Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019





by Ian Mann

November 06, 2016


With the help of a very able team Alex Ward again confirms his status as both a composer of substance and an inspired improviser.



(Relative Pitch Records RPR1052)

London based musician Alex Ward is a truly remarkable instrumentalist exhibiting an astonishing degree of expertise on both the clarinet and the electric guitar. Ward’s music inhabits the hinterland where composed and fully improvised music meet, although he’s generally regarded as being a “free” player following an apprenticeship that included playing clarinet alongside the late, great guitar improviser Derek Bailey.

Ward started out as a clarinettist, only taking up the guitar in the year 2000 at the age of twenty six. Influenced by Bailey he is now an extremely accomplished guitarist and an inspired improviser who performs on his “second instrument” in groups such as his own Predicate and the powerhouse improvising trio N.E.W. which pits his guitar against the rhythmic “tag team” of drummer Steve Noble and double bassist John Edwards. Ward has recorded more frequently as a clarinettist but it’s as a guitarist that I know him best having witnessed two live performances by the Predicate quartet at the Queens Head in Monmouth in 2012 and 2014. 

Much of Ward’s work involves totally free playing, some of which inhabits areas beyond my own personal musical comfort zone such as the earlier 2016 release “Projected/Entities/Removal”, a wholly improvised collection featuring three extended improvisations by three different, but closely linked, line ups.

The areas of Ward’s output that I find it easiest to relate to are his works with the groups Predicate and Forebrace. It’s convenient two think of both groups as different sides of the same coin. Both bands are quartets that feature a mix of improvised and composed material and despite their shared intensity both are curiously accessible outfits with the potential to appeal to listeners beyond the usual improv fan base, including adventurous rock music fans. Ward has described the process of composing for both of these bands as “writing for improvisers”.  A 2014 Jazzmann feature takes an in depth look at the second Predicate album “Nails” and the first Forebrace album “Bad Folds”, finding more similarities than differences despite the fact that Ward plays guitar with one group and clarinet with the other. 

“Steeped” is the second album from Forebrace and features the same personnel that appeared on the quartet’s début. Ward again appears on clarinet but the album still features electric guitar with the chair occupied by Roberto Sassi, previously heard as part of the groups Vole, Cardosanto and Snorkel. The line up is completed by Santiago Horro on electric bass and drummer Jem Doulton, the latter having previously collaborated with Ward in the duo Dead Days Beyond Help. The quartet have been compared to Last Exit, Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time and even the alt rock outfit Swans but to these ears Ward and his colleagues, who all play superbly throughout, have created a sound that is very much theirs alone.

Whereas “Bad Folds” emerged from two days of intensive studio work “Steeped” documents Forebrace in live performance and was captured at two shows at the London venues Café Oto and The Vortex, two of the leading bastions of the capital’s jazz and improvised music scenes. The seven pieces include four Ward compositions and three group improvisations credited to the whole band. The album appears on the American label Relative Pitch based in Plainsboro, New Jersey, an outlet for both American and European improvising musicians.

The majority of the programme is sourced from the quartet’s performance at Café Oto on February 8th 2016, with one piece, the closing “Bolt” drawn from the Vortex show on July 1st 2014. The recordings were subsequently edited, mixed and mastered by Ward at his home studio and the improvisation “Crest” combines elements from both performances.

