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John Pope Quintet


by Ian Mann

January 11, 2024


I love the way that this group treads the fine line between the written and the improvised, and the spirited manner in which they do it.

John Pope Quintet


(New Jazz and Improvised Music Recordings NEWJAiM17)

John Pope – double bass, percussion, Jamie Stockbridge – alto & baritone saxophones, Faye MacCalman – tenor saxophone, clarinet, Graham Hardy – trumpet, flugelhorn, Johnny Hunter- drum kit, glockenspiel, percussion

A slightly belated at “Citrinitas”, the second album from the excellent quintet led by the Newcastle based bassist, composer and improviser John Pope.

Released in October 2023 “Citrinitas” represents a worthy follow up to 2021’s superb “Mixed With Glass”, which features exactly the same personnel and which also appears on the NEWJAiM imprint. Review here;

In November 2021 I enjoyed a live performance by the Pope quintet, with Tom Ward deputising brilliantly for Jamie Stockbridge, at the Centrala venue in Birmingham. Presented by the Fizzle organisation this was a double bill with the Faith Brackenbury / Tony Bianco Duo. My account of this event can be found here;

In addition to leading his quintet Pope also works in a duo with violinist John Garner. In October 2022 the pair released their fourth album “Water Music” for NEWJAiM. Review here;

A player of both acoustic and electric bass Pope is a member of the electro-jazz trio Archipelago, which teams him with saxophonist (and occasional vocalist) Faye MacCalman and drummer Christian Alderson. This group’s latest album “Echoes To The Sky” (NEWJAiM, 2021) is reviewed here;

Liber Musika is a project in which Pope explores the music of such AACM associated jazz composer / improvisers as Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith and Roscoe Mitchell.

Cartoon is a trio which teams him with the more senior figures of Chris Biscoe (reeds) and Roger Turner (drums, percussion). He has also recorded as a duo with Biscoe, this occasioned by Turner’s temporary absence due to illness.

Meanwhile Pope and MacCalman also work in an improvising trio with laptop artist Shelly Knotts, with whom they recorded the digital album “No Bones”.

Pope has also worked with the rave / punk jazz outfit Ponyland and the experimental electro-acoustic ensemble Midnight Doctors.

Pope’s increasing commitment to improvisation has also seen him performing with an impressive range of British and international collaborators, among them saxophonists Michael Moore, Evan Parker, Tony Bevan, Paul Dunmall and Cath Roberts, multi-instrumentalists Joe McPhee and Mick Beck, violinist Faith Brackenbury, harpist Rhodri Davies, pianists Alexander Hawkins and Laura Cole guitarist Anton Hunter and drummers Paul Hession, Tony Bianco and Han Bennink.

Released by NEWJAiM in 2021 “The King’s Hall Concert” features Pope as a member of the trio Telemaque, alongside McPhee and Hession. Review here;

The live recording “From Wolves To Water” (NEWJAiM, 2023) features Pope and pianist Laura Cole as guests of the trio Beck Hinters (Mick Beck - bassoon, sax, whistle, Anton Hunter – guitar, Johnny Hunter – drums). Review here;

Pope is also a member of the ensemble Sentient Beings, which also features Faith Brackenbury, Tony Bianco and Paul Dunmall. This line up recorded the excellent album “Sentient Beings” (2023), which is reviewed here;

Sentient Beings will undertake a short UK tour in late January / early February 2024 with saxophonist John O’Gallagher replacing Dunmall. The tour dates form part of this news story

Turning now to “Citrinitas”, which takes its title from “the mysterious process of alchemical yellowing”. The recording features a series of eight new Pope compositions and was recorded live in front of an invited audience at Newcastle’s Star & Shadow Cinema venue. This is the same space that hosted a livestream by Archipelago that formed part of the 2020 EFG London Jazz Festival, which for that year only was a wholly online event. My review of Archipelago’s ‘virtual’ performance can be found here;

The music on “Citrinitas” was written with the express intention of recording it live and the project was supported by a Peter Whittingham Jazz Development Award from the Help Musicians organisation. Pope sees the album as a celebration of “the breadth and strength of the creative culture in Newcastle”.

Pope has described his quintet’s music as “a joyous racket” and the qualities that made the first album such a success are present again here. There’s an excellent balance between composition and improvisation combined with a near punk like energy and a uniformly high standard of musicianship. The quintet is admirably tight during the written sections but also commendably free, loose and spontaneous during the improvised episodes, this resulting in some terrific soloing from all members of the band. It’s a thrilling combination that consistently engages the listener.

