by Ian Mann
August 25, 2020
Contemporary & spontaneous interpretations of old material, with the trio approaching their sources in a spirit of genuine affection, but still determined to leave their own stamp on the music.
Sam Jesson – drums, George Crowley – tenor saxophone, Tom Farmer – double bass
Magpie Trio is a London based combo led by Leicestershire born drummer Sam Jesson.
Born into a musical, jazz loving family Jesson studied on the Jazz Course at Birmingham Conservatoire before making the move to London. At Birmingham his drum tutors included Jeff Williams and the late Tony Levin, both of whom had a huge influence on his playing.
Jesson’s playing career was curtailed for a while by a series of operations on a prematurely arthritic foot. He continued to play between surgeries and spent any downtime studying musical theory and working out arrangements, a process that led, in part, to the formation of this current trio.
The band’s origins also lie with Jesson’s work as a promoter, co-ordinating The Magpie Sessions at The Post Bar in Tottenham, a series of events in which musicians were invited to explore the work of a specific jazz musician or composer during the course of an evening.
“We called them the Magpie Sessions because magpies are scavengers, and we were scavenging music from the likes of Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard and, Lee Konitz” explains Jesson. This concept of “creative scavenging” was to find its way into his own trio.
Among the artists to appear at these sessions were saxophonists George Crowley, Alice Leggett and Riley Stone-Lonergan, bassists Tom Farmer and Tom Herbert, trumpeter Freddie Gavita and pianist Rick Simpson.
Jesson played on most of these sessions but his own trio, featuring Crowley on saxophone and Farmer on bass chose to specialise in arrangements of tunes associated with pianist Ahmad Jamal and his trio. It may seem strange for a piano-less trio to take this material as a starting point for their music making, but as Jesson explains;
“The use of vamps and ostinatos, as well as the space in the solos, were unusual for the time, and still sound so good. It seemed natural to take this really classy, groovy approach and see if we could make it work in a sax trio.”
In addition to his drum tutors at Birmingham Jesson has also mentioned the influence of the music of Cannonball Adderley and of Miles Davis, and particularly the playing of drummer Tony Williams on the album “Miles Smiles”. Jesson cites the relationship between Williams and Herbie Hancock, the pianist in the Davis quintet, as one of the things that first alerted him to the potential of the trio format within jazz. More contemporary examples include pianist Liam Noble’s “Brubeck” trio with bassist Dave Whitford and drummer Dave Wickins and saxophonist Julian Siegel’s Anglo-American trio featuring Greg Cohen on double bass and the great Joey Baron at the drums.
Something of the free flowing, loose limbed grace of the Siegel Trio informs the music of Magpie Trio too. The album was recorded live by engineer Alex Bonney at one of the dates on an extensive UK tour that took place in December 2019. Typically one set would consist of the trio playing their arrangements of material associated with Ahmad Jamal, while the second would feature arrangements of other tunes that had been played at the Magpie Sessions.
Jesson’s album notes explain something about the nature of the trio’s performances. The three musicians played without amplification and without charts. “The arrangements changed and developed from night to night on tour”, explains Jesson. There may have been an overall concept behind the trio’s music but improvisation was also clearly a vital component of the creative process.
The album was documented at a performance at the Hermon Chapel Arts Centre, Oswestry, Shropshire in December 2019. I’ve attended events at the Hermon on a number of occasions and looking back I’m not quite sure how I managed to miss this – either a clash with another event or, given the time of year, adverse weather conditions I would imagine.
Sadly the Hermon is no longer operating as a venue. Promoters Barry Edwards and Claudia Lis had already taken the decision to close the Hermon at the end of May 2020, but ultimately this actually happened in March due to the Corona Virus crisis, with many interesting looking gigs that had been scheduled for those last couple of months having to be cancelled. The Hermon will be much missed, but at least this recording represents an excellent souvenir of this unique and enterprising venue.
