by Ian Mann
April 11, 2018
A radical departure for one of Britain’s most respected contemporary jazz musicians. Neame and his excellent quartet have created a recording that sounds thoroughly vital and contemporary.
(Edition Records EDN 1108)
Pianist and composer Ivo Neame (born Kent, 1981) is arguably best known as a member of Phronesis, the phenomenally successful Anglo-Scandinavian trio led by Danish bassist and composer Jasper Hoiby.
Phronesis is a band with an international reputation, a European act that has actually made inroads into the US jazz market. The trio’s remarkable success over the last decade has been based on a series of excellent studio and live recordings, the majority of them released on the Edition record label. Initially the trio’s material came from the pen of Hoiby but as the band has developed Neame and drummer Anton Eger have also begun to write for the increasingly democratic and fiercely interactive trio.
Alongside Phronesis Neame has continued to pursue an equally convincing solo career as a pianist, composer and band leader. He made his début as a leader with the somewhat undistinguished trio set “Swirls And Eddies” in 2007 but soon developed rapidly. 2009’s “Caught in the Light of Day”, a quartet recording that teamed the pianist with vibraphonist Jim Hart, represented a huge step forward and showcased Neame’s increasingly distinctive writing style.
The ambitious “Yatra” (2012) saw Neame expanding his group to an octet with the addition of four reed players. This was a brilliant recording, just bursting with compositional ideas and featuring some outstanding playing from all members of the group. 2015’s quintet set “Strata” was nearly as fine and confirmed Neame’s status as a band-leader to watch.
Currently Neame remains a member of Phronesis and is also a member of the quintet led by brilliant Norwegian saxophonist, composer and band-leader Marius Neset. He has been a long term member of bassist Dave Manington’s sextet Riff Raff and appears on their forthcoming album “Challenger Deep”. Other recent projects have included the trio Escape Hatch, with bassist Andrea Di Biase and drummer Dave Hamblett, and a duo with the Polish born guitarist Maciek Pysz.
Neame has also been a member of the acclaimed Kairos 4tet led by saxophonist and composer Adam Waldmann and of Fringe Magnetic, the eclectic large(ish) ensemble led by trumpeter Rory Simmons. In addition the prolific and in demand pianist has worked as a sideman with saxophonists Josh Arcoleo and Trish Clowes, trumpeter Andre Canniere, guitarist Ant Law, vocalists Brigitte Beraha, Kaz Simmons and Elisa Caleb, drummer Dave Hamblett and bassist Mick Coady among others. Also an accomplished alto saxophonist Neame has been featured in this role with Jim Hart’s group Gemini.
Neame’s fifth album release as a leader sees him returning to the Edition label and introducing a new quartet featuring George Crowley on tenor sax, Tom Farmer on acoustic bass and long term associate James Maddren at the drums.
The album takes its title from Hindu philosophy, the word “Moksha” referring to “emancipation from ‘samsara’ the cycle of death and rebirth – to ultimate freedom from earthbound cares and ignorance, leading to self-realisation and self-knowledge”.
Stylistically the new recording represents something of a departure for Neame. His previous solo recordings have been distinguished by their complexity, with structures often borrowed from classical music. Rich in terms of rhythm, texture and harmony and literally bursting with ideas the results have sometimes been challenging but ultimately hugely rewarding. “Caught in the Light Of Day”, “Yatra” and “Strata” are universally excellent and highly recommended to all adventurous listeners.
Nevertheless “Moksha” represents something of a departure with electric keyboards playing a far greater role in the ensemble sound than ever before. Besides his customary acoustic piano Neame is also credited with playing Fender Rhodes, mellotron, Hammond organ and Nord lead. The result is music that is far more direct than that of previous Neame solo recordings with the leader citing the influence of the American trio Medeski, Martin and Wood on his writing for this record. The electric music of Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock has also been suggested as a source of inspiration.
