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Greg Cordez

Paper Crane


by Ian Mann

January 18, 2016


The themes are melodic, memorable, and often beautiful, but there's an intelligent, exploratory side to the music that ensures that it transcends mere 'prettiness'.

Greg Cordez

“Paper Crane”

(Ninety&Nine Records NNCD022)

Greg Cordez is a Bristol based bassist and composer and makes his leadership début with this excellent album featuring some of the leading musicians on the thriving Bristol jazz scene. The best known of these is arguably tenor saxophonist Jake McMurchie who has risen to national prominence as a member of Get The Blessing. However trumpeter Nick Malcolm, pianist Jim Blomfield and drummer Mark Whitlam can also be considered as being far more than merely good ‘regional’ musicians. This stellar group represents the best that the West Country has to offer.

Born in the UK but raised in New Zealand Cordez has lived and worked in London, Madrid and New York before settling in Bristol. As a jazz and session musician he has worked with a broad array of performers and brings a wealth of life and musical experience to this début - there’s a depth and maturity about the composing on “Paper Crane” that is unusual for a first recording. The album appears on the New York based independent Ninety&Nine Records, home to a number of other British and European artists including Bristol based vocalist Tammy Payne and Eyebrow, a trumpet and drums duo featuring McMurchie’s Get The Blessing colleague Pete Judge.

In November 2015 the Cordez quintet played a sold out lunchtime show at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Dean Street, Soho as part of the 2015 EFG London Jazz Festival. This was a double bill showcasing the Bristol scene and also featured McMurchie’s electro-jazz quartet Michelson Morley with the saxophonist joined by Whitlam, bassist Will Harris and guitarist Dan Messore. I reviewed this highly successful and enjoyable event as part of my Festival coverage and it was here that Cordez was kind enough to provide me with a review copy of this album. Thanks Greg, and here is the promised article at last. 

The programme of Cordez originals commences with “Black Bear”, the same piece that opened the quintet’s performance at the Pizza. The piece begins atmospherically with subtle elements of electronica – McMurchie is credited with ‘tenor sax and bleeps’- combining with feathery piano and the rustle of percussion. Cordez eventually picks out a motif on bass and the piece develops gradually and organically through an engaging bass and piano dialogue to a theme statement by the two horns. McMurchie’s subsequent tenor solo explores the the kind of post-Coltrane spiritual jazz territory recently investigated by Nat Birchall, Matthew Halsall, Larry Stabbins and others. The piece resolves itself with a further brief dialogue between Blomfield and Cordez and an eventual return to the wispy atmospherics with which it began.

It’s obvious from the beginning of the album that as composer Cordez is a story teller and subsequently each piece has a strong sense of structure and a well delineated narrative arc. These cinematic qualities are even better illustrated on the epic “8.23” with its anthemic theme and rock rhythms. McMurchie and Malcolm combine to create an impressively big sound, sometimes deploying elements of wilful dissonance as Blomfield’s piano races and tumbles like a refreshing mountain stream through the gaps created between the horn stated theme and the pounding, insistent rhythms. There’s then a more reflective ‘second movement’ with Blomfield’s piano again to the fore before the piece finishes in a maelstrom of electronics. The breadth of colour that Cordez and his group achieve with what is essentially an acoustic jazz quintet is consistently impressive.

Cordez’s work as a session musician has informed his writing and his pieces are often song like in structure and avoid the usual jazz clichés. I remember “Real and Imagined” being another set highlight at the Pizza and once again Cordez the composer has come up with a memorable melodic theme that forms the basis for some excellent interplay between the musicians. On record the focus is largely on the ensemble playing but in the live environment the tune became a feature for the leader’s double bass.

“November” is a gentle, almost sombre, ballad that features lyrical piano, gently brooding trumpet and the delicate sound of Whitlam’s brushed drums. But it’s more than just pretty, Malcolm introduces an element of tension as his trumpet solo threatens to drag the piece into choppier, more avant garde waters, something that is eventually resolved by the crystalline lyricism of Blomfield’s subsequent piano solo.

The mood changes again with “Schrodinger vs. Cat” with its chunky rock rhythms, scuzzy electronics and heavily distorted, guitar like keyboards. Blomfield contributes some mercurial acoustic piano too, some of it from the Cecil Taylor/Keith Tippett/Myra Melford school of tumbling dissonance. Meanwhile Cordez is featured on electric bass and the punchy, sometimes dirty horns are a reminder that Bristol is the city that gave us Get The Blessing, not to mention the whole trip hop thing.

The tension previously alluded to between the composed and melodic and the improvised and avant garde elements is again a feature on the following “Up Quark”. The piece has a strong melodic theme that Blomfield’s jagged but supremely inventive piano runs threaten to subvert. It all makes for scintillating listening and there’s also some terrific trumpet work from Malcolm whose own quartet more fully explores the hinterland between composition and improvisation but pushes further into freer areas thanks to the presence of improvising musicians Alexander Hawkins (piano) and Olie Brice (double bass). Malcolm’s quartet also includes Whitlam who provides an interesting link between the two bands.

The title of “Black Bear” suggests a companion piece to the opener but places a greater emphasis on broken and electronic beats. Cordez moves back to electric bass and Blomfield again plays a key role on acoustic piano. The horns, once more bright and punchy, again hint at Get The Blessing plus McMurchie’s own Michelson Morley.

I recall the delightful ballad “Camilla Rose” as being another stand-out moment at the Pizza. The piece has its origins in a compositional exercise dating back to Cordez’s student days at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff. McMurchie’s solo here features his tenderest, most lyrical playing of the set, qualities that are initially mirrored by Malcolm before the trumpeter’s adventurous harmonies again threaten, but never fully subvert, the beauty of the piece.

The leader’s sonorous double bass introduces “Ron Free”, yet another piece with a memorable and highly melodic theme. There’s some delightful ensemble playing with the horns of McMurchie and Malcolm combining sumptuously on the theme prior to a fluent solo statement from the latter. There’s also something of a feature for Whitlam in the second half of the tune, an intelligent and highly musical exploration of the kit above a circling ensemble motif – in other words rather more than just the drummer having a ‘bit of a bash’.

The album concludes with “1000 Paper Cranes”, effectively the title track. As I recall from Cordez’s explanation at the Pizza elaborately folded paper cranes (that’s the birds, not the towering machines that you see on the dockside in Bristol) are traditionally given as gifts at Japanese wedding ceremonies. It’s a concept that’s reflected in the origami like sleeve design. The tune is a typically episodic piece of writing from Cordez, introduced by his own acoustic bass and complemented by Blomfield’s beautiful piano work and the intelligent ensemble work of the twin horns. Malcolm’s plangent trumpet again hints at choppier waters but McMurchie’s tenor is more an expression of pent up emotion.

“Paper Crane” is an album that has been a long time coming but it’s been well worth the wait. Cordez’s writing combines beauty with rigour and each piece stands on its own merits and tells its own story.  The themes are melodic, memorable, and often beautiful, but there’s an intelligent, exploratory side to the music that ensures that it transcends mere ‘prettiness’ and the combination of jazz, rock and electronic elements provides an admirably wide sound palette and mix of styles. These are musicians who know each other well and the playing, both individually and collectively, is superb throughout with Blomfield in particularly impressive form.   

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