by Ian Mann
April 26, 2023
This is a very well balanced quartet that has developed an excellent rapport that shines through throughout these performances.
Fraser Smith Quartet
(Ubuntu Music UBU0119)
Fraser Smith – saxophone, Rob Barron – piano, Simon read – bass, Steve Brown – drums
Saxophonist and sometime vocalist Fraser Smith first came to my attention as the leader of the quartet Fraser & The Alibis, a group that also included organist Joe Webb, guitarist Harry Sankey and drummer Gethin Jones.
The band first came together when its members were studying on the Jazz Course at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama (RWCMD) in Cardiff. Following graduation the group re-located to London and began to gig prolifically, their itinerary including numerous festival appearances.
In 2017 Fraser & The Alibis released their eponymous début album, a recording of which I said at the time; “Original tunes which take the virtues of 50s and 60s hard bop and soul jazz and infuse them with a youthful enthusiasm born of the 21st century”. The full review can be found here;
Fast forward to 2023 and Smith has assembled a new quartet featuring the seasoned musicians Rob Barron (piano), Simon Read (bass) and Steve Brown (drums). His fascination with the music of the 1950s and 1960s remains undimmed and he names fellow saxophonists Dexter Gordon, Illinois Jacquet, Stanley Turrentine and Al Cohn as his primary influences.
Smith’s new quartet differs from its predecessor by being an all acoustic group with the sound of the piano replacing that of the Hammond organ. Smith’s earlier groups tended to feature organ or guitar but this latest line-up is less informed by the 60s soul jazz era and exhibits a stronger bebop and swing influence that sometimes harks back to the 1940s.
The programme features nine original pieces from Smith plus an arrangement of “Prisoner of Love”, written by Russ Columbo. Smith’s compositions are often contrafacts, with new melodies written above existing chord sequences, a common practise within the bebop / hard bop fraternity.
Smith and the quartet take a deliberately ‘old school’ approach to recording, with the music documented direct to tape by engineer Lewis Durham. The presumably tongue in cheek album title and the Blue Note style graphics and liner notes (the latter by pianist Fraser Urquhart with whom Smith sometimes works in the duo The Two Frasers) add to the consciously retro vibe.
The album kicks off with “Might Not”, a spirited call to arms with a shuffling groove that acts as the launch pad for Smith’s earthy, forthright tenor sax soloing. Barron, Read and Brown provide the necessary rhythmic impetus with pianist Barron also delivering a fluent solo. Read is also featured at the bass as we are introduced to the talents of the individual voices within the band. Brown is a driving presence throughout and is arguably the most in demand drummer in the UK when it comes to this style of jazz.
As its title might suggest “Iroquois” is a contrafact of Ray Noble’s eternal bebop standard “Cherokee”. The intro, featuring just Smith’s tenor and Brown’s brushed drums, finds the saxophonist wrapping his chops around some tricky bebop style phrases and the whole piece is something of a technical tour de force with Smith stretching out above Read’s rapid bass lines and Brown’s brisk drumming as Barron fills in any gaps. Eventually the pianist is also set loose on a solo of his own, his fleet finger work matched by Read’s propulsive bass and Brown’s skittering drums. The latter also enjoys a crisply brushed drum feature before Smith’s tricky melodic theme re-emerges to take things storming out.
The title track is a contrafact that combines elements of George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” and Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose” in a Charlie Parker inspired arrangement with cogent solos coming from Smith on tenor and Barron at the piano.
The next contrafact, “Whadda Know”, introduces a new melody played over the chords of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Woody ‘n’ You”. The combination of Read’s propulsive bass and Brown’s powerful, but highly detailed, drumming fuels dazzling solos from both Smith and Barron. There’s also a dynamic drum feature from the excellent Brown, plus a short cameo for the similarly impressive Read. This high energy piece is surely destined to become a favourite at the quartet’s live shows.
An arrangement of Russ Columbo’s 1931 song “Prisoner of Love” represents the album’s only ballad performance. This reveals a gentler side of Smith’s playing as he gives instrumental expression to the sadness of the unsung lyrics. Barron, Read and Brown offer sympathetic support with the latter’s sensitive and delicate brush work a particular delight, and a total contrast to his fiery playing on the previous track. Read provides a deeply resonant and highly melodic double bass solo and pianist Barron is also at his most lyrical.
“Pip” is named for the Charles Dickens character from “Great Expectations”. The tune itself packs an infectiously funky groove and features Smith at his most Turrentine-like. Barron adds a slyly inventive piano solo and there’s some spirited sax and piano interplay towards the end of the piece, with Brown’s drums also demanding the listener’s attention.
The blues “Wardell” is dedicated to another of Smith’s tenor sax inspirations, the late Wardell Gray (1921-55). It’s an affectionate tribute to a sometimes overlooked figure with the rhythm section’s crisp grooves fuelling pithy solos from Smith and Barron, while Brown enjoys a series of spirited drum breaks.
“Out Into The Daylight” is a contrafact based on the harmonies of Jerome Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight”. It’s delivered by the quartet at a particularly rapid clip, with Brown’s drums again coming to the fore alongside sparkling solos from Barron and Smith. It’s one of the fastest pieces on the album and serves as an excellent reminder of the quartet’s collective energy.
As its title suggests “Bluey” is another composition in the blues form and its languid, gently swinging grooves inspire a suitably bluesy solo from the fluent Smith, this followed by further features for Barron and Read.
The title of the closing “Snow off Broadway” is not a reference to New York, but instead homages Broadway Market in London, once home to the Kansas Smitty’s venue, where Smith had played one winter’s night. The warmth of the bar Smith was ensconced in at the time is reflected in the sunny samba style rhythms of the piece and the joyous quality of the solos from Smith and Barron.
As Urquhart states in his liner notes “Smith doesn’t re-invent the wheel, and doesn’t want to”, which is just fine, and on its own terms “Tip Top!” is a resounding success. Barron, Read and Brown share Smith’s love of swing, bebop, hard bop and soul jazz and are on exactly the same wavelength. This is a very well balanced quartet that has developed an excellent rapport that shines through throughout these performances. One suspects that this group are also a compelling and highly exciting live act.
This is a hard swinging, unpretentious album capable of appealing to broad swathe of jazz listeners. One can imagine that fans of Dave O’Higgins, another saxophonist who frequently deals in contrafacts, would find much to enjoy here.
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