by Ian Mann
February 20, 2014
"Halftime" represents a début for Cohen to be proud of. The playing is immaculate throughout but it's Cohen's writing ability that perhaps impresses most.
(Whirlwind Recordings WR4644)
The young alto saxophonist Rachael Cohen, a graduate of the Jazz Course at Birmingham Conservatoire, is a relatively recent addition to the London jazz scene. Originally from the Shetland Islands she has also lived in Edinburgh and has strong links to the Scottish jazz community following a period of tenure with the Scottish National Youth Jazz Orchestra.
Cohen’s choice of personnel for her début album mirrors her peripatetic jazz existence with fellow London Scottish exile Calum Gourlay on double bass, Birmingham based Jim Bashford at the drums and the vastly experienced Phil Robson on guitar, a musician with strong links to both London and Birmingham. The album is part funded by the Birmingham based Jazzlines organisation headed by Tony Dudley Evans and Mary Wakelam.
Cohen grew up playing classical piano from the age of four before moving on to saxophone at nine and studying with the leading Scottish saxophonist Martin Kershaw. Whirlwind founder Michael Janisch was so impressed with her playing that he made her the label’s first female band leader and acted as co-producer of the album. Cohen’s sound possesses a purity of tone and a fluency and sense of melodic purpose that is rare in such a young musician.
However it’s not just Cohen’s playing that impresses on “Halftime” but also her compositional maturity as she mixes orthodox jazz virtues with more contemporary developments. It’s an approach typified by the opening “The Manor” which mixes coolly elegant bop inspired playing with a more modern aesthetic via relaxed but intelligent and inventive solos from Robson, Cohen and Gourlay above Bashford’s neatly detailed but subtly propulsive brushed undertow.
This is followed by the quartet’s version of Ornette Coleman’s “Just For You”, the only non Cohen composition on the album. This holds similar appeal with Cohen’s subtly bluesy interpretation bringing the best out of Coleman’s melody with the support of Gourlay’s implacable, big toned walking bass and further immaculately detailed drumming from Bashford.
The urgent “Groove Envy” has more of contemporary feel with Robson making effective use of his distortion pedal as he and Cohen work in tandem above Gourlay and Bashford’s skipping grooves, the saxophonist adopting a slightly darker tone than previously. Gourlay also demonstrates his fluency as a soloist.
Cohen’s playing has been compared to Paul Desmond, Art Pepper and Martin Speake and she’s at her most fluent on “Rise And Fall Of SC” shadowed by Robson’s masterful comping and the consistently imaginative rhythm work of Gourlay and Bashford. Robson’s own solo is full of his characteristic lithe elegance as Bashford’s cymbals chatter around him.
Explaining the title of the album Cohen says “Halftime was named not only because of the style of music, but I also liked the idea of half-time in a sports game, of pausing for thought and considering your next move”. The analogy is made implicit by way of the track “Intermission”, a delightfully melodic interlude featuring just saxophone, guitar and bass.
The piece acts as a staging post before the lively lope of “Riggins, Higgins?”, presumably a dedication to one time Ornette drummer Billy Higgins. Cohen’s alto takes flight above Robson’s spacious chording and the busy rhythmic flow of Bashford’s drums. Robson’s own solo is similarly fluent and inventive, the “senior member” of the group is in terrific form throughout the album.
“Window Watcher” opens with an impressively assured passage of solo saxophone with Cohen subsequently joined by Robson’s floatingly atmospheric guitar chording. The slightly ethereal intro is superseded by a more urgent central section featuring Robson’s slippery, boppish guitar runs busily supported by Gourlay and Bashford. The two approaches are resolved with the re-introduction of Cohen’s sax as the piece almost comes full circle.
The gentle “Ask Me Later” has been likened to a standard and the warmth of the solos by Cohen and Robson is firmly rooted in the jazz ballad tradition with Gourlay and Bashford offering suitably subtle and sympathetic support.
“Free Speech” offers an altogether spikier approach, very different to the rest of the album but altogether appropriate for a leader who names Ornette Coleman as one of her influences. It’s a piece that sounds as if it may have been almost fully improvised with Cohen adopting a strikingly different strident tone and Bashford relishing the opportunity to cut loose, his ringing cymbals particularly effective. Although brief it’s a tantalising hint at possible future developments for Cohen’s playing.
The sporting analogy is revisited with the title of the closing “Full Time”, one of Cohen’s most gorgeous melodies and a piece very much in keeping with the overall mood of the bulk of this excellent début album. Cohen and Robson are at their most lyrical and the rhythm team at their understated best.
“Halftime” represents a début for Cohen to be proud of. The playing by all four group members is immaculate throughout (Bashford’s contribution is also a revelation) but it’s Cohen’s writing ability that perhaps impresses most, she clearly has a real eye for a tune and her strong melodies are complemented by an impressive maturity that eschews the usual youthful bluster in favour of something more considered and substantial.
Despite making a favourable impression at the 2013 Whirlwind Records Festival at London’s Kings Place venue Cohen has suffered a degree of bad luck with regard to the release of the album. Although recorded in London the album was due to be mixed and mastered by Whirlwind’s engineering whizz Tyler McDiarmid at his studio in New York. However a burglary at McDiarmid’s studio saw the master tape go missing and the album had to be mastered again, delaying its release. It’s a tribute to the professionalism of McDiarmid and Whirlwind that this second version still sounds great. Let’s hope that this incident was only a temporary setback for the hugely talented Rachael Cohen. Her’s is a name to watch out for in 2014.