by Ian Mann
January 07, 2024
“UltraSound” represents an excellent example of contemporary jazz played in a predominately hard bop style and features some impressive writing and some exceptional playing.
Erskine & Kavuma
(Banger Factory Records – BF006)
Theo Erskine tenor sax, Mark Kavuma – trumpet, Noah Stoneman – piano, Michael Shrimpling – double bass, Shane Forbes – drums
“UltraSound” represents the first release from a new quintet co-led by tenor saxophonist Theo Erskine and trumpeter Mark Kavuma. It appears on Kavuma’s Banger Factory record label, an imprint dedicated both to the trumpeter’s own music and to that of the wider London jazz scene.
Born in Uganda Kavuma moved to Peckham, London at the age of ten and has since established himself on the capital’s music scene. He has been a regular presence on the Jazzmann web pages and his albums “Kavuma” (Ubuntu Music, 2018) and “The Banger Factory” (Ubuntu, 2019) are both reviewed elsewhere on this site.
Credited to Mark Kavuma & The Banger Factory 2021’s “Arashi No Ato” featured an expanded line up and represented the first release on the Banger Factory record label. It is also reviewed elsewhere on the Jazzmann, as is “Back to Back”, a 2022 recording featuring a trio co-led by Kavuma and Artie Zaitz, a musician best known as a guitarist. However this Banger Factory Records release features both Zaitz and Kavuma playing keyboards and is a surprising success, a record that very much exceeded my expectations.
The Banger Factory back catalogue also includes “Legacy” (2021), an album that celebrated the 21st anniversary of Kinetika Bloco, the community big band that nurtured the talents of the young Kavuma. The trumpeter is just one of a number of significant alumni who make contributions to a very successful and enjoyable album, which is also reviewed elsewhere on The Jazzmann.
The Erskine & Kavuma quintet has its roots in Warriors, a sextet formed immediately after lockdown that featured Erskine and Kavuma plus Ruben Fox (bass clarinet), Deschanel Gordon (piano), Conor Chaplin (double bass) and Luca Caruso (drums). This line up recorded the digital / vinyl release “Warriors” on Banger Factory in 2022. It’s the only Kavuma album that I haven’t actually heard.
I’m grateful to publicist Emma Perry for forwarding me a special CD review copy of “UltraSound”, which is otherwise available on vinyl or digital only. I have to admit that prior to receiving the recording I knew nothing about saxophonist Theo Erskine. Online research hasn’t revealed much more, other than the fact that Erskine hails from Bristol and is now based in London. His influences include Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane.
Together with saxophonists Ruben Fox and Mussinghi Brian Edwards, two other Kavuma associates, he formed part of the Tenor Madness quintet (with Artie Zaitz on Hammond) that appeared at the 2021 EFG London Jazz Festival. He has also been associated with rising star guitarist / vocalist / songwriter Oscar Jerome, the latter once of the London based Afro-beat ensemble Kokoroko.
As far as I can tell “UltraSound” represents Erskine’s recording debut. It features a new ensemble that sees the co-leaders joined by rising star pianist Noah Stoneman, Kavuma regular Michael Shrimpton on double bass and the vastly experienced Shane Forbes, of Empirical fame, at the drums.
At a little over half an hour in duration “UltraSound” falls somewhere between an EP and a full length album. It features five tracks and was recorded at Erskine’s studio in Forest Hill, south London. Like the “Warriors” release it very much a product of lockdown, with many of the musical ideas that find expression on the finished album having been formulated during this period.
Written by bassist Michael Shrimpling the title of the opening track “IT” was inspired by the quintet’s shared love of the music of Thelonious Monk, and particularly the pianist’s album “Live At The It Club”. The group’s sound here draws on the influence of Monk, hard bop era Blue Note recordings, and a more contemporary London sensibility. Drums, bass and piano introduce the piece, with Stoneman’s playing exhibiting a discernible Monk influence. Erskine and Kavuma state the theme in unison before the young saxophonist delivers the first full length solo. As befits a saxophonist who cites Rollins and Coltrane as influences Erskine’s sound is robust, fluent and distinctive, with Phil Johnson of London Jazz News comparing his playing to that of Johnny Griffin, and perhaps more notably that of former Monk saxophonist Charlie Rouse. Kavuma follows on trumpet, his playing bright, brassy and fluent. Shrimpling’s dexterous double bass solo provides a more reflective moment, but still retains an unstoppable sense of swing. Finally the co-leaders come together once more for a closing theme statement. All in all a highly enjoyable start.
