more key to the nature of the project has been the writing of the writer Derek Owusu and his 2019 collection of essays “Safe”, which reflect on the Black British male experience. “Safe” informs the broad thematic skeleton of the album with the three part composition of the same name punctuating the album and dividing it into three separate sections.
Indeed the album commences with the sweeping “Safe Part 1”, which combines orchestral textures and jazz big band sounds with elements of Roni Size inspired drum’n’bass. It’s a distinctive and attention grabbing sound, still very much recognisable as jazz, with Copus on trumpet and Garcia on tenor contributing fluent and powerful solos, while drummer Boyd fulfils an important role throughout.
The title track follows, combining strong grooves, anthemic orchestral and big band ensemble writing, and the soaring solos of Garcia and Copus as the pair enter into a series of uplifting instrumental exchanges.
“New Waters” introduces a fresh element as it extracts samples from the title track, giving the music a lustrous electronic sheen. It also adds the singing of Ria Moran, the use of vocals and lyrics reflecting the young Casimir’s enthusiasm for the sound of Motown. But this lustrous pop-soul confection is a far more modern affair with its roots in contemporary r’n’b and 21st century urban culture.
The leader’s distinctive and authoritative bass playing introduces “Your Side”, which recalls the ‘blaxploitation’ movie soundtracks of the 1970s with flute and muted trumpet prominent in the arrangement alongside the lush string and brass textures. There’s a fluent muted trumpet solo, presumably played by Copus, eventually superseded by Garcia on tenor as the insistent grooves of Casimir and Boyd continue to push the music forward. The retro feel is later balanced by modern production techniques, with Boyd’s drums coming to the fore at one juncture.
“Safe Part 2” continues the mood and provides the link into the next phase of the album. This piece sees MacSween stepping into the limelight for the first time with an expansive acoustic piano solo.
The leader’s melodic double bass soloing is also featured, a welcome reminder of his talents in this regard.
“Get Even” is the second song to feature Nubiyan Twist vocalist Moran and combines contemporary hip hop inspired grooves with lush orchestral textures and the soulful voice of the singer. The lyrics, part spoken, part sung are revenge themed, but the overall sound is uplifting, with Garcia weighing in with a fluent and melodic tenor sax solo.
The “Safe” series of pieces have been described as “a suite within a suite”. The third and final movement combines an urgent, shuffling drum groove with some superb ensemble playing. The way in which Casimir integrates the various sections of his ‘orchestra’ - core quintet, brass, woodwinds and strings – is masterful. There’s the feeling that the overall ensemble is very much thinking and playing as one, this is far more than a ‘plus strings’ or ‘plus orchestra’ recording, it’s far more rounded and organic than that. Inevitably individuals will stand out, notably Garcia and Copus, but only in their roles as featured soloists.
“Into The Truth” is a collective fanfare for quintet and orchestra that segues straight into “The Truth” itself, introduced by Boyd’s drums but a continuation of the previous piece, with Copus taking the lead in the early stages. Lockrane’s flute also comes into focus as part of the rich ensemble texturing. MacSween is the principal soloist with an expansive excursion on acoustic piano.
“Rewind The Time” marks a return to r’n’b flavoured song territory as vocalist Moran delivers a perceptive lyric, augmented by the very contemporary grooves laid down by Casimir and Boyd. The deployment of modern production techniques also emphasises the song’s topicality.
The album closes with the upbeat sounds of the baldly titled “Outro”, bringing a colourful splash of Afrobeat to the music with Copus and Garcia exchanging melodic ideas, and with Lockrane’s flute again a distinctive presence in the arrangement. Even more distinctive are the leader’s mobile but propulsive grooves, plus his agile and melodic solo on electric bass. MacSween is the other featured soloist, this time appearing on electric piano.
The title “Boxed In” may refer to a kind of institutional racism, but in musical terms it’s a complete misnomer. Casimir is anything but ‘boxed in’ and tackles a wide range of music with flair, intelligence and consummate skill. It’s a hugely ambitious recording that embraces elements of jazz, classical, pop, soul, r’n’b and more and does so brilliantly, blending them into a cohesive and convincing whole. Casimir’s orchestrations are bright, colourful and consistently interesting and engaging, the sound lush and lustrous but without ever being ‘slick’ or cloying.
The core quintet all perform brilliantly throughout with Garcia, Copus and MacSween all delivering memorable solos as well as integrating superbly with the ensemble as a whole. At the heart of the music are the bass of Casimir and the drumming of the brilliant Boyd, very much the leader’s ‘right hand man’ with regard to this project. The rhythm team galvanise the ensemble as a whole and help to elicit a series of superb performances, which in turn do justice to the quality of the composing and arranging.
In terms of its scope, ambition and diversity “Boxed In” reminds me of the music of Kamasi Washington, which represents a considerable compliment. Casimir’s boundary defying album has garnered considerable critical acclaim and rightly so and it is to be hoped that his music reaches out to a wide, cross genre listenership.
It may be a bit glib to call Casimir “the UK’s answer to Kamasi Washington” but it is an indication as to where he’s coming from and Washington’s many fans are likely to love this. For myself I was just stunned at how good this album actually is. Let’s hope Casimir will be able to perform this music with this ensemble at some of the UK’s leading jazz festivals.
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