Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


by Ian Mann

May 29, 2023


“Narrations” is essentially an acoustic jazz recording and in this new quartet Eagles appears to have found his perfect partners for this format.

Duncan Eagles


(Ropeadope Records RAD 706)

Duncan Eagles – saxophone, Tomasz Bura – piano, synthesiser, Max Luthert – bass, Zoe Pascal - drums

The Jazzmann has always felt a sense of personal pride with regard to his early recognition of the talent and potential of the London based saxophonist and composer Duncan Eagles.

Eagles first came to prominence as the leader and chief writer of the trio Partikel which teamed him with the talents of double bassist Max Luthert and drummer/percussionist Eric Ford. The group’s eponymous 2010 début was favourably reviewed on the Jazzmann for its “refreshing, innately tuneful and highly distinctive take on the art of the saxophone trio”.

That first Partikel album made quite an impression on the UK jazz scene as a whole and Partikel consolidated their success with 2012’s more democratic follow up, the aptly named “Cohesion”.

Each Partikel album has represented a clear artistic progression and in 2015 the group took a giant leap forward with their third offering “String Theory”  which took the radical step of augmenting the now familiar Partikel sound with the additional instrumental voices of a string quartet led by the extraordinary Benet McLean, a musician better known as a jazz pianist and vocalist.

“String Theory” was a triumph, with a live performance of Partikel plus a string quartet of McLean, second violinist David Le Page, violist Richard Jones and cellist Kate Gould  at the Arena Theatre in Wolverhampton being described on the Jazzmann as “a superb fusion of jazz, classical and electronic elements, the three components combining to create something organic, homogeneous and totally unique”.

For economic reasons Partikel also played several “String Theory” shows as a quartet with the core trio augmented by McLean’s violin only. These proved to be just as absorbing as the full septet performances, taking on a life of their own with the flamboyant McLean relishing the extra freedom this format provided as he shared the soloing with Eagles.

McLean’s sudden departure from the ranks found Partikel adapting once more with the addition of guitarist Ant Law for 2017’s “Counteraction”, an album that also included contributions from guest musicians including Anna Cooper (baritone sax, flute) and electronic sound artist Sisi Lu.

In 2022 “Anniversary Song”, which celebrated Partikel’s first ten years together, saw them return to the core trio format, performing without the aid of electronics or additional musicians. It demonstrated the remarkable rapport that Partikel have developed as a trio and is reviewed here;

Away from Partikel Eagles also co-led a quintet alongside trumpeter Mark Perry, a group that also featured Luthert,  releasing the album “Road Ahead” in 2013.

He has also worked as a sideman on recordings by electric bass specialist Cae Marle Garcia, guitarist Leo Appleyard and drummer Ollie Howell as well as appearing on Luthert’s 2014 solo album “Orbital”. He has also recorded with his brother, the alto saxophonist Samuel Eagles and his group SPIRIT, appearing on the 2017 album “Ask Seek Knock”. 2021 saw him as part of a quintet co-led by guitarist Alban Claret and trumpeter Evan Clegg on the album “The Collection”.

In 2022 Eagles appeared on the album “Ignored Advice” as part of the quartet Estraven, led by bassist and composer Chris Hyde-Harrison. Review here;

February 2019 saw the release of “Citizen”, the first recording to be issued under Eagles’ own name. The album appeared on the American label Ropeadope, presumably with the intention of giving Eagles greater international exposure.

“Citizen”, which also came to be used as a band name, introduced a quintet featuring guitarist David Preston, pianist Matt Robinson, drummer Dave Hamblett and Partikel bassist Max Luthert. 

In March 2019 Eagles brought the Citizen quintet to The Hive in Shrewsbury to perform at a concert promoted by Shrewsbury Jazz Network. The set list featured a mix of Citizen and Partikel material plus Eagles’ arrangements of the jazz standard “My One And Only Love” and “The Path Is Narrow”,  the latter written by the American saxophonist, composer and band leader Walt Weiskopf.

My account of the Shrewsbury performance, from which the majority of the above biographical details have been extracted, can be found here;

Eagles’ second solo recording for Ropeadope introduces a new quartet. The faithful Luthert remains on bass with the Polish born, London based Tomasz Bura coming in on piano and rising star Zoe Pascal at the drums.

Eagles says of the inspirations behind the recording;
 “Narrations is a slightly different album to previous albums I’ve written in that there is not one theme that unifies the music. This is a collection of individual pieces that stand together which is how the album title came about. It’s a collection of individual stories. I wanted to write music that pulls the listener into the music, like the experience when reading a book. Something that really paints a picture or atmosphere for the listener to experience,” continues Eagles. “The music explores contrasts and describes some of my own personal experiences. The music was recorded in quite ‘live’ way. I wanted to capture the energy of the performances in this music too. There is minimal editing, what you hear is what we played which gives this music the rawness and edge needed to reach out and grab the listener.”

