by Ian Mann
October 05, 2021
The compositions are intelligent & the arrangements warm, swinging & colourful. There are some excellent solos, but it’s the cohesion of the septet as a whole that is arguably most impressive.
Duncan Fraser Septet
“Soundscapes of Manhattan”
Duncan Fraser – trumpet & flugelhorn, Ronan Perrett – alto sax, Wesley Frankel – tenor & soprano saxes, clarinet, Sam Sankey – trombone, Rob Brockway – piano, Huw V Williams – bass, Luke Bainbridge – drums
Duncan Fraser is a London based trumpeter, composer, arranger and educator who emerged from the ranks of the National Youth Jazz Orchestra and subsequently studied music at Exeter University.
Now a professional musician with over a decade of experience behind him Fraser is a prolific session player who has worked with many West End shows and touring productions, notably The Blues Brothers, The Rat Pack Live!, Follies, Into the Woods and A Chorus Line. As well as performing as a musician he has also composed and arranged for theatre productions.
In addition to his activities as a session player Fraser is also active on the London jazz scene and this recently released album represents his second outing as a leader, following 2012’s Kenny Wheeler inspired “Dealing In Wheeler”, recorded by the seventeen piece Duncan Fraser Big Band, with the leader specialising on flugelhorn.
Fraser’s other commercially available release is “10 Christmas Duets For Trumpet”, a collection of arrangements of favourite Christmas tunes aimed at student trumpet players. His other educational work includes acting as Musical Director for both the Hertfordshire Youth Jazz Ensemble and the University of Hertfordshire Big Band. He also delivers jazz workshops for both NYJO and the National Youth Jazz Collective as well as offering private tuition across a range of musical disciplines, both live and online.
Fraser’s musical career has taken him to both Europe and the U.S. and this latest album is inspired by his travels to New York City. It features eight original compositions by Fraser, all inspired by individual locations in Manhattan, plus an arrangement of the John Coltrane composition “Central Park West”.
Fraser describes the work as a “concept album” with the compositions focussing on the ‘creation of imagery’. “I wanted to recreate the feelings and atmosphere I experienced in those places in the music”, he explains, “I hope people can listen to a tune and hear what I see”.
The musicians that Fraser has gathered around him to realise his vision include some of the rising stars of the UK jazz scene, namely Ronan Perrett and Wesley Frankel (reeds), Sam Sankey (trombone), Rob Brockway (piano), Huw V Williams (bass) and Luke Bainbridge (drums). Several of these, notably Perrett, Williams and Bainbridge, are composers and bandleaders in their own
The recording commences with “New Yorker’s Dream”, an upbeat, swinging theme that is designed as a ‘scene-setter’ for the rest of the album. The four horn front line allows for a suitably rich and colourful sound that sometimes sounds like a ‘mini-big band’. With the rhythm section offering unobtrusive but propulsive support the opener includes some impressive ensemble playing that emphasises Fraser’s abilities as a composer and arranger. Room is also found for fluent solo statements from Fraser, Perrett and Sankey, plus a feature for drummer Bainbridge.
“Spirit Of The Vanguard” is inspired by the famous Village Vanguard jazz club on 7th Avenue in Greenwich Village. “I saw Tom Harrell there in 2017” explains Bainbridge, “it was one of the most intense musical experiences of my life and I had to write a tune for that venue for this album, it’s such a magical room, you can feel the history.”
I was lucky enough to visit the Vanguard way back in 1996 when Jackie McLean was playing, so I know where Fraser is coming from. One of the aims of the album is for the music to inspire people who have visited New York to reminisce about their own experiences, so this certainly works for me here.
Fraser’s piece opens with an evocative horn chorale before settling into a relaxed groove, sometimes reminiscent of a classic Blue Note album. As befits a composition inspired by the great Tom Harrell Fraser’s own playing is very much to the fore, his solo imbued with something of Harrell’s own quiet intensity. Frankel follows on tenor, conjuring up memories of all the great saxophonists that have appeared at the Vanguard over the years. It’s been a magical venue for pianists too, from Bill Evans to Fred Hersch, and Brockway’s solo pays homage to keyboard heroes such as these.