American bass player and composer Russell Hall’s ballad “The Loneliest” was chosen as a response to the Covid era and explores “how peace is drawn from inward sources in the loneliest of times”. Introduced by Stoneman at the piano it elicits sensitive performances from all the members of the quintet, with Forbes deploying brushes throughout. Stoneman is an intelligent and lyrical piano soloist while Kavuma adopts a warm, conversational tone for his trumpet feature. Another beautiful version of this tune appears on the 2022 album “Uptown in Orbit” by the American pianist Emmet Cohen, a recording on which composer Hall actually plays.
There’s an increase in energy levels with the appropriately ebullient “The Return of Johnny Bravo”, a composition that represents the excitement felt by the members of the band when they were finally able to return to the ‘musical front line’ following the easing of lockdown restrictions. The piece hurtles along at a rapid pace, driven by Forbes’ drums, with a tricky bebop style head followed by bravura solos from Kavuma on trumpet, Erskine on tenor and Stoneman at the piano. The dynamic Forbes, a key presence throughout, is rewarded with a volcanic drum feature towards the close.
2023 saw the release of Stoneman’s debut recording, a piano trio album that also featured bassist Will Sach and drummer Luca Caruso. The curiously titled “Anyone’s Quiet: Let it Rain to You” has attracted a good deal of critical acclaim, not least from The Jazzmann, and revealed Stoneman to be a composer of considerable promise and distinction.
For this current recording Stoneman contributes “June”, another piece written to celebrate the lifting of lockdown and presumably named for the month in which that happened. The music has a relaxed, sunny feel, paced by Stoneman’s gentle piano and the soft patter of Forbes’ hand drumming. Erskine and Kavuma double up on the gorgeously melodic theme, before eventually embarking on a series of similarly lush and lucid tenor and trumpet exchanges. The composer then embarks on an expansive piano solo that amply demonstrates his capabilities as an instrumentalist. The closing passage sees Forbes’ drums effectively taking the lead.
The recording concludes with “The Day After”, another upbeat piece that celebrates the eventual return to normality, post-pandemic. “When we got together and were planning UltraSound the hope element was very appropriate”, explains Kavuma, “we sped the tune up and looked at ‘the day after’ as the day after the storm, new beginnings, a fresh start and the end of an era”.
That hope finds expression in an uplifting group performance that sees Stoneman’s piano playing a prominent part in the opening passages. Erskine and Kavuma unite on the main theme, before diverging to deliver fluent individual solos. The consistently impressive Stoneman follows on piano. A second theme statement then evolves into another series of horn exchanges between the co-leaders as the album draws to a close.
The music on “UltraSound” has been described as ‘retro’, although not in a pejorative sense. There can be no doubting the quintet’s shared love for the music of the bebop / hard bop era and of Thelonious Monk in particular, as Kavuma explains; “Monk is a big influence of mine, Theo and all the musicians on this record”. He also describes Monk as “The High Priest of Modern Music”.
“UltraSound” represents an excellent example of contemporary jazz played in a predominately hard bop style and features some impressive writing and some exceptional playing. It also captures a moment in time, that first stirring of renewed hope and rejuvenation following the strictures of lockdown. It’s a warm spirited record that is almost impossible not to like, and one suspects that the music will grow even more in the crucible of live performance. The band will be touring the UK in support of the album, so catch them if you can at the tour dates listed below;
19 January 2024 – Sheffield, Crookes Social Club
17 February 2024 – London, Pizza Express Jazz Club, Soho (album launch)
22 February 2024 – Guildford Jazz, Guildford Pavilion
23 February 2024 – Brighton, The Verdict
21 March 2024 – Cambridge Modern Jazz
More dates to be announced
UltraSound, plus other recordings featuring Mark Kavuma, are available here;
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