by Ian Mann
October 01, 2021
A very worthy successor to Cordez’s previous two albums and one that bears his signature style and approach. His themes act as excellent vehicles for the inspired soloists that he gathers around him.
Greg Cordez – bass, Tony Malaby –tenor & soprano saxophones, Steve Cardenas – guitar, Jon Cowherd – piano & Rhodes, Kenny Wollesen – drums
“Magnolia” is the third album release as a leader from Bristol based bassist and composer Greg Cordez.
Born in the UK but raised in New Zealand Cordez has lived and worked in London, Madrid and New York before settling in Bristol where he has become a major presence on that city’s music scene. He recently appearing on the eponymous début album by the Bristol based quintet Sefrial, founded by alto saxophonist Sophie Stockham.
In 2015 Cordez released the album “Paper Crane”, an excellent quintet recording featuring some of the leading musicians in the West Country, namely trumpeter Nick Malcolm, Get The Blessing and Sefrial saxophonist Jake McMurchie, pianist Jim Blomfield and drummer Mark Whitlam. The standard of the playing was excellent throughout, 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;
In 2017 Cordez returned to New York and recorded his second album at the city’s Bunker Studio in Brooklyn with a stellar cast of American musicians, these comprising of Michael Blake on tenor saxophone, Steve Cardenas on guitar, rising cornet star Kirk Knuffke, and Allison Miller at the drums. It exhibited many of the same qualities as the début and was a very worthy follow up. Review here;
Again, the album was a vindication of Cordez’s abilities as a composer and the quintet sounded like a real band rather than an all-star jamming aggregation. There was a real sense of purpose and cohesion about the playing, these attributes stemming directly from the quality of Cordez’s writing.
“Magnolia” finds Cordez back at Bunker with a different group of leading New York based musicians. Only guitarist Steve Cardenas remains from the previous recording and this latest quintet includes saxophonist Tony Malaby, pianist Jon Cowherd and drummer Kenny Wollesen, all hugely respected figures on the US jazz scene.
The album features eight original compositions from Cordez, who has cited fellow bassist / composers Reid Anderson (of The Bad Plus fame), Chris Lightcap and Todd Sickafoose as influences on his music. Indeed Anderson lent Cordez his bass for the recording, while Lightcap is involved in the production process alongside Cordez and recording engineer Aaron Nevzie.
The album begins with “Dark Quark”, which commences with Wollesen and Cordez establishing a malleable rolling groove. This serves as the foundation for Malaby’s theme statement on soprano sax and Cowherd’s expansive piano solo. Malaby then returns to probe more deeply within the innately melodic framework of Cordez’s composition.
“Front Crawl” also develops out of a drum introduction, a slow burner of a piece featuring the lush sound of Malaby’s tenor sax. Cardenas takes his first guitar solo of the set, soaring and spiralling melodically before dovetailing with Malaby’s tenor. The saxophonist then takes over, adopting a harder edged tone and soloing with fluency and authority. Cowherd features on Rhodes, his keyboards deployed here as a textural device.
The opening minutes of “Let Me Begin Again” are gentler and even more impressionistic with Malaby exhibiting great tenderness on tenor, his thoughtful ruminations complemented by the sensitive playing of the other members of the quintet. Cowherd’s piano then comes to the fore, soloing lyrically and economically before Malaby returns to solo more assertively prior to a gently lyrical coda featuring the sound of Cardenas’ guitar. Compositionally the piece exhibits an impressive command of mood and dynamics,
Cardenas and Cordez introduce “Emily” with a delightful guitar/bass dialogue. Cardenas sounds a little like Bill Frisell, with whom Wollesen used to play. Malaby switches back to the straight horn, playing lilting soprano sax on this beguiling ballad. He’s followed by the expansive lyricism of the consistently impressive Cowherd on acoustic piano. The pianist is the only member of the quintet whose playing I was not already familiar with, although I had heard his name touted about. His contribution to the success of the album is considerable, whether on acoustic or electric keyboards.
“Drift” opens with another duet, this time between Cardenas and Cowherd, regular collaborators it would seem. Cowherd again impresses with his thoughtful lyricism and the piece conjures up images of petals drifting on the surface of a lake or stream. Sax, bass and drums eventually join the proceedings, increasing the momentum of the piece, but without sacrificing any of its beauty or lyricism.
Cordez revisits “Paper Cranes”, effectively the title track of his début album, introducing the piece with a passage of unaccompanied double bass that has elicited comparisons with the playing of the late, great Charlie Haden. His melodic playing continues to feature as the rest of the ensemble enter the picture and it’s the leader /composer who takes the first orthodox solo. Cowherd then takes over at the piano, as expansive and lyrical as ever. Malaby then picks up the baton on tenor, soaring skywards, prompted by Wollesen’s increasingly busy drumming.
“Company Milk” adopts a more forceful approach with Malaby featuring on gutsy tenor and Cowherd on both piano and Rhodes. Cardenas heads for the stratosphere as Cordez and Wollesen flex their muscles in the rhythm section on a piece that nods its head in the direction of avant rock.
The album closes with “All That Is (pt2)”, which is introduced by a passage of unaccompanied acoustic piano from Cowherd. He then combines effectively with Cardenas on this contemplative piece, as Cordez and Wollesen demonstrate their sensitivity, the drummer now wielding brushes and adopting more of a colourist’s role.
“Magnolia” is a very worthy successor to Cordez’s previous two albums and one that bears his signature style and approach. Indeed he regards the three albums as representing a trilogy. His themes are highly melodic and often deceptively simple, drawing on elements of jazz and Americana, but they act as excellent vehicles for the inspired soloists that he gathers around him. His writing exhibits a skilful command of texture and dynamics and his pieces have a strong narrative, almost cinematic, quality. Cordez is a writer who likes to tell a story within the framework of his compositions and his pieces are often very beautiful, but without resorting to mere ‘prettiness’. The presence of soloists of the quality of Malaby, Cardenas and Cowherd, allied to the highly flexible and intelligent rhythm of section of Cordez and Wollesen steers the music in unexpected directions and helps to maintain the listener’s attention. As on Cordez’s previous New York recording this new quintet again sounds like a ‘band’ rather than a collection of individuals, which is a credit to Cordez in his multiple roles of composer, musician and bandleader.
I appreciate that there are some listeners who may find Cordez’s approach a little too diffident, and even bloodless, but he’s a musician and composer with a distinctive vision who has developed a signature sound, regardless of the individual musicians involved. He’s a seemingly unassertive figure who nevertheless manages to do things ‘his way’, a quality that is very much to be admired.
“Magnolia” is available from;
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