by Ian Mann
March 16, 2020
A relaxed, intimate and unpretentious album that includes some excellent interplay between the three musicians and assured and imaginative individual soloing.
Karen Sharp Trio
(KLS Records KLS001)
Karen Sharp – tenor & baritone saxophones, Colin Oxley – guitar, Simon Thorpe – double bass
Suffolk born saxophonist and composer Karen Sharp is a popular figure on the UK jazz scene, much loved by British jazz audiences. She first came to prominence as a member of the late Humphrey Lyttleton’s band and has subsequently performed as a sidewoman with many other leading British and American jazz musicians.
Sharp’s roll call of credits includes small group work with fellow saxophonists John Dankworth, Ken Peplowski, Alan Barnes, Scott Hamilton and Scott Robinson, trumpeters Steve Waterman Warren Vache and Harry Allen, pianist Nikki Iles, guitarist Howard Alden, drummer Trevor Tomkins and vocalists Jacqui Dankworth, Tina May and Esther Miller.
An adaptable versatile musician who plays both tenor and baritone saxophones Sharp has also been a ‘first call’ for such large ensembles as the Guy Barker Big Band, Steve Waterman Big Band, Stan Tracey Big Band, Frank Griffith Big Band, the Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Orchestra and Robert Fowler’s Gerry Mulligan Concert Big Band. Currently she is part of Nikki Iles’ Jazz Orchestra.
In addition to her work as a sidewoman Sharp has also led her own groups, including her long running quartet featuring pianist Nikki Iles, bassist Dave Green and drummer Steve Brown. This Rolls-Royce of a line up appears on the albums “Spirit” (2011), and “The Sun, The Moon and You” (2018).
“Another Place” introduces a new trio line up teaming Sharp with guitarist Colin Oxley and bassist Simon Thorpe. Sharp’s album notes describe the inspiration behind this new recording thus;
“No strangers to each other Simon, Colin and I have frequently shared a bandstand within various line ups around the country. It was during a couple of successful trio dates that we found ourselves revelling in the shared sense of space, freedom and spontaneity that comes from playing in a trio format. We had such a good time that a date was fixed to record and over a couple of days in March 2019 we assembled to explore a broad selection of familiar tunes and originals chosen by each of us”.
The ten tracks include three original compositions by Thorpe and one by Sharp, plus a selection of well chosen jazz and bebop standards. For what is ostensibly a ‘chamber jazz’ album the trio’s sound is remarkably full, thanks in no small part to Sharp’s warm, but robust, tone on tenor and baritone saxes and the big, meaty timbres of Thorpe’s double bass.
The album commences with the Thad Jones / Frank Wess composition “Lady Luck”, the first of three selections by Colin Oxley. The trio give a relaxed, confident, gently swinging performance with Sharp’s fluent, warm toned tenor soloing complemented by Thorpe’s big toned anchoring bass walk and Oxley’s subtle guitar embellishments. The latter also enjoys a solo, favouring a clean, cool ‘classic’ jazz guitar sound. Thorpe also comes briefly to the fore with a concise double bass cameo.
Thorpe’s original “Another Place” brings a more contemporary feel to the music and features its composer more comprehensively as he delivers the first full length solo. Sharp displays her customary fluency on tenor, adopting a slightly lighter tone here, and there’s also an inventive excursion from Oxley on guitar. Sharp chose Thorpe’s original as the title track to avoid listeners having any pre-conceptions about the album, and also to emphasise his considerable abilities as a composer. The quality of Thorpe’s originals on this recording confirm that she made absolutely the right choice. The album was recorded at Thorpe’s studio and the bassist also acts as the album’s producer, working in conjunction with engineer Nick Pugh.
The trio seem to have a particular affinity for Brazilian music and the A.C. Jobim / Newton Mendoca composition “Caminhos Cruzados” represents the second selection from Oxley. His unaccompanied guitar introduces the piece in gently eloquent fashion, with sax and double bass subsequently added to the equation. The trio’s performance is understated and lyrical with Sharp, Oxley and Thorpe all contributing concise and fluent solos.
Sharp chose the Bill Evans composition “Funkallero”, which picks up the pace once more with its lively, boppish theme, the trio negotiating the complexities of the piece with ease as Thorpe underpins a set of dazzling solo exchanges between Sharp and Oxley.
“October” represents the second of Thorpe’s originals and features a group performance that reflects the Autumnal warmth of its title – the season of “mists and mellow fruitfulness”, indeed. Sharp’s playing is warm and fluent and there’s also some delightful interplay between the composer and Oxley on the extended bass and guitar features.
“Peau Douce”, meaning ‘soft skin’ was written by the bassist Steve Swallow and recorded by Bill Evans, one of Oxley’s jazz heroes. Evans famously recorded in a duo format with guitarist Jim Hall, a musician with whom Oxley’s own playing has frequently been compared, making this a particularly apposite choice. Swallow was, and still is, a skilled composer and this represents one of his best and most tender pieces and it is given a suitably decorous reading here with some excellent interplay between the musicians. Fittingly Oxley delivers a particularly lovely guitar solo alongside similarly elegant features from Sharp and Thorpe.
The trio’s love of the music of Brazil finds expression again in a breezy bossa arrangement of the Clare Fisher composition “Pensativa”, with Sharp again displaying her fluency on tenor. Oxley’s guitar is perfectly suited to the sunny timbres of this piece, and Thorpe also impresses in a more supportive role at the bass.
The Lee Konitz composition “Thingin’” opens with a series of sparkling duo exchanges between Sharp on baritone and Oxley on guitar. With Thorpe added on bass Sharp displays a remarkable fluency on the larger horn as she delivers an extended solo. Oxley and Thorpe also enjoy solo features, but it should also be emphasised that the pair also function superbly as a team, creating a wealth of rhythmic interest within the music despite the absence of drums.
Thorpe’s ballad “To Billy and TM” is a dedication to two of the late giants of the jazz genre, Billy Strayhorn and Thelonious Monk. It’s a suitably tender and reverential homage, performed by the trio with great warmth, dignity and eloquence. Although it’s a relatively recent composition it’s one of those pieces that sounds as if it’s been around forever and might have been written during jazz’s ‘golden era’, the one that was graced by Billy and TM.
To close we hear Sharp’s own composition “My Blue Jacket”, a tune originally written for the Lyttleton octet but one which still works superbly in this reduced format. As its title might suggest there’s a subtle bluesiness about the piece and a kind of relaxed ‘after hours’ quality that brings out the best in the players with all three enjoying final solo features.
“Another Place” is a relaxed, intimate and unpretentious album that includes some excellent interplay between the three musicians and assured and imaginative individual soloing. Sharp, Oxley and Thorpe take full advantage of the freedom that the pared down trio format provides to deliver some delightful performances. Sharp plays with an easy grace and fluency on both tenor and baritone and she’s well supported by Oxley and Thorpe in what is essentially a ‘trio of equals’. A particularly pleasing aspect is the original writing of Thorpe, whose compositions more than hold their own among some of the classics of the genre. All three participants can be justly proud of their efforts.
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