by Ian Mann
September 20, 2023
An ambitious album that fully succeeds in meeting its objectives. This is music that is bold and dynamic and is also rich in terms of colour, texture and compositional intelligence.
(AMP Music & Records AT0151)
Henry Spencer – trumpet, flugel. Ant Law – guitar, Matt Robinson – piano, Fender Rhodes, Andrew Robb – bass, David Ingamells- drums
John Garner – violin, Marie Schreer – violin, Lydia Abell – viola, Colin Alexander – cello
I first heard the playing of the trumpeter and composer Henry Spencer in 2014 on the eponymous début album of the seven piece band Quadraceratops, led by saxophonist, composer and improviser Cath Roberts. Spencer impressed as part of the four person horn section that helped to give that group its name. I later enjoyed his contribution to a live performance by Quadraceratops at that year’s EFG London Jazz Festival.
Spencer was born in Wiltshire, and began playing piano from an early age before taking up the trumpet at ten. He studied at Wells Cathedral School before moving on to the Jazz Course at The Guildhall in London.
The young trumpeter then stayed on in the capital and began to establish himself on the London jazz scene, performing with pianists Julian Joseph and Jason Rebello, saxophonist Stan Sulzmann and drummer Ollie Howell among others. He also performed with large ensembles such as the London Jazz Orchestra and London City Big Band.
Spencer also formed his own quintet, Juncture, comprised mainly of fellow Guildhall alumni and featuring Matt Robinson (piano, keyboards), Andrew Robb (bass, Dave Ingamells (drums) and Nick Costley-White (guitar).
On Spencer’s debut album “The Reasons Don’t Change” (Whirlwind Recordings, 2017) the core quintet was augmented by the Gusthalla String Quartet featuring violinists John Garner and Marie Schreer, violist Agata Darashkaite and cellist Sergio Serra.
The new album sees Ant Law replacing Costley-White on guitar while there are two changes to the string quartet, with Lydia Abell and Colin Alexander coming in to fill the viola and cello chairs. Nevertheless it’s essentially the same instrumental line up.
Besides his jazz credentials Spencer has also worked with pop and rock bands and these experiences feed into his work as an increasingly ambitious composer. The music on “The Defector” draws on jazz, rock, minimalism and other contemporary classical music.
Spencer has also expressed his admiration for the art of the singer-songwriter and once considered following that path himself. At the time of the release of “The Reasons Don’t Change” he remarked;
“I aim to approach instrumental music in the same way – with as much emotive clarity as if the music had lyrics. My wish is that listeners might engage with the original emotional and lyrical context of the album, almost as if it were being presented by a singer-songwriter, and then relate it to their own experience. Each composition on this album is a response to, and my way of dealing with, specific personal experiences. I’ve always been drawn to music and art that is driven by sincere emotional intent and creative expression derived from genuine experience”.
At this time Spencer also spoke about some of the tunes having unsung lyrics, these forming part of the compositional process.
Spencer dedicates his new album to various types of ‘defector’, be it “the soldier deserter from an army committing war crimes”, or “the partner that leaves their abusive relationship for a freer life”. Then there’s “the politician who actively challenges and leaves their party to protect democracy”, or “the North Korean dissident that chooses the life-threatening endangerment of attempting to escape, crossing the border into a completely unknown world, rather than stay living with dictatorship, tyranny and oppression and the violation of human rights and the freedom of expression”.
Spencer admits that he’s not fully able to personally relate to such human suffering and bravery, but nevertheless expresses his deep admiration for these defectors and their moral courage, physical strength and their determination to improve their situation and to help others around them.
“I think it’s worthwhile and honourable to emulate, even slightly, these qualities in our own ordinary lives”.