First up is the Ward composition “Hive”, which immediately demonstrates the power and urgency of this band. The leader’s clarinet is frequently put through what Ward describes as “a dangerously overdriven amplifier” as he seeks to achieve sonic parity with the electric instruments of Sassi and Horro. With its angrily buzzing clarinet and tumultuously swarming guitar “Hive” is aptly named as Sacco takes the first wigged out solo, combining technique and extended technique with a raw, stinging guitar power. Ward’s clarinet then cuts like a scythe through the thunderous rhythms generated by his colleagues as the piece builds to a climax via a series of increasingly visceral clarinet and guitar exchanges. For all its complexity and intensity this is totally enthralling music and one can’t help being caught up in the adrenalin rush. It must have been quite an experience to have been at Café Oto that night seeing this scintillating music performed live.
Initially there’s little let up in the energy levels as the album segues into the improvised “Planetesimals”, a more freely structured item that takes its direction from Sassi’s exploratory guitar riffing and his subsequent dialogue with Ward. The music becomes more impressionistic as the piece progresses and presses deeper into more recognisable improv territory with Sassi’s spacey guitar FX probably helping to give the piece its title.
Eventually Doulton and Horro set up a groove as the album segues again into Ward’s composition “Stalks”. The addition of Sassi’s “Shaft” style guitar even adds an air of cerebral funkiness to the proceedings. Ward responds with a clarinet feature that combines a remarkable robustness with a stunning improvisational fluency as his increasingly impassioned solo takes flight. Sassi reciprocates with a choppy, feverish solo fuelled by the monstrous, unrelenting groove generated by Horro and Doulton.
Finally the piece dissolves into FX ridden abstraction out of which emerges, almost seamlessly, the heavy and foreboding “Crest”, the piece edited together from both the Oto and Vortex performances. During the first half of the piece Ward’s clarinet floats then soars above Doulton’s slowly pounding omnipresent drum groove, the rhythmic patterns almost mantra like in their insistent intensity. This opening section sounds composed but the second half of the piece is more abstract and atmospheric and far more obviously part of what has now become idiomatic free improv territory.   
The Ward composition “Grains” emerges out of this abstraction with the composer’s clarinet eventually picking out something of a theme above the ominous, shadowy shimmer of Sassi’s guitar. Nevertheless things still sound largely improvised at this point, particularly the abrasive dialogue between Ward and Doulton out of which a more obviously written riff emerges which shapes the further exchanges with Ward’s frenzied clarinet improvisations underscored by correspondingly busy and abrasive guitar and drums. 
Once “Grains” has reached a peak of energy the improvised “Home Stretch” emerges with Sassi’s unaccompanied guitar (on reflection it might even be Horro’s electric bass) playing a dirty, sludgy, fuzzed up riff that is so heavy that even Tony Iommi might be proud of it. No Ozzy, mercifully, but Doulton gets to release his inner Bill Ward as the piece progresses. The music gradually becomes more abstract with the addition of the banshee wail of Ward’s clarinet as he takes the instrument into areas it was surely never designed to go, first in garrulous dialogue with Sassi as bass and drums drop out, and finally unaccompanied, complete with pops, splutters and slap tonguing techniques.
The closing “Bolt” explodes suddenly and shockingly out of Ward’s solo clarinet improvisations. Recorded in 2014 at The Vortex it’s a manic, riff driven outpouring of energy with pounding rhythms and mercurial solos from Ward and Sassi. Ward’s brilliantly incandescent playing gives the music a vaguely North African / Middle Eastern that for me conjures up images of whirling dervishes. The quartet’s attack is unrelenting, this is trance inducing music with the power to light up the national grid. 

Readers may be wondering why this review is written as it is with no paragraphs between the descriptions of the various tracks. This is wholly due to the way in which Ward has structured the recording, blurring the demarcation lines between the various pieces so that the album flows like one continuous piece of music, a genuine case of breaking down the boundaries between the written and the improvised. To this end even though “Steeped” is a live recording all of the applause and other audience noise has been carefully edited out - an unusual approach that brings to mind Peter Hammill’s 1985 double live set “The Margin”. 

Nonetheless Ward’s methods are vindicated by the results. “Steeped” is a more than worthy follow up to the excellent “Bad Folds” and anyone who enjoyed that first album will surely relish this new recording. With the help of a very able team Ward again confirms his status as both a composer of substance and an inspired improviser. 

Although I’ve seen Predicate twice I’ve yet to see Forebrace perform in the flesh. On the evidence of this exciting live recording this is something that I should be making a priority. Would it be asking too much to hope for a visit by this band to Monmouth sometime during 2017?     

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