Pope counts in album opener “Free Spin”, which begins with the sound of Hunter’s drums. Pope soon joins him to create a mighty, and highly propulsive groove. Pope is a very physical bass player, a real powerhouse who can really drive a band. That’s the case here as the three horn players, with Stockbridge on baritone, combine to generate an energy that is reminiscent of a ‘mini big band’, as Pope and Hunter continue to stoke the rhythmic fires. Following the unison horn statements the band effectively becomes a trio as the horns deliver individual solos, Hardy going first. In a piano-less line up there’s a great onus placed on Pope and Hunter to keep things going rhythmically, and they rise to the challenge magnificently. The music becomes more free and abstract as Stockbridge takes over on baritone. This is a group that was initially inspired by Ornette Coleman, and which still sometimes includes Coleman tunes in its live sets, but the influence of Charles Mingus is also hugely important. The spirits of both inform the music here as the quintet eventually come together in raucous fashion, with the leader’s bass increasingly coming to the fore.

Pope’s unaccompanied bass introduction to “Through The Earth” offers a moment for reflection, with Hunter eventually adding a subtle drum commentary. The horn voicings are softer than on the opener with a gentle delivery of the main melodic theme leading to the individual solos, with MacCalman’s tenor going first this time round. She gradually and skilfully builds up the tension, which finds release in Hardy’s solo, gentle and brooding at first,  but also highly fluent and eventually more animated. There’s a brief diversion into more abstract areas followed by some engaging interplay between the three horns, with Stockbridge now on alto. Pope’s bass is prominent throughout the arrangement and the piece ends as it began with the leader solo.

It’s possible that the title of “Shadow Work” is a reference to the venue at which the album was recorded. There’s a suitably nocturnal quality to the music, which begins as a slow march and features the lugubrious sound of Stockbridge’s baritone. Hardy plays the melody on trumpet, gradually expanding upon it as the music enters freer, choppier waters featuring the carousing interplay of all three horns. The initial march / theme temporarily re-emerges before the music becomes totally abstract, quietly at first with the tentative sounds of vocalised, extended techniques from the horns allied to the rustle of percussion. A more belligerent section features the harsh rasp of Stockbridge’s baritone and Pope’s powerful bass plucking, before the tumult eventually subsides and the piece resolves itself.

The flirtation with the avant garde continues on “A Procession Of Heads” with its emphasis on low end sounds, most notably the leader’s bass and Stockbridge’s baritone. Again there’s a Mingus like quality about a theme that provides the foundation for solos from Stockbridge and Pope, the latter also making effective use of the bow. When the main theme returns the overall mood is lighter and more relaxed as the music achieves a kind of resolution.

Following two relatively sombre pieces both the energy and the joyousness are back on “World Dancer”, the main theme of which contains hints of both swing and bebop. Of course it acts as a jumping off point for more exploratory forays as the horns brawl and squall with each other, but that essential joie de vivre is omnipresent throughout.

“Hiba” begins with the sound of bass and drums, creating an odd meter groove that introduces something of a Middle Eastern / North African feel to the music, something encouraged by the hypnotic timbres generated by the airy interplay between the horns. Pope is featured as a soloist during a quieter, more atmospheric middle section, eventually establishing a rhythmic motif that provides the backdrop for MacCalman’s sinuous, totally compelling clarinet solo.

“Quantum Stepper” is introduced by the sounds of bass and handclaps, but the rhythms are anything but obvious. We are in consciously avant garde territory here with bass and drums augmented by the sound of pecked horns. A melody eventually emerges, played by Stockbridge on alto, but the piece remains jerky and fragmented, with fractious horn exchanges underpinned by odd meter rhythms prior to a transition into a kind of free style freak out, eventually punctuated by the sounds of handclaps. The closing section features a kind of Ornette Coleman / Carla Bley style march.

The album concludes with “Shiryo”, a kind of free jazz ballad that introduces itself with the mournful wails of tenor sax and trumpet above a fragmented march rhythm. A looser polyrhythmic rumble then underpins a series of colourful horn exchanges with Hardy taking the lead at first, followed by MacCalman and tenor and Stockbridge on alto, the latter ending up completely unaccompanied before handing over to the similarly solo MacCalman. Bass and drums eventually return for a collective closing section featuring the collective braying of the horns. One senses the ghost of Ornette Coleman signalling his approval.

The constantly mutating music of the John Pope Quintet, with its fine balance between composition and improvisation and its propensity to blur the boundaries of both, is not easy to describe, but I hope I have done it justice.

This is music that makes for enjoyably adventurous listening, sometimes challenging but ultimately highly rewarding. There’s a sense of being taken on a musical journey, but with the destination very much unknown. Armed with a compositional sketch map the Pope Quintet are musical explorers who relish in the sheer daring of it all, there’s a real energy and joyousness to their playing, a delight in the musical ‘what if?’ that fuels the music making of all true improvisers. This is jazz with ‘attitude’, that both makes the rules and breaks them.

I appreciate that Pope’s music will only suit so many ears but I love the way this group treads the fine line between the written and the improvised, and the spirited manner in which they do it. 

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