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John Pope Quintet

Mixed With Glass

by Ian Mann

February 11, 2021


Pope and his colleagues strike an almost perfect balance between composition and improvisation and between form and freedom. There’s also an essential energy and joyousness about the performances.

John Pope Quintet

“Mixed With Glass”

(New Jazz and Improvised Music Recordings NEWJAiM3)

John Pope – double bass, Jamie Stockbridge – alto saxophone, Faye MacCalman – tenor saxophone, clarinet, Graham Hardy – trumpet, pocket trumpet, Johnny Hunter – drums

This third release from the new label New Jazz and Improvised Music Recordings features a quintet led by the Newcastle based bassist and composer John Pope.

The following paragraphs, extracted from my review of the label’s début release, “Calling”  by Danish saxophonist Laura Toxvaerd, explains something of the story behind the new imprint;

“It represents a pretty courageous move to to establish a new record label during the Covid pandemic, but this is precisely what Wesley Stephenson, who describes himself as its “Project Director” has done.

Stephenson is the curator of the annual Newcastle Jazz and Improvised Music Festival and the label represents a direct offshoot of this. The decision to establish a record label came about as the result of the cancellation of the 2020 Festival, which had been due to take place in late September / early October, but which was eventually reduced to just a couple of livestream performances.

Stephenson’s main objective with regard to the establishment of a label at this time was to offer a creative and economic outlet to musicians who had been denied live performance opportunities due to the pandemic.

The label set up was assisted by a successful Crowdfunder campaign and the new imprint is currently rolling out its first four releases. An ethos of sustainability also informs the project with the label deploying a carbon neutral manufacturing plant and distribution network and using recycled and biodegradable materials wherever possible.

The new label plans to issue six releases between December 2020 and April 2021, with the first four currently available on its Bandcamp page;

In chronological release order the first four albums are;

Laura Toxvaerd – “Calling”

Paul Taylor – “Via” (solo piano)

John Pope Quintet - “Mixed With Glass”

Andy Champion and Graeme Wilson Duo - “Shoes For Losers”

I was initially inclined to publish a feature on the new label and to review all of the recordings as part of the same article. On reflection I decided that it would be fairer to the musicians involved for the albums to be reviewed as separate entities, thus granting greater exposure to the individual artists. As might be deduced from the name of the new label much of the music is at the more adventurous end of the jazz spectrum, with its roots in free jazz and the avant garde”.

Turning now to this specific recording which features a quintet of musicians hand picked by leader and composer John Pope. The band features leading players from both the Newcastle (Pope, MacCalman, Hardy) and Manchester (Stockbridge, Hunter) jazz scenes and the recording was made possible with the support of Arts Council England plus various regional arts bodies and individuals, all of whom receive appropriate credit on the album packaging.

Pope is a musician with a national reputation and is currently a Serious Music Take Five participant, while his quintet is one of the seven acts selected for Jazz North’s ‘Northern Line’ touring programme.

A player of both acoustic and electric bass Pope is involved with a number of other projects in addition to this quintet. Alongside drummer Christian Alderson he and MacCalman form two thirds of the electro-jazz trio Archipelago. A livestream performance by this line up from the Star & Shadow Cinema, Newcastle for the 2020 EFG London Jazz Festival 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”.

In October 2020 Pope also released the digital album “Genteel Eschaton”, a duo collaboration with violinist John Garner.

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

Further information on Pope’s diverse range of musical activities can be found at his website

Given its chordless line up it should perhaps come as no surprise to learn that Pope’s quintet was first assembled to perform a tribute concert to Ornette Coleman commissioned by Jazz North East in 2016. The group quickly developed to become Pope’s main creative outlet as a composer and bandleader and the bassist also cites the influence of Charles Mingus, Misha Mengelberg and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Pope also cites the inspiration of a “DIY alternative rock attitude” and describes his group’s music as “dynamic, off-kilter and celebratory”  and as “a joyous racket”.

In accordance with NEWJAiM’s stated aims the album was recorded at the height of the pandemic at a two day session at Newcastle’s Blank Studios in October 2020 by an engineering team of John Martindale and Adam Sinclair. The inside cover photo of a mask wearing Pope cradling his double bass represents an indelible image of our times.

The programme features seven new original compositions by Pope, all of which allow ample room for improvisation, with all the members of the quintet taking maximum advantage of the freedom afforded to them.

Pope’s count in heralds the horn chorus that introduces the powerful opener, “Plato”. The rumble of the leader’s bass and the polyrhythmic swing of Hunter’s drums drive a piece that does indeed draw on the lineage of Coleman and Mingus, but in a joyous and very contemporary way. Stockbridge pushes his alto to its limits with a powerful solo, while a change of meter leads to a series of more intimate, but no less exciting, exchanges with Hardy’s trumpet and MacCalman’s tenor now coming increasingly to the fore. A rumbustious and invigorating start.

