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Five Panes

by Ian Mann

June 08, 2023


The group’s melodic approach to free improvisation is highly distinctive and they continue to hone their craft both in live performance and in the studio.


“Five Panes”

(Self Released)

John Franks – drums, percussion, Lee Relfe – alto & soprano saxophones, James Hancock-Evans – piano & keyboards

Glasshouse is an improvising trio based in Carmarthen, and I believe I’m correct in thinking that the band name was inspired by the Great Glasshouse at the nearby National Botanic Garden of Wales.

The idea for Glasshouse was first formulated in 2017 by drummer John Franks and saxophonist Lee Relfe. These two have been playing music together for more than twenty years and were once part of the 1990s group Satori, who played what Franks describes as an amalgam of “pop, rock and jazz”. Franks also depped briefly with the Americana / folk rock band The Monte Dons.

Contemporary jazz fans will be aware that Satori is also the name of saxophonist Josephine Davies’ current trio with bassist Dave Whitford and drummer James Maddren.

The first edition of Glasshouse featured Franks and Relfe plus Gary Whitely and Paul Uden. This group rehearsed on a regular basis but never made it to public performance. A combination of a hand injury to Franks followed by the pandemic then led to a long hiatus and the Glasshouse project was eventually reactivated in 2021 as a trio with the recruitment of the young pianist James Hancock Evans.

Hancock Evans is a classically trained musician who also plays in trad jazz bands. His wide range of keyboard skills made him an ideal choice for Glasshouse and another series of rehearsals convinced Franks and Relfe that this line up was the one that they had been looking for.

The ensemble’s early publicity material described them as “the band you’ll never be able to put in a box”. More recently they have used the strap-line “spontaneous melodic jazz improvisations”, which represents a neat summary of their approach.

In March 2022 and with Hancock-Evans still a fairly recent addition to the ranks Glasshouse performed a well received show at The Muse in Brecon, an event covered by The Jazzmann, who described the trio’s music as;
“blurring the lines between composition and improvisation this was ‘free jazz’ as you’ve never heard it before, with grooves you could tap your feet to and melodies you could whistle.”
The full review, from which much of the biographical detail above and below has been taken can be found here;

As the trio took to the stage at The Muse in March 2022 in front of a pleasingly large audience for a band playing its first gig, and an improvising band at that, Franks brandished a blank piece of paper at the crowd declaring “this is the set list, nothing is planned in advance”.
According to Franks Glasshouse’s aim is to produce music that is freely improvised but which sounds as if it has been composed. This proved to be a trick that they pulled off with remarkable consistency over the course of two entertaining sets that produced some excellent music. The audience response to the first ever gig from Glasshouse was overwhelmingly positive and one feels that this is a group that is capable of building a considerable following – providing that they are given sufficient exposure.

Early Glasshouse rehearsals found them exploring “arbitrary rules like Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies to provoke fresh thinking and approaches”. An element of this found it’s way into that first Muse performance. Each table at the venue contained a printed list of words, mainly adjectives, designed as cues for the band to play in a particular style, with audience members invited to choose a word from the list.

For the record the list of words as printed was;
Flowing Impatient
Fire Building
Swaying Splash
Aurora Forest
Darkness Ethereal
Reflecting Industrial
Traffic Meditation
Snowscape Laugh
Clockwork Riot
Delightful Ominous
Night Tropical

 Much of the music sounded as if it could have been written and this blurring of the lines between composition and improvisation is exactly what Glasshouse have been aiming for. Franks likes to use the analogy of improvisation being fast or instant composition, and composition being a process of slow improvisation.

In avoiding the usual free jazz and improv clichés and the confrontational approach typical of the genre, no extended techniques for instance, Glasshouse have come up with a fresh approach to free improvisation, much as Fourth Page or the Plague Doctors have done, but in a totally different way. The triumph of Glasshouse is to present improvisation in a form that is readily accessible to a general jazz audience.

Since that gig in early 2022 Glasshouse have continued to develop their music and in May 2023 made a successful return to The Muse, although I was unable to attend on that occasion.

“Five Panes” represents their first full length release and the first to be made available on CD. It is available from the trio’s Bandcamp page and follows the digital single “One Voice” (November 2022) and the digital EP “Demo”, released in February 2023.

“Five Panes” was released in May 2023. The band say of the recording;
“A glasshouse has many panes; Glasshouse music has many facets. The tracks on this album represent five such facets (or panes) amongst the many.
All Glasshouse music is ‘Spontaneous Melodic Improvisation’: no heads or pre-set themes; every gig we play is unique. The tracks on this album were all improvised ‘live in the studio’ between May and July 2022”.

Opener “Trap Dance” begins with the sound of unaccompanied electric piano, sounding vaguely reminiscent of Miles Davis’ “In A Silent Way”. Franks joins to add percussive shading and rhythm before Relfe eventually picks up on Hancock-Evans’ melodic sketches, taking over the main melodic role on alto sax. There’s a quiet sense of playfulness about the piece, the title presumably deriving from Franks’ distinctive and idiosyncratic work behind the kit. Quirky and melodic the piece sounds as if it could quite easily have been composed and fits the band’s “Spontaneous Melodic Improvisation” template to a ‘T’.

The rustle of percussion introduces “The Shimmering”, which does indeed feature the shimmer of percussion, both tuned and untuned, and keyboards, plus the melodic ruminations of Relfe’s sax.

“Free Three Stomp” is a more overtly rhythmic piece, introduced by Hancock-Evans’ percussive piano chording and driven by an insistent piano vamp,  this allied with Franks’ drums to provide the backdrop to Relfe’s powerful but still inherently melodic sax inventions. This is Glasshouse at their most aggressive and forceful and echoes the power that informed some of the pieces at that first Brecon performance.

In its opening stages “My Magma” is quieter and more insidious, bubbling up from below the surface via an interlocking mesh of rhythms, generated by both piano and percussion. Acoustic and electric sounds are deployed with Hancock-Evans’ making effective use of the various keyboards at his disposal. Gradually the music becomes powerful and more insistent with Relfe cutting loose on soprano sax and Hancock-Evans’ electric piano introducing a subtle funk flavour to the proceedings. The astute use of dynamics ensures that the piece ebbs and flows, much in keeping with a title that was surely decided later.

The fifth and final ‘pane’, “A Big Romance”, emerges from the gentle percolations of Franks’ percussion to embrace gentle acoustic piano and saxophone melodies, these continuing to intertwine above the sounds of percussion. As the music gathers momentum it develops an anthemic grandeur that eventually subsides among the shimmer of percussion.

It’s good to have the music of Glasshouse documented on disc for the first time. The group’s melodic approach to free improvisation is highly distinctive and they continue to hone their craft both in live performance and in the studio. Their focus on melody sets them apart from most free improvisers, whilst Franks’ drums and percussion draw from a variety of influences, among them the rhythms of Indian music. Since that first Muse performances Hancock-Evans has become fully integrated into the group and makes a significant contribution to the success of “Five Panes”.

Every Glasshouse performance is unique and audiences will next get the chance to enjoy the trio’s music live when they perform at The Cellar Bar, Cardigan on 10th June 2023. Tickets available from

Glasshouse recordings are available via

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