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Luke Bainbridge

Surface Tension

by Ian Mann

October 20, 2021


The standard of the playing is exceptional throughout and the level of interaction impressive, with Bainbridge subtly directing procedures from the drums.

Luke Bainbridge

“Surface Tension”

(Self Released)

Luke Bainbridge – drums, Kieran McLeod – trombone, Ralph Wyld – vibraphone, Huw V Williams – bass

“Surface Tension” is the début album release from the young drummer and composer Luke Bainbridge.

“Surface Tension” is variously a band name, the title of an individual composition and now the title of the first album, all making for an unlikely, but factually valid, Black Sabbath comparison.

Bainbridge was recently heard to good effect on trumpeter Duncan Fraser’s septet album “Sketches of Manhattan”. Review here;

He has also worked with guitarist Hannes Riepler, saxophonist Michael Chillingworth, vocalist Gaby Kettle, Canadian trumpeter Silas Friesen and the ensembles Rhythms of the City, Seven Steps Big Band and Sister Sally.

As a composer Bainbridge was the 2018 winner of the Dankworth Prize for Jazz Composition, awarded for his small band piece “Crossing Styx”. As a writer active in both the jazz and contemporary classical spheres he had previously been the winner of the 2017 Compass Composition Prize, presented in association with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG).

Bainbridge studied music at the University of Birmingham and ran his own piano trio in addition to performing with the University Big Band. He then studied for a further year at the University of Saskatoon in Canada, again drumming for the University Big Band and becoming involved with the local jazz scene.

In 2020 Bainbridge graduated with a Masters in Jazz Performance from the Royal Academy of Music in London. He also completed the LRAM (Licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music) teaching qualification, which has allowed him to undertake work as a music educator.

As a project Surface Tension began in 2017 with the writing of the composition of the same name,  originally a contemporary classical chamber music piece written for the BCMG. Bainbridge has been a student of both jazz drumming and contemporary classical composition and both of these specialities feed into the music of Surface Tension, the band, with Bainbridge acknowledging an eclectic variety of influences ranging from James Brown to Bela Bartók.

The project has developed in both the UK and Canada and previous members have included guitarist Billy Marrows, saxophonist Sam Norris, pianists Lukas DeRungs and Wilbur Whitta and bassists Harry Pearce and Seth Tackaberry.

In January 2018 Bainbridge, Norris, Whitta and Tackaberry recorded a three track EP “Sketches from Saskatoon”, which no longer appears to be commercially available, although it can be heard on Bainbridge’s website.

Bainbridge has established his own studio at his home in St. Albans, Hertfordshire and the current edition of Surface Tension, as featured on this album, was born out of convenience. McLeod, Wyld and Williams all live relatively locally to the leader and the quartet were able to meet regularly and rehearse outdoors at a safe social distance, compliant with the then ongoing Covid restrictions.

In his album notes Bainbridge says of this period;
“This not only deepened the project’s strong roots in groove and contemporary classical music, but also took exciting new steps into the world of free improvisation”.

On October 8th 2020 the quartet finally went into Bainbridge’s studio aka “The Shed” to document this album, which was later mixed by Sam Baldwin at Town Studios in Birmingham and edited and produced by Bainbridge and McLeod. The recording was supported by The Wavendon Foundation, presumably as a consequence of that 2018 Dankworth Award.

The Surface Tension quartet features an unusual instrumental configuration with a distinctive trombone / vibes frontline. These instruments also possess rhythmic qualities and the music is thus tightly knit, with a focus on interlocking rhythms and strong contemporary grooves. The symbiotic relationship between Bainbridge and Williams is crucial to the album’s success as they establish a sturdy and consistently inventive rhythmic framework that gives McLeod and Wyld ample opportunity for melodic improvisation.  The partnership of Bainbridge and Williams also forms the rhythm team on the Duncan Fraser album alluded to previously, but their playing here is more exploratory, with a greater emphasis on contemporary rhythmic ideas.

