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Joshua Cavanagh-Brierley

Joy In Bewilderment

by Ian Mann

July 20, 2021


Cavanagh-Brierley’s decision to embrace so many different styles of musical expression is something to be admired. He wants to be everything – and he certainly won’t be pigeon-holed.

Joshua Cavanagh-Brierley

“Joy In Bewilderment”

(Ubuntu Music UBU0084)

Joshua Cavanagh- Brierley – electric & acoustic bass, piano


Gavin Hibberd – trumpet
Sam Healey – alto sax
Ryan Matthews – tenor sax
Chris Potter – tenor sax
Anthony Brown – baritone sax
Ellie Whitley – tenor trombone
Rich McVeigh – tenor & bass trombones
Caoilfhionn Rose Birley – vocals
Daniel Brew – guitar
Daniel Wellens – piano & keyboards
Alan Taylor, Grant Kershaw, Craig Hanson – drums

Simmy Singh – violin
Laura Senior – violin
Lucy Nolan – viola
Peggy Nolan – cello

Born into a musical family in Manchester Joshua Cavanagh-Brierley remains based in the city and is best known as a bass player and composer.

“Joy In Bewilderment” represents his third album release and follows his eponymous début from 2014 and 2015’s “I Want To Be Everything”, both of which are available in digital form via Cavanagh-Brierley’s Bandcamp page

In addition to his output as a leader Cavanagh-Brierley has also worked with vocalists Nishla Smith and Caoilfhionn Rose Birley, trumpeter Matthew Halsall, pianist Daniel Wellens, the duo Skeltr and larger ensembles such as Beats & Pieces Big Band, Kaleidoscope Orchestra, Manchester Concert Orchestra and Manchester Camerata Orchestra. He has worked with the American popular composer Frank Wildhorn and played for touring productions of West Side Story and Motown, The Musical.

It’s an eclectic CV embracing jazz, classical, electronica and popular music and the breadth of Cavanagh-Brierley’s musical interests is reflected in the music on this latest album, his label début for Ubuntu Music.

The new album features seven original compositions by Cavanagh-Brierley, these ranging from a solo piano piece, played by Cavanagh-Brierley himself, through the title track for string quartet to a series of pieces featuring a thirteen piece ensemble incorporating three drummers.

Cavanagh-Brierley’s previous releases have featured extended line ups and many of the mainly Manchester based players on this new release also appear on his earlier recordings. Nevertheless Cavanagh-Brierley has staged a major coup in persuading the leading American saxophonist Chris Potter to appear on the recording. He represents a real heavyweight presence and his playing is superb, as ever.

Cavanagh-Brierley says of the new album;
“’Joy in Bewilderment’ is an intimate expression and contemplation on how you can feel and function in modern society. It depicts the perplexity of the political climate and humanistic vulnerability through an amalgamation of resilience, puzzlement, and exasperation. Even within these surroundings it encapsulates optimism for the future and gratitude for the now. This is the music that I hear, and it feels like the most honest expression I’ve created to date.”

The album commences with the title track, a neo classical composition featuring the string sounds of The Amika Quartet. It’s a highly accomplished piece of writing and the music exhibits a genuine beauty as it moves through a number of phases during the course of its near eight minute duration. Flowing melodies tinged with melancholy contrast with spikier sections featuring rapidly bowed arpeggios with Ravel suggested as a possible compositional influence. The members of the Amika Quartet are used to working with jazz musicians, among them violinist/vocalist Alice Zawadzki and guitarist Stuart McCallum, and describe themselves as a ‘crossover quartet’, taking the traditional classical string quartet into new and unexpected areas, among them jazz and rock. They certainly give an inspired performance here. It’s not made clear on the album packaging if Cavanagh-Brierley actually joins them, there are some deep sonorities that may well feature bowed double bass in addition to Peggy Nolan’s cello. Cavanagh-Brierley has played double bass in numerous classical ensembles, and it is his album – so this is a distinct possibility.

