by Ian Mann
April 21, 2020
Another impressive offering from Lawlor and his young quintet, with each piece characterised by a strong narrative arc and plenty of variation in terms of colour, texture and dynamics.
Kevin Lawlor – drums, Kelan Walsh – saxophone, Patrick Molitor – piano, keyboards, Jack Rufus Kelly – double bass
with Colm Lindsay – guitar, Alex O’Keeffe – guitar, Emer Collins – violin, Emily Redmond – viola, Beth Powell – cello
“Stramash” represents the fourth album release as a leader from the Irish drummer, composer and educator Kevin Lawlor. It follows “Exodus” (2013), “Eight” (2015) and “Last Days of Summer” (2019), all of which have been reviewed elsewhere on The Jazzmann.
Lawlor studied jazz in Dublin, Salzburg and New York before returning home to take up the post of Director of Jazz at County Wexford School of Music where he is also the resident drum tutor. He also helps to curate the jazz programme at Wexford Arts Centre.
In addition to his role as an educator Lawlor is also a busy performer who leads his own groups as well as collaborating with visiting international jazz musicians. One of his most fruitful alliances has been with the Welsh pianist and composer Dave Jones and it was Lawlor’s appearance on Jones’ excellent 2012 album “Resonance” that first brought his playing to my attention. Jones subsequently returned the compliment by guesting on both “Exodus” and “Eight”. The pair continue to perform together and Lawlor’s drumming can also be heard on Jones’ quartet recording “Live At AMG”, released in 2014.
In February 2020 Lawlor visited the UK to lead a short tour of Wales in the company of Jones and bassist Ashley John Long. I was fortunate enough to catch this trio’s performance at Brecon Jazz Club where they played a selection of jazz and bebop standards, mainly written by famous jazz pianists, plus a couple of Lawlor originals. My account of that event can be read here;
Lawlor has played with many of Ireland’s leading jazz performers as well as musicians from Canada and Finland. He has also worked with other musicians from the UK and in February 2019 undertook a short tour of Ireland as part of a trio led by British guitarist Chris Montague.
“Last Days of Summer” saw Lawlor placing a greater focus on long form composition and introducing a new quintet comprised of young Irish jazz musicians. With this in mind it’s tempting to view him as kind of ‘Irish Art Blakey’. Lawlor himself names Max Roach, Brian Blade and Jim Black as key influences, all of them highly accomplished drummers, composers and bandleaders.
“Stramash” features several members of the quintet that appeared on “Last Days of Summer”. Molitor and Kelly both appeared on the previous record as did Lindsay, who here shares guitar duties with O’Keeffe. The trio of string players appear on just one track, the piece titled “Easy For Me To Say”.
The album takes its title from the Scottish dialect word “Stramash”, meaning an uproar or disturbance. Interestingly Lawlor’s composition of the same name forms the opening movement of the three part “Storm Suite” that constitutes the final three tracks of the album.
I suspect that many Jazzmann readers may never have heard of the word ‘stramash’, a word popularised in Scotland by the football commentator Arthur Montford, who was fond of referring to a goalmouth scramble as a “stramash”.
Nevertheless this is still the second album of this name that I have reviewed. In 2009 the Scottish trumpeter Colin Steele released his own “Stramash”, an ambitious recording that drew upon both jazz and the Scottish folk tradition and featured musicians from both musical communities.
“Sounds like a right bloody stramash!” was the common response to Steele’s “dream line up” of a jazz quintet, three fiddlers, classical cello and whistles/bagpipes, but on the whole the project succeeded admirably. My review of Steele’s very different “Stramash” can be read here;
Turning now to Lawlor’s album of the same name which features seven new original compositions from the pen of the drummer. The album is dedicated to the memory of his former drum tutor Tommy Davitt who once told Lawlor “The day you think you know everything about playing drums throw your sticks in the fire”, a quote that appears on the album packaging.
This new recording sees Lawlor continuing to develop as a composer and his brief notes forming part of the accompanying press release offer brief but illuminating insights into the genesis of each tune.
Things kick off with “Ten Dentists Dancing” with Lawlor’s liner note cryptically remarking; “a friend’s misguided trip to a jazz club to go dancing”.
The piece features Lindsay on guitar and Kelly on electric bass and has a vaguely fusion-esque feel about it with Lindsay taking the first solo on subtly treated guitar. Walsh also impresses with a powerful saxophone solo, quickly making his mark after taking over from previous incumbent Adam Nolan. Kelly is also featured on fluid electric bass. Molitor holds everything together on acoustic piano while Lawlor provides subtle prompting from the drum chair via his crisp, sharply detailed playing.
