by Ian Mann
September 21, 2023
It may have been some four years between the initial recording session and the final album release, but nevertheless “Divisions” has been well worth waiting for.
Johnny Hunter / Mark Hanslip / Olie Brice
Discus Music – Discus 153CD)
Johnny Hunter – drums, Mark Hanslip – tenor saxophone, Olie Brice – double bass
“Divisions” features a trio comprised of three of the UK’s leading improvising musicians, drummer Johnny Hunter, tenor sax specialist Mark Hanslip and double bassist Olie Brice.
All have appeared regularly on the Jazzmann web pages in a wide variety of musical contexts, performing music that has either been pre-composed or fully improvised, or more frequently a mixture of both. Collectively they have too many mentions for me to examine them all again here, so I’ll just concentrate on this particular recording, which does indeed explore the interstice between composition and free improvisation, a musical hinterland with which all three musicians are acutely familiar.
The album was recorded at Discus Music Studio in Sheffield in 2019 but the mixing and mastering process was first delayed by the Covid lockdowns and then by “life generally”. Martin Archer of Discus Records, who recorded the original session, says “we are delighted to make it available at last, somewhat belatedly. Of course, the music itself is timeless”.
Johnny Hunter explains the scenario behind the recording further;
“The recording came off the back of the trio’s tour where they were performing purely Free Improvisation. The interest is in how they would now treat some composed material. The simple but strong melodies provide a stark contrast to the freedom experienced during the improvisation.”.
The compositions in question are all by Hunter himself and the four resultant performances have been described as a “suite”. They remain untitled, aside from the functional “Part 1” to “Part 4” appellations, hence there are no verbal clues to aid the listeners’ interpretation of the music.
That said each “Part” (or even “movement”, if you will) has its own distinctive musical character. The title “Divisions” is most apt as the trio explore not only the divisions between the individual “Parts”, but also the divisions between the compositional and improvisational processes. The result is music that is both engaging and surprisingly accessible. Each “Part” is based upon a single Hunter composition (as opposed to each containing a number of compositional ‘fragments’).
“Part 1” clocks in at just over ten minutes and commences with Hanslip stating the melodic theme, closely shadowed, indeed almost mirrored, by the leader’s drums. As Brice’s bass is added the music becomes more discursive with a finely balanced rapport between bass, drums and tenor sax, with some commentators having drawn parallels between Hanslip’s playing and that of Sonny Rollins. I’ve always regarded Hanslip as being one of the most melodic of the ‘free jazz’ saxophonists and this quality is apparent throughout “Divisions”, no matter how deeply he probes.
It’s certainly very much in evidence here as he stretches out with the support of Brice’s muscular bass and Hunter’s busy but subtle drumming, the latter’s playing full of nuance and detail.
Brice eventually takes over with an extended passage of unaccompanied double bass that combines a huge tone and an impressive dexterity with a great sense of musical awareness that embraces all the qualities of sound, space, structure, and even swing.
This solo episode is followed by another involving Hunter, an immaculately constructed and innately musical feature that combines the sounds of drums and cymbals, played with a variety of sticks and mallets, to mesmerising effect.
Eventually the opening theme returns to allow the trio to examine one final variation.
This opening item may be structured like a conventional bebop tune (head-solos-head) but it feels very different and the overall sound is still that of ‘free jazz’, but a style of ‘free jazz’ that is still very approachable.
“Part 2” is totally different in character and commences with the grainy timbres of Brice’s bowed bass and the eerie sounds of Hunter’s cymbal scrapes, mallet rumbles and the chiming of small percussion. It’s a slow burner of a track that retains its dark and pensive mood throughout with Hanslip adding wisps of tenor sax melody as Brice continues to play arco bass, these two exchanging phrases, the intertwining shards of melody underpinned by Hunter’s mallet rumbles. Shimmering percussion comes briefly to the fore and the piece eventually resolves itself with the sounds of breathy tenor sax and cello like arco bass. This is a highly atmospheric and evocative piece that is also strangely beautiful, but in its own dark and slightly unsettling way.
The introduction to “Part 3” is as close as the trio get to ‘straightahead’ jazz with the catchy post bop style theme acting as the jumping off point for a Hanslip sax solo that embraces various elements of jazz history before becoming more abstracted. He may be playing the tenor but there’s definitely something of an Ornette Coleman quality about the music. Brice is a fiercely rhythmic presence, his powerful bass motif driving the introductory theme and acting as the fulcrum for Hanslip’s solo. Brice’s playing allows Hunter the opportunity to roam and his playing is quietly energetic, exploring all areas of his kit and culminating in a quirky solo that subsequently evolves into a dialogue with Brice. The initial theme then returns briefly before the close.
“Part Four” introduces itself with a quirky, catchy, lurching melodic motif that helps to launch the trio’s improvisations. They’re in a bullish mood, confident and almost swaggering as Hanslip embarks on a solo, supported by the sounds of busy bass and bustling drums. There are more elements of Coleman style harmolodics as the music becomes more abstracted and goes through a series of tempo changes, cooling a little after the initial adrenalin rush. Brice then takes up the bow as we move into a more obviously freely improvised section, eventually culminating in a rumbustious sax and drum dialogue, overlain with arco bass. Brice then assumes the lead, playing melodic pizzicato bass on the quieter closing section.
It may have been some four years between the initial recording session and the final album release, but nevertheless “Divisions” has been well worth waiting for. Many of my favourite albums of recent years have trod a fine line between composition and improvisation and many of these have involved either Brice or Hunter, and often both together.
“Divisions” fits neatly into this lineage with Hunter’s compositional sketches providing a suitable framework for the trio’s improvisations. The presence of some kind of structure allows the music to remain relatively accessible but still allows plenty of scope for improvisation and self expression.
The album is relatively short by modern CD standards, essentially with two ten minute tracks and two eight minute tracks, but as the Bard once said “Brevity is the Soul of Wit” and no single piece here is allowed to outstay its welcome. Hunter’s self imposed limitations serve to channel and distil the trio’s efforts, resulting in music that is intelligent and sharply focussed.
The standard of the playing and the level of group interaction is excellent throughout with old friend Alex Bonney presiding over a typically pinpoint mix that emphasises all the subtlety, power and detail of the trio’s playing. Just to make it a ‘family’ affair Hanslip provides the album artwork and (as already noted) Discus label owner Martin Archer recorded the original session. A fine team effort all round and it’s good to see this music ‘out there’. Let’s hope that some more tour dates for this excellent trio might be the result – although they’re all doubtless working on other projects by now.
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