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Floating Circles Quartet

Humble Travellers

by Ian Mann

September 23, 2020


“Humble Travellers” represents a major step forward and deserves to establish the quartet as a significant presence on the UK jazz scene.

Floating Circles Quartet

“Humble Travellers”

(Self Released)

Aidan Pearson – clarinet, bass clarinet, Matt Hurley – guitar, Jonny Wickham – double bass, percussion, Arthur Newell – drums
plus guest; Johanna Burnheart – violin

Floating Circles Quartet is a London based ensemble led by clarinettist and composer Aidan Pearson.

The group made its recorded début in 2018 with the release of the digital only EP “Eleven Yesterdays Ago”. This exhibited considerable promise and was notable for bringing the sound of the clarinet into a contemporary jazz context. My review of that work can be found here;

FCQ’s first full album release sees the group undergoing one personnel change, with Matt Hurley replacing Dom Stockbridge in the guitar chair. The new album also features the violin playing of guest Johanna Burnheart on three of the album’s six tracks. All of the compositions are by Pearson, but he acknowledges the “many invaluable ideas and contributions from the band”. The pieces are linked by a loosely conceptual theme of “travel and movement”.

A musician with a foot in both the jazz and classical music camps Pearson studied jazz at London’s Guildhall School of Music where his tutors included saxophonists Martin Speake and Martin Hathaway, flautist Gareth Lockrane and pianist Malcolm Edmondstone.  His bandmates in Floating Circles Quartet are also Guildhall alumni.

Among the ensembles with which Pearson has played are Tomorrow’s Warriors, led by bassist Gary Crosby, and the Southbank Sinfonia.

As a sideman, sometimes also playing saxophone, Pearson has played at many of London’s leading jazz venues with musicians such as pianist Peter Edwards,  rising star guitarist Rob Luft and big name Americans Marcus Roberts (piano) and Jason Marsalis (drums).

As a composer Pearson has written for classical ensembles ranging from wind quartet to full orchestra in addition to writing for jazz groups. 

At the time of the EP release Pearson described FCQ as a “ jazz/ambient quartet” and cited Mammal Hands, Andy Sheppard and Brian Eno as sources of inspiration. These influences were not particularly overt and the music of “Eleven Yesterdays Ago” saw FCQ already forging their own style with a blend of music that drew on a variety of sources ranging through jazz, folk and classical and even rock.

This time round Pearson has added Oregon and Sons of Kemet to the range of inspirations, and the influence of the latter can be heard in a music that now possesses a greater rhythmic drive than the earlier EP.  This current edition of FCQ is less obviously a ‘chamber jazz’ ensemble and now represents a far more dynamic proposition, the group having honed their new approach in the crucible of live performances at some of London’s leading jazz venues. That said, there is still a high degree of musical sophistication, variety and imagination within Pearson’s compositions as FCQ deliver an album that combines a high level of musical inventiveness with a more visceral rhythmic punch.

The album opens with the marvellously titled “Brockley ‘n’ Peas”, a reference to Pearson’s South London locale, and a district that has become something of a haunt for British jazz musicians. Newell introduces the piece at the drums, establishing a shuffling rhythmic groove, that forms the basis for the leader’s clarinet and bass clarinet explorations. Pearson’s horns fulfil both melodic and rhythmic functions at various points in the piece and the music is rich in terms of colour and texture as well as rhythm. The sounds of Pearson’s clarinets and Burnheart’s violin are both subject to subtle electronic manipulations, with the guest soloist’s strings taking flight above the percolating grooves generated by Newell at the kit and Wickham doubling on bass and percussion. There’s also a pleasantly meandering guitar solo from Hurley, punctuated by gruff bursts of treated clarinets. It all makes for a rhythmically vibrant and engagingly quirky beginning.

The core quartet feature on “Beyond The Mountains of Aria”, which begins in pleasingly impressionistic fashion with shadowy guitar and bass motifs accompanied by atmospheric mallet rumbles and cymbal shimmers. Pearson’s clarinet emerges, evoking images of the sun rising out of the mist over the titular mountains. Newell and Wickham then establish a subtle, but gently propulsive 5/4 groove led by the latter’s bass, which underpins Pearson’s clarinet ruminations as Hurly adds spidery layers of guitar tracery. Besides the obvious oriental influences the bass led groove also suggests the influence of the modal or spiritual jazz of the 1960s.

“Caravan Curtains” places a strong emphasis on rhythm with Wickham again doubling on bass and percussion. There’s also a pleasing sense of whimsicality about the piece, as suggested by its title. Wickham’s bass plays a prominent role throughout, including a series of pizzicato exchanges with Hurley’s guitar, and later a powerfully plucked and highly dexterous solo. The sound of Burnheart’s violin is sometimes heavily treated and her soaring solo sounds almost synthesiser like, a little bit like Pat Metheny’s synclavier guitar.

The title “White ‘n’ Fluffy” might suggest something annoyingly twee, but instead it turns out to be one of the most rhythmically powerful tracks on the album, with the Sons of Kemet influence at its most pronounced. Introduced by some impressively powerful and complex unison riffing it later adopts a shuffling, ska like groove, which acts as a vehicle for the guttural, but highly agile, manoeuvring of Pearson’s bass clarinet. Pearson’s sound is also subject to some electronic manipulation, notably in his series of exchanges with Hurley’s guitar. Meanwhile Newell and the consistently impressive Wickham continue to provide a mighty rhythmic drive throughout.

More reflective of its title is “Wading Through The Mist”, which sees Burnheart augmenting the line up for the final time. This is a more impressionistic offering with the violinist helping to bring an element of Celtic folk music into the mix. Burnheart combines effectively with Pearson as well as featuring as the principal soloist as the tune steadily builds momentum, with Newel graduating from brushes to sticks.

The album concludes with “Galactic Pedal Boat Rescue Trip”, a feature for the core quartet. There’s a light, breezy simplicity about the main theme, airily sketched by Pearson’s clarinet. Subsequent solos come from the leader on clarinet and Hurley on guitar as the music meanders engagingly, always maintaining a childlike sense of playfulness and wonder.

Floating Circles Quartet’s full length album début represents an impressive piece of work that sees the group continuing to progress. Their new, more dynamic and rhythmic, approach entails that their music is now more arresting and accessible, but not the expense of musical variety, wit and invention. Pearson’s compositions are multi-faceted affairs that consistently engage the listener’s attention, at whatever level they are approached from.

FCQ’s music remains essentially English, but, despite the album title, is far less self effacing than previously. “Humble Travellers” represents a major step forward and deserves to establish the band as a significant presence on the UK jazz scene. Unfortunately the current Covid restrictions will prevent the group, like so many others, from getting their music ‘out there’ as much as they would like, which is a shame as this album suggests that they would represent a highly exciting and interesting live proposition. Given the current circumstances please support them by buying this album.

“Humble Travellers” is available via the band’s website

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