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Duncan Eagles Quintet

Duncan Eagles Quintet, The Hive Music & Media Centre, Shrewsbury, 09/03/2019.


by Ian Mann

March 12, 2019


"Adventurous but accessible new music". Ian Mann enjoys a performance by the new quintet led by saxophonist & composer Duncan Eagles and takes a look at their recently released début album "Citizen".

Duncan Eagles Quintet, The Hive Music & Media Centre, Shrewsbury, 09/03/2019.

Duncan Eagles – tenor & soprano saxophones, David Preston – guitar, Matt Robinson – piano, Max Luthert – double bass, Dave Hamblett - 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 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.

Away from Partikel Eagles has also co-led a quintet alongside trumpeter Mark Perry, a group that also featured Luthert, and which released the album “Road Ahead” in 2013. He has also worked as a sideman on recordings by electric bass specialist Cae Marle Garcia 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”.

Duncan Eagles’ latest project involves the quintet that the saxophonist brought to The Hive for this Shrewsbury Jazz Network gig. February 2019 saw the release of “Citizen”, the first recording to be issued under his own name. The album appears on the American label Ropeadope, presumably with the intention of giving Eagles greater international exposure.

The saxophonist says of this latest release;
“I feel now that I’m starting to get a much stronger idea of what I’m looking for compositionally. The tunes I wrote for this album are much more specific. Rather then take this music to Partikel I thought about the musicians I know who I felt would interpret the music the way I hear it in my head, and this is what has lead to my forming this new group. It feels like the right time to be putting this music out as my own.”

The musicians of whom Eagles speaks are guitarist David Preston, pianist Matt Robinson, drummer Dave Hamblett and Partikel bassist Max Luthert. “Citizen” features eight new original compositions by Eagles and in general the music is more through composed and densely written than that of Partikel. However for all the complexity Eagles has retained his ear for a good tune and the new recording includes several memorable melodies.

Having previously visited The Hive with Partikel the affable Eagles is a popular figure with Shrewsbury jazz audiences and there was a good turn out for this adventurous but accessible new music. With the full album personnel in attendance it was inevitable that the majority of the material played tonight would be sourced from the new album, but Eagles also threw a few surprises into the mix, including a single standard to help keep the audience sweet.

With Eagles specialising on tenor almost throughout the evening began with the album track “Shimmer” which commenced with a circling solo sax motif, shadowed by Preston’s suitably shimmering guitar textures and Hamblett’s mallet rumbles. As Hamblett and Luthert established a groove a typically arresting Eagles melody emerged, one that alluded to both folk and classical influences and which formed the basis for a thoughtful and fluent guitar solo from the impressive Preston. With Robinson’s keyboard holding things together we also heard from Eagles on tenor, who took the opportunity to stretch out more expansively. The performance also included something of a feature from Hamblett, one of the country’s most in demand young drummers, who has worked with pianist Ivo Neame among others, and is also a band leader in his own right.

Inspired by a visit to Thailand and Cambodia “Shimmer” had previously been played by Partikel, as was the following “Lanterns”, a piece that appeared on the “Counteraction” album. Tonight the piece was given an atmospheric and evocative arrangement with Preston again making subtle use of his various FX pedals as Hamblett moved between mallets, brushes and sticks in response to the leader’s constantly evolving tenor solo.

The first cover of the evening was “The Path Is Narrow”, written by the American saxophonist, composer and band leader Walt Weiskopf, who has recently been wowing British audiences as part of the Steely Dan touring band. Weiskopf’s tune introduced a more conventional jazz feel to the proceedings with Eagles and Preston doubling up on the melody line before the group members embarked on their individual solos, this time accompanied by an orthodox swing groove. Eagles was the first to go followed by Robinson with his first solo of the night at his Nord Stage keyboard. Preston’s fluid and inventive guitar solo than introduced a rock influence to the proceedings, a reminder of his work with the trio Preston, Glasgow, Lowe, featuring Kevin Glasgow on six string electric bass and Laurie Lowe at the drums.

It was back to the “Citizen” album repertoire for “Conquistador”, which was introduced by the deep sonorities of Luthert’s double bass. Eagles then joined him on tenor for a moody dialogue that evolved into a piece that the composer described as a “rubato ballad”. Mallet rumbles, cymbal shimmers and shadowy guitar FX all added to the atmosphere with Hamblett deploying a colourist’s role as Eagles soloed thoughtfully, probing gently before embracing something more dramatic and dynamic on this highly evocative piece.

