by Ian Mann
September 22, 2017
First rate playing allied to some excellent writing and arranging ensures that this sophomore album is another triumph for Cordez.
“Last Things Last”
Born in the UK but raised in New Zealand bassist and composer Greg Cordez has lived and worked in London, Madrid and and New York before settling in Bristol where he has become a major presence on that city’s music scene.
In 2015 he released the album “Paper Crane”, an excellent quintet recording featuring some of the leading musicians on the Bristol jazz scene, namely trumpeter Nick Malcolm, Get The Blessing saxophonist Jake McMurchie, pianist Jim Blomfield and drummer Mark Whitlam. The standard of the playing was excellent, as one would expect from such a stellar line up but it was the beauty and maturity of Cordez’s writing that impressed me most. “Paper Crane” revealed him to be a composer of some stature. My review of that début album can be read here;
Prior to the release of “Paper Crane” I had seen Cordez, Malcolm, McMurchie, Blomfield and Whitlam deliver an excellent live performance of the album material at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho as part of the 2015 EFG London Jazz Festival. The performance was part of a “Bristol double bill” that also featured a set from McMurchie’s electro-jazz quartet Michelson Morley featuring McMurchie and Whitlam together with bassist Will Harris and guitarist Dan Messore. My review of this event can be found as part of my Festival coverage here;
Cordez’s début appeared on the New York based label Ninety&Nine and the American connection is explored even more deeply on this second album which was recorded at Bunker Studios in Brooklyn with a stellar cast featuring some of the bassist’s favourite New York based musicians.
“Last Things Last” features the talents of Michael Blake on tenor saxophone, Steve Cardenas on guitar, rising cornet star Kirk Knuffke, and Allison Miller at the drums. Cordez himself plays bass guitar throughout, possibly because of the difficulties of flying a double bass to the States, but the electric instrument is ideal for the New York milieu as Cordez lays down some powerful grooves, forming a formidable rhythm team with the talented Miller. The album is produced by the influential bassist, composer, bandleader and activist Ben Allison, a musician with a string of fine recordings as a leader to his credit.
As an experienced jazz and session player Cordez has built up an impressive list of contacts and is also a great networker who approached his colleagues directly, asking them if they wanted to be involved with the project. Pleasingly they all said “yes” and the result is a follow up album that is a worthy successor to the excellent “Paper Crane”. Again, the album is a vindication of Cordez’s abilities as a composer and it’s significant that the stellar quintet sounds like a real band rather than an all-star jamming aggregation. There’s a real sense of purpose and cohesion about the playing, these attributes stemming directly from the quality of Cordez’s writing.
As “Paper Crane” made clear Cordez’s compositions usually have some kind of story behind them. The bassist’s Bandcamp page, from which this new album can be bought, states that the record is about “the themes of coincidence, optimism and the slow dissolution of a personal relationship”.
The album commences with Chekov’s Gun which announces itself via the intertwined horns of Blake and Knuffke before Cordez and Miller enter to lay down a propulsive but fluid groove, made even more irresistible by Miller’s creative use of auxiliary percussion to create an additional element of exotica. Knuffke takes the first solo, effortlessly fluent and agile on cornet, and he’s followed by Blake on what sounds like swooping and soaring soprano sax before the two horns coalesce to restate the arresting theme above the still infectious grooves generated by Cordez and Miller allied to the skilful comping of Cardenas.
Muscular electric bass introduces the hard rocking “Cherry v Des Moines” with Miller quickly locking into the ferocious groove and adding some thrilling drum embellishments as Blake and Knuffke ride the wave. Blake then digs in with a beautifully constructed tenor solo that gradually builds in intensity, spiralling ever upwards before finally reaching resolution. There’s still time for some more drum pyrotechnics from Miller plus a reprise of the hooky theme.
A more languorous electric bass figure introduces the gently brooding “Figlock”, a slow burner of a piece that sees Cardenas really coming into his own, soloing gently at first before heading for the stratosphere against a backdrop of a steadily rising horn arrangement with Knuffke’s cornet prominent. After building to a thrilling climax the piece seems to halt rather too abruptly, although there’s no denying the dramatic effect of the sudden cut.
Cardenas, the regular guitar player with producer Allison’s groups, is also prominent on the title cut. This is a slowly unfolding ballad featuring his pure, clear guitar tone complemented by the warmth of the horns. The guitarist takes the first solo, his sound sometimes reminiscent of Metheny or Frisell. Blake’s more forceful tenor solo temporarily muddies the water before the warm mellifluousness of Knuffke’s cornet brings the tune to a peaceful conclusion.
The leader’s bass frequently introduces his compositions, and “Low Winter Sun” is no exception beginning with a passage of unaccompanied bass that is eventually joined by saxophone and brushed drums. The music is as descriptive as the title on a piece with a strong pictorial quality, something emphasised by the exchanges between Knuffke and Blake and the cool beauty of Cardenas’ guitar.
“All That Is” is similarly reflective with a gentle but loosely structured dialogue between Knuffke and Cardenas followed by a slightly more assertive statement from Blake against a backdrop of Miller’s cymbal embellishments. Cordez’s electric bass then briefly assumes the lead, accompanied by guitar and bass. Saxophone and cornet then subtly intertwine on the closing theme statement.
“Clementine” is something of a feature for Blake’s tenor with the saxophonist taking the first solo and demonstrating his characteristic fluency, combined with an unmistakeable New York ‘edge’. He later combines effectively with Knuffke who then follows with a solo statement of his own. The two horns make a particularly effective partnership throughout the album, combining and dovetailing well on Cordez’s themes but providing distinctive solo voices with the grit of Blake’s playing contrasting well with Knuffke’s warmer fluency.
The final track, “Junebug”, is a delightful piece that has something of the easy charm of Bill Frisell’s Americana experiments. Cardenas fulfils the Frisell role in a beautiful dialogue with Knuffke’s warm, breathy cornet as the rest of the band sit out.
First rate playing allied to some excellent writing and arranging ensures that this sophomore album is another triumph for Cordez. The bassist has admitted that he found the experience of recording with these leading American musicians to be both “exhilarating and terrifying” but he has no reason to reproach himself. “Last Things Last” is its own justification and it’s to Cordez’s eternal credit that it sounds as good as it does.
The only question mark regards the track sequencing with the punchier , hardest hitting items being heard first with the gentler, more impressionistic compositions following in their wake. It would be more usual to mix things up a bit more – but perhaps the order of the programme is implicit in the album title. An excellent album, nevertheless.
Bristol based listeners have already enjoyed the opportunity of seeing the music performed live by a quintet featuring McMurchie on saxes, Pete Judge on trumpet, Steve Banks on guitar and Matt Brown, of Dakhla fame, at the drums.