I’d also like to suggest a more contemporary parallel, the quartet led by American saxophonist Donny McCaslin featuring Jason Lindner on keyboards, Tim LeFebvre on electric bass and the great Mark Guiliana (who once guested with Phronesis and appears on their breakthrough “Alive” album) on drums. McCaslin’s quartet famously appeared on David Bowie’s final album “Black Star” as well as releasing their own jazz recordings “Casting For Gravity” (2012) “Fast Future” (2015) and “Beyond Now” (2016),
Album opener “Vegetarians” introduces Neame’s new sounds with Farmer and Maddren delivering a powerful groove, the sound fleshed out by the leader’s layered, sometimes glitchy, keyboards. Crowley’s tenor adds both melody and improvisatory gristle as he states the theme before stretching out to solo inventively. It’s a piece that grabs the listener by the lapels and demands their instant attention. In this sense it’s one of the most direct and immediate pieces that Neame has recorded, certainly as a solo artist.
“Moksha Music” introduces acoustic piano and initially has something of a more orthodox jazz feel, but the splashes of colour from Neame’s other keyboards allied to the contemporary grooves laid down by Farmer and Hamblett ensure that the music also sounds thrillingly up to date. Following Crowley’s theme statement Neame delivers a sparkling, punchy acoustic piano solo, brilliantly underscored by Maddren’s energetic drumming. The music then teeters into a passage of freely structured improvisation with Crowley and Neame exchanging ideas before the quartet seamlessly reel everything back in again via Crowley’s closing sax solo.
“Pala” slows the pace a little, and demonstrates Neame’s capability as a multiple keyboard player as he produces a fascinating array of sounds from the various instruments at his disposal. He combines well with the humanising voice of Crowley’s tenor while Farmer and Maddren handle the rhythmic challenges presented by Neame’s writing with customary aplomb. This may be Neame’s most direct music to date, but that doesn’t mean that it’s simple.
The following “Laika” is a case in point. After an atmospheric intro featuring Neame’s spacey electronics the piece embraces the kind of melodic and rhythmic complexities that characterised Neame’s earlier albums. Thrillingly complicated unison passages featuring energetic keyboards, saxophone and drums alternate with more abstract passages of improvisation. Neame features strongly on Fender Rhodes and there’s something of a feature for the excellent Maddren.
“Outsider” re-introduces the sound of acoustic piano and represents the album’s ballad selection.
Here the leader’s piano sound is flowingly lyrical and unadorned while bassist Farmer is also featured as a soloist as Maddren switches to brushes. Much of the piece is played in the trio format with Crowley’s plangent tenor only introduced in the tune’s latter stages.
Acoustic and electric keyboard sounds combine on “Ghost Shadow”, a richly evocative piece propelled by Maddren’s edgy grooves that again finds Neame and Crowley combining effectively.
The album closes with “Blimp”, the lengthiest piece on the recording at a little under eight minutes. It’s a slow burner of a piece that builds gradually from Neame’s solo acoustic piano introduction, adding drums, bass and finally saxophone along the way. The music unfolds slowly and organically and has a strong narrative arc that embraces a variety of dynamics and musical styles. Nevertheless, as one would expect with Neame, things are from straightforward. This all acoustic piece features a central passage incorporating a duet between piano and saxophone followed by a gritty bout of group improvisation. There’s a terrific section of trio playing featuring Neame’s tumbling, percussive piano playing and Maddren’s brilliantly hyper-active drumming. Crowley’s tenor subsequently joins the fray as the music builds to a climax and subsequent diminuendo.
“Moksha” represents a radical departure for one of Britain’s most respected contemporary jazz musicians. Some purists have baulked at Neame’s embracing of electric keyboards and a fusion-esque sound. Nevertheless it sounds nothing like the sometimes maligned fusion of the 70s and 80s, Neame and his excellent quartet have created a recording that sounds thoroughly vital and contemporary.
Personally I welcome this change of direction and in the main the album has received positive reviews. Neame’s abilities as an acoustic pianist and composer are well known and “Moksha” represents an admirable attempt to do something different. The orchestral manner in which he deploys his various keyboards is sometimes reminiscent of the late, great Joe Zawinul.
Nobody could ever accuse Neame of being typecast, each of his solo albums is substantially different to the others and a clear sense of artistic progression can be discerned throughout his solo recordings. Neame has always been a musician to stretch himself, never shying away from complexity or a challenge and his embrace of electric keyboards represents his latest step in this direction. Ironically it has just resulted in the most broadly accessible album of his solo career.
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