by Ian Mann
June 18, 2020
There is fascinating range of musical styles to be heard throughout this album, with each track significantly different to the others and with each telling its own story.
KEVIN FIGES QUARTET
(Pig Records, PIG 10)
Kevin Figes – saxes, flute, voice, Jim Blomfield – Fender Rhodes electric piano, Prophet synthesiser, Hammond organ, Thad Kelly – bass, Mark Whitlam – drums
guest Emily Wright – voice
The Bristol based saxophonist, flautist and composer Kevin Figes has been a regular presence on the Jazzmann web pages over a number of years, whether leading his own groups or appearing as a sideman or guest with those of others.
The prophetically named “Changing Times” was recorded in October 2019 and represents Figes’ fifth recording in the classic reeds/keys/bass/drums quartet format. It follows “Circular Motion” (2008, Edition Records) and three further releases on Figes’ own Pig Records label, “Hometime” (2009), Tables and Chairs” (2013) and “Weather Warning” (2016). All of these have delivered an exciting and interesting blend of fine playing and intelligent writing, drawing upon a wide range of musical influences.
Pianist / keyboard player Jim Blomfield has been a constant presence and the group has also featured bassists Riaan Vosloo and Will Harris, and drummers Tim Giles and Mark Whitlam. Around the time of the “Weather Warning” release I saw the quartet of Figes, Blomfield, Harris and Whitlam deliver a superb live performance at the Queens Head in Monmouth that could have come straight from the jazz clubs of New York – it was that good.
Although I have heard them all the only quartet album that I have actually reviewed is “Tables and Chairs”, my account of which can be read here;
Figes has also fronted an octet, an expanded edition of his regular group with the addition of tenor saxophonist Nick Dover, vocalists Emily Wright and Cathy Jones and second drummer Lloyd Haines. This line up released the album “Time Being” on Pig Records in 2014.
In 2012 Figes was part of the more fusion orientated quartet 4 Sided Triangle, alongside Mike Outram (guitar), Dan Moore (keyboards) and Daisy Palmer (drums). This line up released an eponymous album on the Pig imprint. Review here;
Figes has also been a key member of the Bristol based Resonation Big Band, this line up releasing a digital album of a live performance that is available via Bandcamp here;
He has also performed with singer Cathy Jones’ latin band Balanca and has appeared as a sideman with pianist Dave Stapleton’s Quintet and as a guest with the Japanese pianist Atsuko Shimada.
Figes also enjoyed a fruitful creative alliance with the recently deceased Keith Tippett, playing in the Bristol born pianist’s Tapestry Orchestra and also with Tippett’s Octet.
Others with whom Figes has worked include saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, trombonist Fred Wesley and trumpeter Bobby Shew. He is also a member of guitarist Denny Ilett’s Jimi Hendrix inspired Electric Lady Big Band.
Away from jazz Figes has performed the music of TV theme composer Barry Gray and appeared with the Bristol based This Is The Kit, the musical vehicle of singer and songwriter Kate Stables.
As an educator Figes is currently a teacher of jazz saxophone at Bristol University and also teaches at schools and workshops.
As befits its title “Changing Times” finds Figes exploring a new direction. Previous quartet recordings have been in broadly post bop territory with the New York based alto saxophonist David Binney becoming an increasingly significant influence.
Conversely the new album also represents something of a return to roots for Figes, who first studied saxophone under the tutelage of former Soft Machine saxophonist Elton Dean. It was his studies with Dean and his consequent exposure to the music of Soft Machine that first precipitated Figes’ graduation from rock to jazz.
The eight new original compositions on “Changing Times” explore something of that heritage, but there also pieces inspired by Hermeto Pascoal and the German born classical composer Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), the latter having recently become an increasingly significant influence on jazz musicians.
“My aim is to produce personal music in a fearless and evolving way” states Figes, “so now, I’m moving on again. Henry Cow, a whole world of contemporary classical – Witold Lutoslawski, Luciano Berio etc. - and the delights of free improvisation are beckoning and there are no limitations. It’s all music after all”.
Of his current quartet Figes remarks;
“There is a striking level of empathy and interplay within the Quartet that comes from a combination of highly accomplished players, all great improvisers in their own right, who have worked closely together for some time. This record is a snapshot in time with a group of people I’m very fond of and will keep working with.”
Album opener “Sea View” was inspired by the music of latter day Soft Machine and features Figes’ first experiments with a sequencer, operated by Blomfield. “The intro and the outro on the sequencer were added from another thing that I was doing” explains Figes. “I’ve never employed a sequencer before and it was good fun hearing Jim muck around with it”.
The sequencer sequences are reminiscent of Terry Riley, and consequently of The Who’s “Baba O’ Riley”, but the main body of the piece is rooted in Canterbury style prog with Figes specialising on flute, his playing sometimes reminding me of Jimmy Hastings’ excursions on the instrument during his guest appearances with Caravan. Kelly’s melodic, but highly propulsive, bass lines recall Hugh Hopper while Blomfield skilfully sculpts the sound via his intelligent deployment of a variety of keyboards, the whole thing driven along by Whitlam’s crisp and intelligent drumming.
