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Dominic Howles Septet

Bristolian Thoroughfare


by Ian Mann

February 08, 2015


The richness of the writing and arrangements plus the inspired choices of unusual outside material ensure that is an album that stands out from the average hard bop inspired release.

Dominic Howles Septet

“Bristolian Thoroughfare”

(Bopcentric Music BCCD02)

Dominic Howles began his musical career in Bristol in the late 1980s as an aspiring electric bassist worshipping at the feet of Jaco Pastorius, Marcus Miller and Stanley Clarke. His musical colleagues in the city persuaded him to purchase a double bass that had allegedly once belonged to Clarke and the young Howles subsequently became something of a fixture on the jazz scene around Bristol and Bath. Out of this came the call for him and saxophonist Ben Waghorn to join the then high profile Tommy Chase Quartet and Howles made the move to London in 1990, remaining in the capital ever since. Along the way he obtained a degree from the Jazz Course at the Guildhall School of Music under the tutelage of Pete Churchill and Simon Purcell.

The purchase of that double bass obviously acted as a musical turning point and Howles now names Paul Chambers, Oscar Pettiford, Ray Brown, Dave Holland, Christian McBride and Larry Grenadier as his bass heroes. As a freelance double bassist Howles has played with a wide variety of London based musicians over the course of the last twenty plus years. Among these was Tim Richards with whom Howles appeared on the pianist’s 2010 trio album “Shapeshifting”, a recording reviewed elsewhere on this site. Howles also played on an earlier Richards trio offering, 2003’s “Twelve By Three”. Others with whom Howles has collaborated include singers Gill Cook, Anita Wardell and Christine Tobin, saxophonists Alan Skidmore, Art Themen, Don Weller and Tim Whitehead, guitarist Nigel Price and drummer Clark Tracey. 

Howles clearly remembers his early days in Bristol with a lot of affection as his liner notes make clear. However thanks to the influence of Chase and others his musical preferences have changed substantially in the intervening time, graduating from fusion to classic hard bop. The layout and typography on the back of the CD passage is a convincing facsimile of a 50s/60s Blue Note cover and that influence is also reflected in the music, particularly the five Howles originals that grace this release.  However Howles has never lost his love for a good pop song and the outside material is comprised not of jazz or bebop standards but of interesting arrangements of Prefab Sprout’s “When Love Breaks Down”, “Moving” by Supergrass and Marvin Gaye’s immortal “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”.

For this, his recording début as a leader,Howles deploys a seven piece band that features some of London’s leading musicians. The recording was made at two separate sessions during 2013 with the result that trumpet duties are shared between Steve Fishwick and Simon Da Silva. The rest of the band comprises of Allison Neale (flute), Jamie O’Donnell (alto sax), Josephine Davies( tenor sax), Nick Tomalin (piano) and Matt Fishwick (drums). The presence of four horns allows for colourful, richly textured arrangements with Neale’s flute providing a particularly distinctive instrumental voice. Howles has worked as a big band arranger and has brought some of those techniques to bear on this smaller, but surprisingly full sounding, ensemble. Duke Ellington and particularly Gil Evans are acknowledged touchstones in this respect.

The album opens with “Bristolian Thoroughfare” itself, the title an obvious nod in the direction of Bud Powell. The tune originally appeared on the Tim Richards Trio album “Shapeshifting” and represented Howles’ sole writing credit on that record. The trio version was impressive but the piece also convinces in this septet arrangement. It begins atmospherically as a minor blues with long, melancholy horn lines underscored by Tomalin’s lyrical piano and Matt Fishwick’s well judged mallet rumbles. However it quickly springs to livf as Howles and Matt Fishwick set up a ferociously swinging groove that prompts solos from Neale on airy flute, Steve Fishwick on fiery trumpet and the lively Tomalin at the piano. There’s also something of a feature for the versatile Matt FIshwick at the drums. 

“Variations On A Riff” has even more of a classic Blue Note feel about it and gives the two saxophonists the chance to demonstrate their chops. O’Donnell goes first, his incisive tone reminiscent of Phil Woods. He hands over to the equally impressive Davies who in turn passes the baton on to Tomalin. But it’s not just about the soloists, the bright, swinging ensemble sound is also a delight.

Paddy McAloon’s song “When Love Breaks Down” was a hit for Prefab Sprout sometime back in the 1980s. Howles states that his re-imagining of the song was inspired by Herbie Hancock’s treatment of “Norwegian Wood” - “I wanted that thing where you keep the tune the same and do something to the harmony”. His re-working includes rich and unusual harmonies with Neale’s flute again prominent, plus cogent solo statements from O’Donnell on alto, Steve Fishwick on trumpet and the leader at the bass.   

“Sunset In Vancouver” actually has a Latin feel but there’s a touch of sadness amongst the warmth.
The lush arrangement, again with a key role for Neale’s flute features eloquent solos from Steve Fishwick on trumpet and Davies on tenor sax.

“Moving”, by the Oxford based indie rockers Supergrass represents an unusual choice but the breezily effervescent jazz arrangement seems like a perfectly natural fit with its airy blend of horns including Da Silva’s muted trumpet. Davies’ warmly loquacious tenor solo is a delight and she’s followed by Neale’s frothy flute as the ladies take over.

For “Billy’s Bridge” Howles draws on some of the harmonic ideas from Billy Strayhorn’s celebrated “Chelsea Bridge” and the result is a warm, but not cloying, ballad, with lush textures and harmonies and with fluently elegant solos from O’Donnell on alto and Howles himself on double bass.

Howles’ talent for ingenious jazz arrangements of pop tunes is demonstrated by his treatment of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”, a supremely adaptable song as demonstrated by the very different versions by Marvin Gaye and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Howles’ jazz adaptation alternates between modal and swing passages and incorporates ebullient solos from Neale, O’Donnell and drummer Matt Fishwick.

The title of the closing “Ease Up” is something of a misnomer. Instead it’s what Howles refers to as “an out and out groove tune”, the type of Blue Note style boogaloo that flourished in the wake of Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder”. It’s undeniably swinging, upbeat and infectious with fine solos from Davies on blues tinged tenor and Steve Fishwick on Morgan styled trumpet plus a welcome return to the front line for Tomalin on piano.

“Bristolian Thoroughfare” doesn’t exactly break ground but the richness of the writing and arrangements plus the inspired choices of unusual outside material ensure that is an album that stands out from the average hard bop inspired release. The playing is superb throughout with the four horn players contributing some fine solos. Howles carefully measures his own contributions (only two bass solos) but his playing is always at the heart of the music and he, Matt Fishwick and Tomalin make an excellent rhythm team.  One would imagine that this all star ensemble is a group that can really deliver the goods in a live context. All in all a worthy homage to the city of Bristol and to Howles’ many musical influences. 

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