The album features nine new Spencer originals and commences with the title track, an effective call to arms that begins with the sound of Robinson’s unaccompanied acoustic piano, first joined by the leader’s trumpet, and then by bass and drums. The quiet introduction is short lived as the piece leaps into vibrant, colourful life, with the dramatic textures of the string quartet a powerful factor in the arrangement. Ingamells’ propulsive drumming fuels powerful solos from Robinson on piano and Spencer on trumpet. As on the previous album there’s a strong narrative element about Spencer’s writing and his deployment of the strings is genuinely impressive, with the members of the string quartet fully integrated into the overall ensemble sound in a manner that extends far beyond mere sweetness or decoration. This is a rousing opener that achieves an impressive intensity as it unfolds.
“Perfect Hindrance” is a little less fiery but still features an alluring melody and a powerful groove.
Spencer and Robinson, the latter again focussing on acoustic piano, are the featured soloists as the string quartet provides swirling textures. Once again the piece exhibits something of an anthemic quality, particularly as it gathers momentum during its closing stages.
The arpeggiated piano intro to “Undone” suggests something of that minimalist influence, but as the piece develops, all the while growing in intensity, the rock element becomes more pronounced. This is the first track to really feature Law cutting loose as he delivers a powerful, rock influenced solo, sharing the spotlight with the leader’s trumpet. Robb and Ingamells combine to provide an unstoppable propulsion.
“Moment Gained” is gentler, but not entirely lacking in urgency. Following Robinson’s unaccompanied piano introduction Robb and Ingamells set up a groove that underpins Spencer’s bright trumpet soloing. The consistently impressive Robinson also features as a soloist as Law and the strings play essentially textural roles, helping to give the whole piece a sweeping, widescreen quality.
“Introduction to Without a Voice” is a short mediation from the string quartet that introduces the track that follows. Sombre and reflective in tone, with the sound of Alexander’s cello prominent in the arrangement it’s a perfect scene setter for “Without A Voice”, a title clearly chosen to reflect the overall theme of the album. This begins quietly, with the lyrical sounds of trumpet and piano, but quickly develops to express a genuine anger. These elements continue to co-exist alongside each other throughout the performance, with Spencer’s plaintive trumpet seeming to express the search for light amongst the darkness, aided and abetted by fellow soloist Robinson, again on acoustic piano.
By way of contrast “Here (for Chicca)” is perhaps the most upbeat piece on the album, establishing a sunny relaxed atmosphere with Spencer featuring alongside fellow soloist Law.
The penultimate piece, “Overlap”, features Spencer with the string quartet only. The leader explores the full tonal range of the trumpet, sympathetically supported by the strings, whose own sounds are equally rich and evocative. It’s something of a mini-masterpiece.
The album concludes with the core quintet’s performance of “Not My Country”, another title in keeping with the overall album theme. Introduced by Law on guitar, subsequently joined in a duo by Spencer, the piece gradually gathers momentum with the addition of piano, bass and drums. A thoughtful solo from Law, that incorporates an instrumental discussion with bass and drums, leads to a more ebullient statement from Spencer’s burnished trumpet. This precedes a gentle and lyrical coda.
“The Defector” represents an excellent follow up to the widely acclaimed “The Reasons Don’t Change” and sees Spencer continuing to hone his artistic vision. The strings are even more fully assimilated into the overall ensemble sound this time round and Spencer’s deployment of the string quartet is particularly impressive.
The core quintet, who I will continue to think of as ‘Juncture’, although that name doesn’t actually appear on the album packaging, is also hugely impressive. Robinson is allowed plenty of solo space and his piano is also an integral part of the overall sound, he impresses throughout. Robb and Ingamells continue to impress as a rhythm team, with drummer’s playing exhibiting considerable intelligence and variation. I‘ d like to have heard a little more from Law as a soloist, although he acts as a good foil throughout the album.
Spencer’s own playing is imperious and is very much at the heart of the music. His instrumental skill, allied to his talents as a composer and arranger, suggests that he should continue to be a name to look out for in the coming years.
“The Defector” is an ambitious album that fully succeeds in meeting its objectives. This is music that is bold and dynamic and is also rich in terms of colour, texture and compositional intelligence. Spencer brings together the various genres of jazz, rock and contemporary classical music to create a sound that is very much his own.
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