by Ian Mann
November 19, 2023
It takes an exceptional musical mind to re-imagine such a diverse array of material so successfully. Nothing sounds ‘forced’ or ‘arch’ and even the most familiar of material sounds fresh and exciting.
John Law’s Re-Creations
(33 Jazz 33JAZZ296)
John Law – piano, keyboards, Sam Crockatt – tenor & soprano saxophones, Henrik Jensen – double bass, Alex Goodyear -drums
On 18th March 2023 I saw this current incarnation of John Law’s Re-Creations group give a superb performance at a Shrewsbury Jazz Network event at the town’s The Hive Music & Media Centre.
The material that was played that night has now been committed to disc on “Many Moons”, an album that takes its title from the fact that several of the tracks have the word ‘moon’ in the title.
“Many Moons” appears on the 33 Jazz imprint, but there appears to be a degree of confusion with regard to its actual official release date. Nevertheless Law is selling copies via his website so it’s definitely available to the jazz buying public, which is good enough for me.
London born Law was classically trained but later gravitated towards jazz and improvised music and has appeared on around forty albums since making his recording début in 1989. His extensive discography has explored several areas of music and has encompassed jazz and free improvisation alongside a still ongoing love of the classical tradition. In purely commercial terms Law’s musical restlessness and his reluctance to be pigeon-holed have probably counted against him, but it has resulted in a rich and consistently interesting and rewarding body of work. Among those with whom he has collaborated are saxophonists Jon Lloyd and Andy Sheppard, bassist Tim Wells and drummers Paul Clarvis, Louis Moholo Moholo and Gerry Hemingway.
I first encountered Law’s music in 2009 when he appeared with his trio at Black Mountain Jazz in Abergavenny. At that time he had been working on his “Art of Sound” series of albums, all of which were recorded at the famous Artesuono Studio in Italy with the celebrated recording engineer Stefano Amerio. Over the years Law has recorded frequently in the solo piano format and the second and third volumes in that series were solo piano recordings. Volume one and four featured him with a trio featuring bassist Sam Burgess and drummer Asaf Sirkis.
The fourth album in the “Art of Sound” series was released in 2009 and was titled “Congregation”. This was a more extrovert, hard driving album than the others in the series and featured the trio experimenting with electronics for the first time.
Law then resurrected the Congregation name for the ambitious 2014 double set “These Skies In Which We Rust”, credited to John Law’s New Congregation and featuring a new band comprised of saxophonist Josh Arcoleo, bassist Yuri Goloubev and drummer Laurie Lowe.
Also credited to John Law’s Congregation was the superb “Configurations” recording, released in 2020 and featuring saxophonist James Mainwaring (of Roller Trio fame), bassist Ashley John Long and drummer Billy Weir.
The Art of Sound and Congregation series of recordings have focussed on original material and Law has consistently proved himself to be an intelligent and imaginative composer. But he also enjoys putting his own stamp on the music of others, among them jazz composers such as Thelonious Monk or classical composers such as J.S. Bach, Frederic Chopin and Erik Satie. In addition to this Law has produced many inventive jazz arrangements of well known pop and rock and tunes.
I first encountered his innovative interpretations of outside material when his Opt Trio, featuring Sirkis and Goloubev, appeared at Abergavenny. In this instance the word ‘Opt’ stood for “other people’s tunes” and although there was never a formal Opt Trio release Law did sell an “official bootleg” at gigs for a while.
In time the Opt Trio evolved into the “Re-Creations” project with Law officially releasing three volumes of this series between 2017 and 2019. The second of these was a solo piano disc but Volumes One and Three introduced a new quartet featuring tenor saxophonist Sam Crockatt and two young graduates of the Jazz Course at Birmingham Conservatoire, bassist James Agg and drummer Billy Weir.
With Billy Weir now living and working in France and with James Agg having been forced to retire from full time music due to injury Law has formed a new version of the Re-Creations quartet. Law and Crockatt have now been joined by the experienced Danish born bass player Henrik Jensen, a composer and bandleader in his own right who is now based in the West of England. On drums is Alex Goodyear, a recent graduate of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (RWCMD) in Cardiff and an increasingly busy and in demand presence on the UK jazz scene. This engagement with Law represents his highest profile gig thus far. On the evidence of the Shrewsbury performance Jensen and Goodyear have helped to breathe new life into the Re-Creations project, bringing a fresh energy and impetus to the band.
“Many Moons” features Law’s distinctive and innovative adaptations of well known classical pieces, jazz standards, rock and pop songs and movie themes. His arrangements are inventive and tightly orchestrated, but are still full of unexpected twists and turns, with plenty of room given over for collective and individual improvisation and self expression. Law deploys a mix of acoustic and electronic keyboard sounds, which helps to give the music depth, colour and texture.
The album running order largely follows that of the Shrewsbury live performance and proceedings commence with Law’s arrangement of Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune”, with Crockatt featuring on soprano sax. Law’s inventive arrangements and radical re-harmonisations turn all his chosen pieces into valid vehicles for jazz improvisation, whatever the origins of the selections these are all genuine jazz performances. “Clair de Lune” incorporates fluent solos from Crockatt on alto sax and Law on acoustic piano, with Goodyear’s crisp and brisk brush work driving it all along.
Only in the Re-Creations group could Debussy be followed by Deep Purple. The famous “Smoke On The Water” riff has been quoted in many a jazz solo but Law’s arrangement with its tenor sax heroics, piano pyrotechnics and the sound of Goodyear channelling his inner Ian Paice is a revelation. Interestingly both Paice and Black Sabbath drummer Bill Ward were influenced by big band swing. Solos came from Crockatt on powerful, big toned tenor sax and Law at the piano. There’s more acoustic piano on the recording than there was at the Shrewsbury gig, where Law was obliged to deploy an electric keyboard and therefore made greater use of Rhodes, organ and synth sounds.