The album itself is relatively brief, clocking in at around thirty five minutes and featuring five Bainbridge originals, all between six and eight minutes in duration.

Opener “U-Turn” quickly establishes a knotty but propulsive drum and bass groove, which provides the lattice around which McLeod and Wyld drape their melodic inventions, their lines frequently intertwining. There are also more orthodox solos, McLeod going first, his tone bright and assertive.
Wyld follows on vibes as the trombonist temporarily drops out. The combination of vibes, drums and double bass sometimes recalls Empirical in trio mode. McLeod eventually returns and there’s also a change in direction as Bainbridge features his own playing in a series of exchanges with the rest of the group.

Williams’ unaccompanied bass introduces “Vertigo Nightmares”, which is initially more gentle and lyrical, but which subtly and gradually gathers momentum with Wyld soloing on vibes above a loping bass and drum groove. McLeod follows, initially adopting a warmer, more rounded tone, before the leader’s drums temporarily come to the fore as the music gathers both momentum and intensity. A more freely structured passage follows, perhaps representing the ‘nightmare’ of the title, before Williams picks up the groove once more allowing McLeod to solo more expansively and forcefully above a backdrop of fiercely interactive rhythms.

“Isolation”, a title possibly inspired by the pandemic is floaty and dreamlike, featuring the bell-like sound of Wyld’s vibes and the leader’s mallet rumbles and cymbal shimmers. The deep sonorities of McLeod’s trombone add an unsettling, slightly sinister atmosphere. The piece unfolds slowly over the course of its eight minutes and showcases a gentler side of the group’s playing, with Bainbridge mainly deploying brushes. A more freely structured section features McLeod briefly experimenting with extended techniques as the band again dip their toes into the waters of free improvisation.

Next we come to “Surface Tension” itself, which is emphatically a jazz performance,  despite its contemporary classical origins. An attractive melodic theme and a buoyant groove provide the jumping off point for solos from Wyld and Williams, the latter deploying the bow on his bass as McLeod provides trombone counterpoint. Again the quartet veer into more improvisatory waters during a passage of interactive group interplay, this followed by a powerful section that again brings the leader’s drums to the fore. Finally we return to the original theme and groove.

Finally “Pitch-Class Sex Machine” is ushered in by an extended passage of solo drumming from Bainbridge, eventually joined by Williams’ muscular bass and finally the contrasting elements of twinkling vibes and garrulous trombone. Bainbridge and Williams establish a fidgety but highly propulsive groove, one that evokes yells of delight from at least one of the band members. It acts as the launching pad for solos from an increasingly assertive Wyld and the still rumbustious McLeod. Williams’ powerfully plucked double bass solo evolves into a thrilling dialogue with the leader’s drums. Trombone and vibes then return for a final upbeat restatement of the theme.

With its unusual instrumental line up allied to Bainbridge’s multi-faceted writing “Surface Tension” makes for invigorating, if occasionally challenging, listening. The standard of the playing is exceptional throughout and the level of interaction impressive, with Bainbridge subtly directing procedures from the drums.

Apart from his recent involvement with the Duncan Fraser Septet Bainbridge was a new name to me, but he’s one to look out for in the future, particularly with this excellent new band. McLeod, Wyld and Williams have all appeared regularly on the Jazzmann web pages in a variety of musical contexts and each has consistently impressed, whatever the personnel or musical situation.

“Surface Tension” exhibits plenty of potential and is an impressive recording in its own right, albeit a rather short one.

Fans in the Midlands will get the chance to check out Bainbridge and the Surface Tension quartet when they perform at The Spotted Dog in Digbeth, Birmingham on Tuesday November 2nd 2021. One suspects that they will represent a highly exciting live proposition.

The album is available via Bainbridge’s website, which also includes videos of the various incarnations of Surface Tension, and via his Bandcamp page.

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