The ‘Canterbury’ sound also informs “Strange Place”, which features guest Emily Wright’s wordless vocals in a manner broadly similar to Hatfield and The North and National Health, soaring above Blomfield’s Hammond surges and Whitlam’s dramatic cymbal crashes. Figes adds his own voice to create a kind of ‘Grand Guignol’ effect, appropriate for a piece inspired by 70s horror movies and reminiscent of the scream in Pink Floyd’s “Careful With That Axe Eugene”. Oddly I didn’t notice the leader actually deploying any kind of wind instrument on this piece.
“Stone Lion” takes its name from a statue that sits in Figes’ garden. “I like the idea of the statue providing protection and well being” Figes explains. “The first part was really a separate tune, but the two parts seemed to fit together well, the second being very groove based. The baritone seemed the best instrument for it, authoritative and characterful”.
As it composer states the first part is largely impressionistic, with Blomfield on glitchy Rhodes, his keyboard musings always hinting at the groove lurking beneath. Following this short, scene setting introduction the lion finally breaks cover with a walloping groove featuring funky Rhodes, muscular electric bass and powerful drumming. Meanwhile Figes erupts on baritone, his sound authoritative and characterful, just like the man said - and often downright dirty, too. Elsewhere we hear the always inventive Blomfield, combining funkiness with fluency during the course of his Rhodes solo. Always a highly imaginative piano soloist Blomfield has added electric keyboards to his arsenal in highly convincing fashion in recent years. Check out his own excellent 2019 release “Strange Beauty (Every Way OK)”, recorded by a trio featuring Whitlam at the drums. Review here;
Figes returns to the flute for “Radio Play”, a piece inspired by Paul Hindemith’s “Eight Studies for Solo Flute”. This combines 20th century avant garde classical music with free jazz improvisation as Fige’s flute combines with the sounds of electronic textures and the rattle of various items of small percussion. It represents an intriguing, if sometimes unsettling, piece.
Also pushing at the avant garde is “Soft Escape Bed”, the title taken from a road sign that Figes used to pass when driving to visit his terminally ill father. It’s actually a song, featuring the combined voices of Figes and Wright harmonising in a fashion reminiscent of Robert Wyatt and Dagmar Krause with Henry Cow. With Blomfield specialising on acoustic piano there’s a Wyatt like sense of melancholy and resignation about the piece, plus tenderness and a strange beauty too.
During his lengthy and productive career Figes has primarily been known as an alto saxophonist and we finally get to hear him on his ‘main’ instrument on the quirkily titled “Enid Dodd’s Ruler”. The piece is named for an old imperial wooden ruler, an object that piqued Figes’ interest. The tune is a pleasantly whimsical offering a subtly funky groove and breezy alto sax plus solos for Kelly on electric bass and Blomfield on Prophet synth. Partisans bassist Kelly was a late addition to this project owing to the unavailability of regular bassist Riaan Vosloo. A brilliantly intuitive bass player Kelly fitted in seamlessly and has also worked with Figes in a bass / sax duo.
“Guiding Light” takes its inspiration from the writing of the great Brazilian composer and multi-instrumentalist Hermeto Pascoal. Figes had witnessed the British duo of saxophonist Iain Ballamy and pianist Huw Warren performing a version of a Pascoal tune, an experience that prompted him to write a Pascoal inspired tune of his own in a similar instrumental format. Thus “Guiding Light” is an intimate duo performance, introduced by a solo passage of acoustic piano by Blomfield and with Figes eventually joining on soprano sax. With its Pascoal like mix of jazz and classical chords it’s a beautiful and elegant performance that more than does justice to its inspirations.
The closing “Toothpick” is loosely based on Soft Machine organist Mike Ratledge’s composition “Teeth”, a piece that featured on that group’s 1971 album “Fourth”. Figes’ piece serves as a homage to both Ratledge and Elton Dean, while the introduction of Kelly’s fuzz bass also acknowledges the influence of Softs bassist Hugh Hopper and his composition “Kings and Queens” from the same “Fourth” album. “Toothpick” also features Figes’ terse, Dean like alto while Blomfield again deploys a range of keyboards, soloing effectively on both Rhodes and Prophet during the course of a lengthy, multi-faceted piece that is very much in the spirit of Soft Machine.
As a listener who also made the move from rock to jazz but still retains a fondness for the more adventurous and jazz tinged aspects of prog I can very much relate to the music here - although I appreciate that there are aspects that may deter straight-ahead jazz listeners.
“Changing Times” is arguably Figes’ most varied to date and certainly his most personal. Despite his ready acknowledgement of his multifarious influences the music is very much his own and sees Figes transcending the role of mere ‘saxophonist’.
There is fascinating range of musical styles to be heard throughout this album, with each track significantly different to the others and with each telling its own story. Figes himself deploys a variety of instruments, plus voice, and together with Blomfield’s array of keyboards this makes for a wide variety of sounds, colours and textures. Kelly and Whitlam also make substantial contributions while Wright makes her guest appearances count.
When live music returns Figes will hopefully be able to bring this music to Monmouth. It would be good to see this material performed ‘in the flesh’.
“Changing Times” is available via http://www.pigrecords.co.ukblog comments powered by Disqus