The as yet unrecorded “92 Days” began in the piano trio format and adopted a more conventional feel with Robinson taking the first solo. The piece subsequently segued into the album track “Folk Song” which saw Eagles soloing powerfully and expansively on tenor, spurred on by Hamblett’s dynamic drumming. Hamblett and Robinson, both of whom featured prominently here, also work together in the exciting fusion-esque quartet Flying Machines, led by guitarist and composer Alex Munk.

A lengthy first set closed with the title track of the “Citizen” album which was introduced by the brief interplay of tenor, guitar and piano before Luthert established the groove that was to prove the foundation of the piece.
“Citizen has quite a dense and complex structure both rhythmically and harmonically but with a melody that moves from being a free and hopeful message to something that is darker and more part of the structure.” Eagles has explained. “When performing and improvising on this song, and throughout the album, I’m looking forward to creating something that is hopeful and optimistic within a challenging and dense framework”.
Tonight those melodies positively danced with Hamblett’s drums helping to propel solos from Eagles and Preston, the later conjuring ringing peals of notes from his guitar.

The first piece of the second half was unannounced, but by a process of elimination must have been “Taxco” from the new album. Here Eagles’ tenor playing was at its most Coltrane-esque as he shared the solos with Robinson at the piano and Preston on guitar and with Hamblett also featuring towards the close.

Robinson’s unaccompanied piano ushered in the loosely structured intro to a second “rubato ballad”, this one titled “Midnight Mass” a piece that paid homage to Eagles’ childhood Christmas memories. Appropriately it was ultimately something of a showcase for the composer’s richly emotive tenor playing.

Eagles moved to soprano for the only time to perform “Riad”, apiece inspired by a recent visit to that most evocative of cities, Marrakesh.
“One of the most striking things about that place is the peace of the riads, town houses built around a courtyard or garden, in the carnage of the souks” Eagles explains. “I used this as the basis of the tune, an intense melody builds and builds to a sudden drop of calm that comes from nowhere, and then before you realise it you are back out into the carnage again”.
Tonight’s rendition was certainly suitably labyrinthine with dazzling solos from Eagles on soprano and Robinson at the piano, arguably his best of the night.

The otherwise all original music of this second set was punctuated by Eagles’ arrangement of the standard “My One And Only Love” which saw him moving back to tenor and duetting with Luthert’s bass on the intro. With Hamblett deploying brushes throughout the leader shared the solos with Preston’s Frisell like guitar.

Returning to the new album “Cascade” was introduced by a powerful drum salvo from Hamblett, his subsequent Latin inflected grooves providing the launch pad for intense and powerful solos from Eagles and Robinson, both soloists visibly sparking off the drummer. The music took on a decidedly anthemic quality as the momentum gathered, coming full circle to close with a feature from the drummer.

This was scheduled to be the last number of the set but such was the positive reaction of the Shrewsbury audience to this powerful new music - with several of them getting to their feet - that the quintet were persuaded to play a “quick” encore. In this case “quick” turned out to refer to velocity rather than length as the band stretched out on the as yet unrecorded “Round Table”, a tune originally written for Partikel. Rooted in the virtues of bebop, but with Robert Glasper also acknowledged as an influence, this was a fast paced piece that included features for Eagles, Robinson, Preston and Hamblett with Preston delivering perhaps his strongest solo of the night, packed with agile, slippery single note lines and sophisticated chording.

Early reviews of “Citizen” have been overwhelmingly positive with Eagles’ playing compared to that of Chris Potter and the late Michael Brecker and it wouldn’t be inappropriate to add the names of Seamus Blake and Donny McCaslin to that list too.

Tonight’s performance was an excellent one all round with all of the members of the quintet acquitting themselves well. It was the first time I’d witnessed Preston playing live and I was very impressed with his contribution to the success of the performance. I’ve seen the others many times and was expecting nothing less than excellence from them.

The “Citizen” album is highly recommended.

Meanwhile the Duncan Eagles Quintet is still on tour with further dates as listed below;

12 March - Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club - opening for Ulf Wakenius and Martin Taylor
13 March - The Jazz Bar, Edinburgh
14 March - The Blue Lamp, Aberdeen
15 March - The Blue Arrow, Glasgow
22 March - Royal Festival Hall Foyer, London
29 March - The Verdict, Brighton 

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