The title of “Misha, A Miner” is presumably a homage to the Dutch pianist Misha Mengelberg (1935-2017), founder of the Instant Composers Pool and one of Pope’s musical heroes. Propelled by Pope’s powerfully loping bass lines the piece represents an excellent blend of composition and improvisation with some tight and colourful ensemble playing followed by more loosely structured episodes featuring the horn players as individual soloists. MacCalman is featured on clarinet, her use of an instrument rarely heard in such a modern context bringing a welcome additional instrumental voice to the music. Things become even more fragmented with a gentler free jazz episode featuring the breathy sounds of Hardy’s trumpet and the grainy melancholy of the leader’s bowed bass. A brief passage of unaccompanied trumpet leads into a more dynamic section, with Hardy still soloing above the sounds of powerfully plucked bass and skittering drums. A fanfare of blazing horns then leads to a rousing closing section that mirrors the opening theme. There’s a sense of completing a journey that has contained many unexpected and exciting twists and turns.

The title track introduces a gentler side of the group and is an elegant ballad possessed of a glorious kind of melancholy, this even extending into the more freely structured improvised episodes. These include an extended excursion from Pope on unaccompanied pizzicato double bass, later joined by Hunter, who deploys brushes almost throughout the track. Pope briefly picks up the bow and Hunter the mallets for an impressionistic, loosely structured episode prior to a restatement of the opening theme, again featuring the subtle textures of the horns.

“Ing” begins with the grainy sounds of bowed bass and the vocalised whinny of Hardy’s trumpet. This introductory dialogue then becomes more animated and more extreme as the duo enter into a full on free jazz exchange deploying increasingly extended techniques. It forms the portal for a rousing section that sees Pope’s propulsive bass lines and Hunter’s crisp, polyrhythmic drumming driving a series of powerful ensemble episodes, these punctuated by more fragmentary improvised sections featuring MacCalman and Stockbridge as individual soloists. The constant movement between composition and improvisation and between structure and freeness makes for compulsive listening. One suspects that the ghosts of Coleman and Mingus would approve.

Pope’s description of his group’s music as “a joyous racket” is particularly suited to the upbeat “The Right Hand Path” as the leader’s muscular bass and Hunter’s splendidly animated drumming fuel ebullient solos from Hardy, Stockbridge and MacCalman, allied to some some equally spirited exchanges between the three. It’s thrillingly exciting stuff.

There’s a change of mood with the album’s second ballad, “Beautiful Pink (Is Not Ugly)”, which commences with a pensive passage of unaccompanied pizzicato double bass from the leader, deeply resonant but essentially melodic. He is joined by the feathery sounds of MacCalman’s clarinet and by Hunter in the role of colourist. The reflective mood continues even in the more loosely structured improvisatory moments as Pope’s bass continues as the principal instrument, his eventual use of the bow only adding to the air of melancholy. The horns are largely employed to provide colour and texture, rather than as solo instruments.

Hunter’s drums introduce the near eleven minute “Country Bears, Come North”, which closes the album. In conjunction with Pope he establishes an infectious groove that forms the platform for the colourful, spirited interplay between the three horns. Naturally the music shades off into more loosely structured, obviously improvised episodes, these involving a greater degree of intimacy, as exemplified by the trumpet /drum dialogue featuring Hardy and Hunter. This is followed by an even more intimate exchange between the leader’s bass and MacCalman’s tenor, emphasising the musical closeness between two musicians who frequently collaborate together.  Finally the groove returns as the quintet sign off with a rousing ensemble passage that celebrates the joyousness, energy and inventiveness of their music making.

Although it can still be classed as ‘avant garde jazz’ “Mixed With Glass” is still the most accessible NEWJAiM release thus far. Pope and his colleagues strike an almost perfect balance between composition and improvisation and between form and freedom. There’s also an essential energy and joyousness about the performances that evades the solemnity and seriousness of much free jazz.

The music embraces a variety of elements and is consistently evolving, shifting seamlessly between the written and the improvised in a way that isn’t always easy to describe, but which is always a joy to listen to. With their dynamic and stylistic variations Pope’s pieces draw the listener and make for a compelling and absorbing audio experience. All of the musicians play with great skill, imagination and confidence, impressing both as individuals and as part of an extremely well balanced team.

Youtube footage suggests that the quintet’s live performances are dynamic and exciting affairs. Let’s hope that they can back to de\livering these to live audiences again later in 2021. In the meantime there is always this excellent album to enjoy.

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