The title of Cavanagh-Brierley’s previous album, “I Want To Be Everything”, would also be perfectly suited to this current recording. The next track, “Brew”, couldn’t be more different as the leader picks up his electric bass to lead the thirteen piece ensemble on a fiery composition inspired by the group’s guitarist Daniel Brew. The use of three drummers might suggest the influence of King Crimson, but the music is more akin to Snarky Puppy, once frequent visitors to Manchester’s famous Band on the Wall venue and another band that sometimes deploys multiple drummer / percussionists. Brew features prominently on the piece named after him, delivering a powerful, rock influenced solo, powered on by the rhythmic impetus of the leader’s bass and the interlocking rhythms of the three drummers. But for all the fire and brimstone there’s also a degree of subtlety here, particularly in the multi-hued arrangements for the seven strong reeds and brass section.

There’s no letting up in the energy levels as the twelve piece band remains in place for the slyly funky “I’ll Do As I Please”, which includes a barnstorming tenor sax solo, presumably from guest Chris Potter,  in addition to some genuinely rousing ensemble sections. Cavanagh-Brierley also features himself on funky, fusion-esque electric bass in a lively series of exchanges with Potter. Again it’s not all hammer and tongs as this nine minute epic is punctuated more reflective moments, among them the gently lyrical closing section.

Even more ambitious in its scope is “Forbidden Words”, which features the voice of Caoilfhionn Rose Birley, a singer songwriter signed to Matthew Halsall’s Manchester based Gondwana record label. With the thirteen strong ensemble still on board there is an almost symphonic quality about this piece, which sees Birley’s elegant vocal followed by a powerful and majestic tenor sax solo from fellow guest Chris Potter. It’s arguably also the piece that makes the most of the rhythmic possibilities of the three drummers. But yet again there are more introspective moments,  these expressed via the sometimes sombre horn voicings and Brew’s use of acoustic guitar. The performance concludes with a solo passage of acoustic piano from Wellens that leads us nicely to the next piece.

“Attachment” is a solo acoustic piano piece performed by Cavanagh-Brierley, who explains the circumstances behind its recording thus;
“This composition deals with the beauty and fragility of attachment. I recorded this on a mini grand piano in GoGo Penguin’s studio space”.
At this point it should be noted that the album is produced, mixed and edited by Joseph Haider, best known for his work with the celebrated Manchester trio GoGo Penguin.
“Attachment” reveals Cavanagh-Brierley to be a more than competent pianist as he navigates his way through a beguiling series of solo piano explorations, these eliciting a suitable emotional response from the listener.

“Ophelia’s Arrival” brings the thirteen piece back for a dynamic and fast moving ensemble performance that combines elements of big band swing with rock rhythms and showcases alto saxophonist Sam Healey as the featured soloist, his playing simultaneously biting and exciting.

The album concludes with the similarly energetic “You Can’t Whistle A Haircut”, which careers through a series of contrasting sections, embracing elements of jazz, rock and funk along the way. A spot of low end trombone rasp is combined with rousing sax led passages, with Healey’s alto again prominent in the arrangement. There’s a bravura tenor solo, presumably Potter again, and the piece ends with the whole ensemble thrillingly going hell for leather.

I’ll admit that when I first heard this album I didn’t know quite what to make of it. With so much going on and with such a variation in musical styles “eclectic” was the first word that came to mind -  and as we all know one man’s eclectic is another dog’s dinner.

Repeated listening has made me enjoy this album more, it’s still undeniably eclectic but it’s also the product of an overall vision. Jazz is supposed to be the ‘sound of surprise’, and Cavanagh-Brierley delivers plenty of pleasant ones here.

As a jazz listener I was naturally drawn to the large ensemble pieces first and these are consistently excellent with some razor sharp ensemble playing enhancing Cavanagh-Brierley’s intelligent and colourful arrangements. The five pieces in this format embrace a range of musical styles and offer plenty of variation within the confines of any single composition. They are also hugely exciting and one relishes the prospect of them being performed live.

It represents a brave move to make the album’s only ‘classical’ composition its title track, and this is a piece that quickly grew on me as I learned to appreciate its inner beauties, thanks to a superb performance from The Amika Quartet.

The solo piano piece also has an appeal of its own and represents an impressive statement from Cavanagh-Brierley on his ‘other instrument’. It also provides effective contrast and punctuation within the structure of the album as a whole.

In an increasingly homogenised musical landscape Cavanagh-Brierley’s decision to embrace so many different styles of expression is something to be admired. He wants to be everything – and he certainly won’t be pigeon-holed.

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