After the sound and fury of Deep Purple (although Law’s arrangement does include some subtler moments too) to the atmospherics of Stanley Myers’ composition “Cavatina”, best known as the theme tune from the film The Deer Hunter. An extended unaccompanied acoustic piano introduction leads to an atmospheric section featuring the sounds of piano and bowed bass. Jensen continues to play a prominent role in the arrangement even when he puts down the bow. Crockatt eventually sketches the familiar melody on breathy tenor saxophone, augmented by the shimmer of Goodyear’s mallets on cymbals, and later by the drummer’s delicate brushwork. Later we hear a melodic pizzicato double bass solo underscored by a combination of soft string synth sounds, acoustic piano and Goodyear’s delicate brushwork. Law then takes over on lyrical acoustic piano before Crockatt’s now majestic tenor sax returns. Law’s arrangement loses nothing of the beauty and lyricism of Myers’ composition, but of course most listeners will be familiar with the piece as a vehicle for classical guitarist John Williams.
Law has described his arrangement of “Fly Me To The Moon” as “a baroque version of a jazz classic”. This is another piece ushered in by a passage of unaccompanied acoustic piano with Law making extensive use of counterpoint. Double bass and brushed drums are then added to the equation, followed by Crockatt’s powerful tenor sax. It’s an often turbulent flight incorporating many twists and turns, including another florid passage of solo piano mid tune, followed by a rollicking piano solo full of baroque style flourishes underscored by vigorous bass and drums. The return of Crockatt’s tenor leads to another moment of reflection, but things are soon taking off again, with Crockatt’s sax taking the lead. Goodyear impresses with a stunning drum feature that ranges from the gently impressionistic to the downright explosive. The full quartet then return, with Crockatt’s tenor at the fore, for a final restatement of the theme. All in all it’s been quite a ride.
Law’s choices embrace a wide range of musical genres and next up is the quartet’s playful version of MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This”, which incorporates infectious rhythms, vocal interjections and earthy tenor sax soloing. There are some stunningly fast unison passages, allied to fluent solos from Law on both acoustic piano and synthesiser.
Following the energetic playfulness of both “Fly Me To The Moon” and “U Can’t Touch This” Law slows things down again with the song “Falling In Love Again”, famously sung by Marlene Dietrich in the film “The Blue Angel”. This is presented as a ballad with an unaccompanied piano intro followed by a trio passage featuring double bass and brushed drums. Lyrical solos come from Crockatt on warm toned tenor sax, Jensen on melodic double bass and Law at the piano.
Van Morrison’s “Moondance” is a song that has become rather too familiar in a jazz context in recent years. It’s to Law’s credit that he manages to find something new to say about it in a typically imaginative arrangement that mixes dynamic contrasts with baroque flourishes. An extended acoustic piano introduction provides the classical element, before a shout of “one, two three, four” takes into a more dynamic r’n’b style section, with Crockatt’s earthy tenor to the fore. Law delivers a barnstorming piano solo that combines both these influences, before Crockatt takes flight once more.
The only album track not to have been played at Shrewsbury was the Lennon & McCartney song “All You Need Is Love”, which was replaced by “You And The Night and The Music”, a song that didn’t actually make it onto the disc.
Law’s arrangement of The Beatles tune incorporates the anthems “God Save The Queen” and “The Marseillaise”, this section featuring Law’s use of string synth sounds and Jensen’s use of the bow on his double bass. The body of the song is upbeat and breezy with Law’s piano vamp underpinning Crockatt’s rootsy tenor sax. Jensen flourishes the bow again mid tune on a quote from Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy”, before a “Marseillaise” reprise takes into the next section of the tune with Law the featured soloist. Crockatt then returns on tenor as the quartet take things storming out.
Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind” was played as an encore at Shrewsbury. Law’s arrangement turns the song into a joyous, rollicking, gospel flavoured piece, with his own piano taking the lead. Law ushers things in unaccompanied, soon joined by Jensen’s propulsive double bass and Goodyear’s crisp drumming. There’s a near free jazz episode mid tune as Crockatt’s garrulous tenor sax comes to the fore and Law channels his inner Cecil Taylor. There are also allusions to The Beatles’ “Fool On The Hill” before the gospel vamp eventually returns.
An extended, heavily arpeggiated solo piano introduction to “Moon River” is presented as a separate track. The song itself is a wistful trio performance featuring lyrical piano, brushed drums, subtle string synth textures and softly sinuous soprano sax.
I’m aware that in the writing of this account I’ve heavily cannibalised my review of the Shrewsbury live show, but this is a recording that I wanted to bring to your attention. I love the way that Law transforms these pieces through his inventive arrangements and re-harmonisations, turning them intro genuine jazz performances. It takes an exceptional musical mind to re-imagine such a diverse array of material so successfully. Nothing sounds ‘forced’ or ‘arch’ and even the most familiar of material sounds fresh and exciting. There are no duff tracks.
The Shrewsbury live show was one of the best jazz performances that I’ve seen in 2023 and I was particularly pleased to see Alex Goodyear, a musician whose work I have championed thanks to his involvement at Black Mountain Jazz in Abergavenny, performing so brilliantly at such a high profile gig. The young drummer also excels on this recording, as do Law, Crockatt and Jensen. A high quality mix by Law and recording engineer Damon Sawyer also helps.
Of course the album is different to the live show in that there’s less reliance on electric keyboard sounds as Law concentrates more fully on acoustic piano. When he does deploy other sounds they are used tastefully and judiciously.
This current line-up has breathed new life into the Re-Creations project and it will be interesting to see what they choose to tackle next.
“Many Moons” is available via http://www.johnlaw.org.uk
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