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New Era


by Ian Mann

June 26, 2015


The writing is imaginative and evocative and the playing by all members of the ensemble is excellent throughout. It's a release that has been well worth waiting for.


“New Era”

(F-ire Presents F-IRE CD 78)

Entropi is a quintet led by London based alto saxophonist and composer Dee Byrne. “New Era” is the group’s début recording and features Byrne alongside the talents of Andre Canniere (trumpet), Rebecca Nash (piano & keyboards), Olie Brice (double bass) and Matt Fisher (drums).

I was lucky enough to witness this line up performing virtually all of the album material at the 2014 EFG London Jazz Festival. The group appeared as part of a double bill with Quadraceratops at the Long White Cloud in Hoxton, home of the LUME project co-ordinated by Byrne and Cath Roberts, fellow saxophonist and leader of the band Quadraceratops. Under the LUME banner Byrne and Roberts organise regular jazz and improvised music events at the Long White Cloud and also at The Vortex in nearby Dalston. It’s hard not to be impressed by the entrepreneurial spirit of these two enterprising young women and it’s good to see their leadership débuts (Roberts’ Quadraceratops released their first album on Efpi Records in 2014) both attracting a high degree of critical acclaim.

Byrne is something of a polymath. She earned a degree in Linguistics and Literature at Stockholm University before achieving a Masters in Jazz Performance at Trinity College of Music in London where she was tutored by an impressive array of jazz talent including saxophonists Martin Speake, Julian Siegel and Jean Toussaint, pianists Andrea Vicari and Liam Noble and composer Issie Barratt. She plays in a variety of groups including the electro-improvising duo Deemer, the eight piece saxophone ensemble Saxoctopus and the Word of Moth quartet which she co-leads with LUME co-founder Cath Roberts. There is also the Zonica sextet, another electro-improvising outfit and a new trio with Rebecca Nash and Percy Pursglove. As a sidewoman she has performed in jazz groups led by bassists Vicky Tilson and Paul Baxter and as part of soul combos the Soul Immigrants and the Xantone Blacq Band. She makes an excellent contribution to “Mojo Risin’”, the latest album by the Vicky Tilson Quartet which was released earlier in 2015 on the F-ire Presents label (reviewed elsewhere on this site). 

Byrne’s status as a polymath is given even greater emphasis by “New Era”, a semi-conceptual affair whose eight original compositions reflect Byrne’s fascination with the cosmos and space travel and with the notions of chance and fate. Her compositions provide a sturdy framework for a high degree of group interaction with both Byrne and bassist Olie Brice particularly adept at building bridges between the composed and improvised worlds.

The relationship between order and chaos is a central theme throughout the album as typified by the opening title tack which Byrne’s album notes describe as depicting; “a new dawn emerges from a period of uncertainty”. A suitably freely structured opening featuring the intertwining horns of Byrne and Canniere quickly settles into a more formal structure with readily accessible riffs and melodies that provides the launch pad for expansive and impressive solos from Byrne and Canniere with Nash’s distinctive, trilling Rhodes at the heart of the arrangement. Ironically this was the only piece from the album that was not played at the Long White Cloud performance.

“Mode For C” was inspired by John Coltrane’s composition “Miles Mode” and opens with a kind of group chorale before a bebop style theme emerges that provides the jumping off point for a garrulous alto solo by Byrne that gravitates into an animated dialogue with Canniere who subsequently slows the pace down for his own trumpet solo. The highly flexible rhythm section responds to these changes of style and mood with great acumen as jagged piano chording and busy bass and drums seamlessly morph into something far more sparse and sympathetic.

Byrne states that “In Flux”  “explores the ever changing and insecure nature of existence”. The piece begins with short, clipped phrases that hint at the influence of minimalist composers. It then opens out to encompass thoughtful and articulate solos from Byrne on alto and Canniere on trumpet but it’s Nash on piano that steals the show with a solo that builds from quiet beginnings to embrace an almost rhapsodic joyousness - “offering a sense of release”, as the accompanying press blurb puts it.

It’s Nash’s unaccompanied Rhodes that introduces “Orbit”, her spacey sounds later the backdrop for a fleeting musical conversation between Byrne and Canniere before the main theme emerges. A repeated Rhodes led motif subsequently facilitates a lengthier and more animated sax and trumpet dialogue before Nash also provides the underpinning for an intelligent, well constructed feature from drummer Matt Fisher.

Byrne describes “Exploration Part 1” as “a journey into the cosmos”. Bright unison horns and Fisher’s brushed drum grooves introduce a sparklingly expansive solo from Nash as the music temporarily shifts into piano trio mode. The music gravitates toward the avant garde with Byrne’s exploratory alto solo and Brice’s subsequent bass feature. We also hear from Fisher again, this time deploying an atmospheric array of percussion in addition to the rumblings of his kit. Deep space indeed.

“Crippled Symmetry” examines “serendipitous events” and asks “are they chance encounters or is there a greater force behind them?”. Byrne’s compositional process involved “giving each musician in the band individual phrases of varying lengths that meet at various points in the piece and then diverge”. It all sounds rather dry and academic but in fact there are recognisable melodies and the “cathartic rock section” that follows is undeniably thrilling with a blistering alto solo from Byrne.
Canniere’s more considered trumpet solo again lowers the temperature as the music takes something of an academic turn once more.

“Another journey into the cosmos” is Byrne’s deadpan comment regarding “Exploration Part II”, a remark that infers that she doesn’t take herself as seriously as some of the other album notes might suggest. The music here embraces an absorbing alto and trumpet dialogue above an underpinning Rhodes motif and Fisher’s loosely constructed drum atmospherics. In its own way it’s really rather lovely. 

“Space Module” depicts an alien invasion and begins with the group in the outer reaches of the universe and generating some seriously other worldly sounds in a very loosely structured intro. Later the horns are subjected to some discreet electronic embellishment and Nash’s Rhodes solo helps to maintain the spacey feeling. Later there’s also something of a drum feature from Fisher that helps to bring the music back down to earth. 

Despite the sci-fi trappings “New Era” is an album with its roots in bebop and hard bop but subsequently filtered through a prism of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Herbie Hancock and Sun Ra plus other more contemporary influences. There are bop flavoured riffs and themes,  modal passages, free jazz squalls and splashes of Bitches Brew / Headhunters style fusion.

Byrne’s writing is imaginative and evocative and the playing by all members of the ensemble is excellent throughout with engineer Ben Lamdin’s pinpoint mix serving the musicians well. “New Era” is an album that reveals fresh facets with each new listening, as is always the best way. Accessible yet experimental it’s a release that has been in the pipeline for quite some time but it’s one that has been well worth waiting for.

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