Of “Hacker” Lawlor comments “a wine label turned into a tune”. The piece is introduced by the composer solo at the drums, with a neatly constructed feature that highlights his distinctive cymbal work. Lawlor’s playing remains colourful and imaginative throughout on another fusion style offering that finds O’Keeffe soloing powerfully on rock influenced electric guitar. He’s followed by another confident and assertive sax statement from Walsh, followed by shorter features for Molitor on acoustic piano and Kelly on electric bass towards the close. Molitor doubles on electric and acoustic keyboards on a piece that combines Irish whimsicality with more than a hint of the blues.
“An unusual combination for sale at the roadside” forms the inspiration behind the quirky title of “Bike & Cabbage”. Lindsay resumes guitar duties and his circling introductory motif, allied to Lawlor’s clipped grooves, helps to shape the flow of the piece. Walsh features briefly on sax before handing over to Molitor who solos more expansively on Rhodes. The keyboard player impressed throughout “Last Days…” but this represents his first real opportunity here. He’s followed by a splendidly idiosyncratic guitar solo from Lindsay, who also impressed on the previous recording. Like its immediate predecessor “Stramash” is essentially a quintet recording, it’s just that with two fine young musicians at his disposal Lawlor has chosen to share out the guitar duties this time round. Meanwhile “Bike & Cabbage” appears to head for the finishing straight with a powerful sax solo from Walsh over a syncopated funk groove featuring electric keyboards and Lawlor’s energetic drumming, a winning blend of power and precision topped off by a drum feature at the close of this particular section. However a final twist sees an extended reprise of the opening section, which is no bad thing at all.
There’s a change of mood and pace with “Easy To Say” with the core quintet joined by the string trio. This is an episodic piece that goes through several distinct phases and includes solos from O’Keeffe on gently spiralling guitar, Molitor on flowing acoustic piano and Walsh on increasingly incisive sax as the music gradually gains a seemingly unstoppable momentum. Lawlor himself features at the drums above a staccato vamp featuring a combination of instruments, including the strings. In an echo of the previous piece the introductory theme returns for a gentler coda. The use of strings is interesting and brings additional colour and texture to the music, but at times it all sounds a little overcooked. This is a piece that would work equally effectively in the hands of the core quintet, as live performances have probably shown.
The title track forms part of the three movement “Storm Suite” with “Stramash” itself inspired by “the chaotic nature of our winter weather”. Initially the piece is almost drum led with Lawlor laying down melodic patterns on the kit, punctuated by Walsh’s staccato sax phrases. The first solo goes to guitarist Lindsay, who makes the most of his final appearance with a fluent, slippery solo. Lawlor’s drums remain at the heart of the music as Kelly features on electric bass, this passage representing something of a lull. Walsh’s declamatory sax then re-introduces an element of urgency as Lawlor’s own playing becomes more dynamic, leading to something of a feature for the leader towards the close.
For “Storm” itself Lawlor takes the monikers of three named storms and turns them into Morse code to provide the rhythmic structure of the piece, following on from something already hinted at during “Stramash”. Eerie guitar textures and keening sax represent the calm before the storm before Kelly and Lawlor establish a rumbling, pulsating groove that forms the platform for O’Keeffe’s guitar atmospherics and Walsh’s probing sax explorations. Like many of Lawlor’s compositions the piece is rich in terms of colour, dynamics and rhythmic variation and the energy levels continue to build as O’Keeffe locks in with Kelly and Lawlor as Walsh stretches out even more powerfully.
The album closes with “Lighthouse”, named for the Hook Lighthouse near Wexford, which Lawlor describes as “a beacon in any weather”. Initially the composition promises to be the calm after the storm, but the piece features its own turbulent moments, with unusual time signatures distinguishing these episodes. But generally the mood is quieter, with Molitor soloing on flowingly lyrical acoustic piano. O’Keeffe follows on gently meandering electric guitar, gradually and subtly building momentum. Walsh then takes over on tenor as the piece builds towards a rousing climax, his powerful sax blasting underpinned by O’Keeffe’s guitar roar and Lawlor’s increasingly kinetic drumming. As has become characteristic of Lawlor’s writing there is then a gentler coda.
“Stramash” represents another impressive offering from Lawlor and his young quintet, with each piece characterised by a strong narrative arc and plenty of variation in terms of colour, texture and dynamics. Jazz and rock influences combine effectively to create music that is fusion-esque, but without ever being ‘fusion’ in the old fashioned pejorative sense. It’s just good quality contemporary post bop jazz, played with skill and a youthful energy.
The playing is excellent throughout with both guitarists impressing and Walsh establishing himself as a dynamic new presence. Kelly and Lawlor combine well and the leader’s own playing is particularly impressive, powerful and energetic when required, but also full of colour, nuance and detail, while all the while juggling with some pretty complex rhythms.
My only caveat would be that we don’t get to hear enough of the impressive Molitor as a featured soloist, and for me the experiment with the strings doesn’t really work. That said it should be appreciated just how high Lawlor is aiming, he’s a highly creative musician and composer, and one who isn’t afraid to experiment.
I’d love to see him bring this quintet over to the UK at some future date.
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