“Highline Hiatus” is named after the Highline, a disused railway line that has now been transformed into an outdoor retreat running through the West Side of Manhattan, its route taking it close to the Village Vanguard. Fraser’s piece commences with the septet replicating the bustle and traffic noise of New York City, it then enters a quieter ‘waltz’ section, representing the tranquillity of the Highline, an area designated as a City Park. Frankel’s clarinet, possibly inspired by Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, and Brockway’s lyrical piano symbolise this oasis of urban peace, with Bainbridge switching to brushes. Occasionally high rise buildings loom above the trees while fragments of ‘traffic noise’ continue to intrude, “I even scored the Doppler effect for us to play”, explains Fraser.
The album was conceived as a geographical journey around Manhattan and a first brief “Subway Hop” takes us to another part of town, with Williams’ soloing on double bass above a blues form, in a style that reminded me of Charles Mingus.
Williams also introduces “Uptown”, a composition that Fraser dedicates to another of his trumpet heroes, Wynton Marsalis, a musician whose playing and writing he cites as a strong influence on the album as a whole. The blues form established on the “Subway Hop” continues, with Sankey and Fraser delivering growling, plunger muted solos on trombone and trumpet respectively, paying homage to Marsalis and to earlier pioneers such as Bubber Miley, of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Fraser moves between muted and open trumpet and his solo is followed by an expansive, blues tinged excursion from Brockway at the piano. Bainbridge then takes over for a carefully constructed solo drum feature.
Fraser’s arrangement of Coltrane’s ballad “Central Park West” features the tenor sax of Frankel, his solo set among the rich, warm textures of the overall ensemble, Frankel demonstrates his skills as a ballad soloist, while Fraser impresses in his capacity as an arranger and orchestrator. There’s also a warmly melodic double bass solo from Williams, an increasingly impressive presence on the London jazz scene.
Another short “Subway Hop” featuring Williams’ bass takes us to yet another part of town, “5th Ave & W 23rd Street”, the busy intersection situated by the famous Flatiron Building. The hustle and bustle is reflected in the music, with drummer Bainbridge leading things off and continuing to play an integral part in the arrangement. Fraser’s trumpet solo is confident and brassy and star bassist Williams also comes to the fore once more with a thrillingly dexterous solo. Perrett, leader of his own group Two Speak, cuts in with an incisive alto sax solo, with Bainbridge featuring again towards the close.
Bainbridge also ushers in the closing “Striding Over The Williamsburg Bridge”, a kind of contrafact that homages both Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. “I got the title because the bridge went down in jazz folklore as the place where Sonny Rollins went to practise all night. It was subsequently dedicated to him. I always thought it would be fun to combine Rollins’ famous ‘St. Thomas’ theme with the harmonic concept of John Coltrane, which is where ‘Striding’, a giant step, was born”.
Echoes of the calypso inspired “St. Thomas” can clearly be heard in the staccato theme, which acts as the jumping off point for solos from Brockway, Fraser and Perrett. Finally some dynamic interplay between the horns rounds things off with a closing ‘second line’ section that tips its hat in the direction of New Orleans, the city that first exported jazz to the streets of Manhattan.
Drawing on elements of swing and bebop “Soundscapes of Manhattan” is obviously a very personal project for Fraser. I was expecting something a little more contemporary from such a young septet but there is still much to enjoy as Fraser and his impressive band pay homage to the city of New York and the ‘Golden Age of Jazz’.
In accordance with his stated aims Fraser’s themes evoke a real sense of place, and a feeling of nostalgia too. The compositions are intelligent and the arrangements warm, swinging and colourful. Every individual musician plays well and there are some excellent solos, but it’s the cohesion of the septet as a whole that is arguably the most impressive aspect about the recording. This is a tribute to Fraser’s composing and arranging skills, and the music also benefits from an excellent mix courtesy of recording engineer Ben Lamdin of London’s Fish Factory Studios and a production team that also includes Fraser and engineers John Prestage (mixing) and Cicely Balston (mastering).
Fraser can be justly proud of his ‘concept album’ and it is to be hoped that he can bring these “Soundscapes of Manhattan” to the ears of British jazz audiences in a live environment in the near future.
“Soundscapes of Manhattan” is available from Fraser’s Bandcamp page, which can be reached via his website http://www.duncanfraserjazz.com
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