The new album features seven Eagles originals and embraces a variety of jazz styles. It commences with “Grove Park”,  a convincing showcase for the leader’s powerful but lucid sound on tenor sax. Eagles leads the way through a composition that negotiates a series of dynamic twists and turns, with drummer Pascal delivering a performance that combines an impressive flexibility with considerable power at the appropriate junctures. Room is also found to showcase the abilities of pianist Bura, a bandleader in his own right with four solo albums to his credit. The overall style is contemporary post bop, with Eagles’ playing having evoked comparisons to that of Michael Brecker, Joshua Redman and Chris Potter. Of these I’m most reminded of Brecker and the classic “Tales From The Hudson” album from 1996, albeit with Pat Metheny’s guitar absent.

“Elden” explores broadly similar territory, but finds greater room for Luthert’s bass. As a composer Eagles has always exhibited an ear for melody and this is readily apparent here, no matter how complex the piece may become in terms of rhythm and harmony. The “Narrations” album title is appropriate in that many of these pieces are episodic, exploring a range of styles and dynamics within the course of a single piece. “Elden” includes a reflective solo piano passage from Bura alongside the more muscular tenor sax soloing of the composer. Pascal delivers another impressive performance behind the kit.

Despite the everyday ordinariness implied by the title “Suburbiton” is a near eleven minute epic that roams far and wide with a comparative strightahead feel in the early stages mutating into more far reaching explorations, including a thrillingly expansive piano solo from Bura that really showcases his talent. Eagles also stretches out on tenor, his playing powerful, fluent and melodic. Luthert is featured as a soloist, his double bass playing simultaneously melodic, resonant and dexterous. In addition to his solo there’s a duo episode with the leader that brings a nocturnal quality to the music, even when piano and drums are added, with Eagles subsequently venturing into the realms of multiphonics. Pascal responds brilliantly to the various twists and turns of the music, his drumming responsive, supportive, powerful when necessary, and full of detail.

At the halfway point of the album comes “Local Hero”, a delightful duet between Eagles and Bura that exhibits a translucent, shimmering quality. Crystalline piano is joined by breathy, plaintive tenor sax. It’s arguably the most intimate performance Eagles has committed to disc. It’s a reflective interlude that emphasises the aptness of “Narrations” as an album title.

“Severance” opens with the sound of Pascal’s drums and re-introduces the full quartet. It’s a rhythmically intense piece that elicits a terrific performance from the young drummer, who features strongly throughout on a piece that represents something of a showcase for him. He delivers his solo above a percussive piano vamp, with Bura subsequently taking over to solo at the piano, also adding a touch of synth. Eagles supplies the catchy sax hook that frames the piece but is largely content to let his colleagues express themselves.

Following the sound and fury of “Severance” comes “Rosebush”, a lovely ballad that demonstrates the gentler side of everybody in the band. Eagles’ sound is soft and lyrical, a quality matched by Bura at the piano and Luthert at the bass, while Pascal deploys brushes with great sensitivity throughout.

The album concludes in rousing fashion with “The Bakehouse”, an edifice within which the Eagles quartet certainly cook up a storm. Pascal’s drums drive the track, skilfully negotiating the various tempo changes along the way. There’s some torrential piano from Bura and hooky, garrulous tenor sax from the leader as the pair exchange ideas. There’s also a sax and drums face off as Eagles and Pascal go head to head as part of a climactic final section.

Apart from the odd dash of synthesiser “Narrations” is essentially an acoustic jazz recording and in this new quartet Eagles appears to have found his perfect partners for this format, with Pascal turning in a particularly impressive performance. It’s a recording that is more obviously rooted in the jazz tradition than “Citizen” (which featured a quintet with David Preston on guitar) or the Partikel albums, but it is none the worse for that and demonstrates Eagles’ growing assurance as a saxophonist and as a writer.

It’s a line up that is certain to represent a highly exciting live proposition. Forthcoming dates in 2023 include;

30th May - Watermill Jazz, Dorking

8th June - The Sanctuary, Twickenham

20th June - East Side Jazz Club, Leytonstone

30th June - Sunny Side Jazz Club, Oxford

7th October – Clun Valley Jazz, SpArC Theatre, Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire

I’m looking forward to catching up with Duncan at the band at the Clun Valley date in October.

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