Turning now to the album itself, which commences with Magpie Trio’s version of Edgar Sampson’s “Stompin’ At The Savoy”, their treatment of the old warhorse inspired in turn by Jamal’s arrangement, and particularly his use of the ‘vamp’ as an arranging device. Farmer’s bass provides the vamp, the pivot around which Crowley’s melodic sax ruminations and Jesson’s subtle and colourful brushed drum embellishments revolve. Eventually the famous melody emerges, with the trio treating it with an unusual tenderness and elegance, before using it as the basis for a series of grittier, more contemporary sounding improvisations. The performance continues to juxtapose the two approaches, but does with an intimacy and a lightness of touch that makes it all sound perfectly natural, organic and unforced.
The Jamal inspired arrangements take their cue from the pianist’s 1958 recording “Complete Live at the Spotlite Club”, which saw Jamal performing with bassist Israel Crosby and drummer Vernell Fournier. From this wellspring comes Magpie Trio’s playful arrangement of Richard Rodgers’ “Easy To Remember”, which places a strong focus on group interaction but also includes a delightful bass solo from Tom Farmer. Crowley follows on tenor, displaying an easy fluency and a real feel for the music. Crowley is a highly versatile musician who sounds at home in any style of jazz, making him the ideal choice for a trio that brings a contemporary sensibility to a series of compositions written and recorded more than sixty years ago. This performance also incorporates a neatly constructed drum solo from the leader, during the course of which he combines a rich sense of colour and a keen sense attention to detail with a wry musical wit.
The next Jamal arrangement to receive the Magpie Trio treatment is “Autumn Leaves”,written by Joseph Kosma and one of the most venerated and visited of all jazz standards. Farmer introduces the piece at the bass, soon joined by the leader at the drums, their dialogue shaping the direction of the tune as the trio extemporise at length. Crowley’s occasional snatches of the familiar melody on tenor act as a reminder of the source as the trio stretch out at length. Farmer and Jesson combine to create a seemingly unstoppable rhythmic momentum as Crowley probes deeply. The intensity temporarily subsides as Farmer’s bass comes to the fore, before building again as Crowley digs in once more, before the performance ends as it began with the sound of Farmer’s bass. This is “Autumn Leaves” as you’ve never heard it before, a free-wheeling, polyrhythmic tour de force, and to these ears an absolute delight.
The arrangement of the Duke Ellington / Billy Strayhorn composition “Single Petal of A Rose” was originally brought to the Magpie Sessions by the pianist Rick Simpson. It commences with the deep, dark sounds of Farmer’s bowed bass, his sepulchral drone eventually joined by the softer, more tender tones of Crowley’s tenor as the leader sits out. There’s a meditative, prayer like quality to the music that is entirely appropriate to the performance space, a former Welsh Congregational chapel. Eventually Jesson’s drums enter the proceedings, with his exquisite cymbal work adding to the already brooding atmosphere. There’s a dramatic, melancholy quality about the collective performance here.
Saxophonist Crowley arranged Henry Mancini’s song “Slow Hot Wind”, which is introduced by an extended solo passage from Jesson at the drums. Allied to Farmer’s bass pulse Jesson’s drumming remains prominent throughout, subtly combining with Crowley’s wispy sax melodies before gaining momentum as the saxophonist stretches out in increasingly assertive, Coltrane inspired fashion. Jesson’s ‘polyrhythmic flow’ is not unlike that of his former mentor Jeff Williams, but is more likely inspired by Elvin Jones. Eventually Farmer takes over at the bass, combining effectively with the drummer before Crowley takes up the reins once more, treating Mancini’s melody as a kind of rallying call. The free-form outro featuring Crowley’s multiphonics was introduced to the trio via the album “Speak Low”, recorded by vocalist Lydia Cadotsch.
Magpie Trio return to the Jamal repertoire for “The Breeze And I”, with Crowley’s sax mirroring the composer’s piano melody lines, accompanied by Farmer’s grounding bass and the soft but busy rustle and bustle of Jesson’s brushes. It’s perhaps the most conventional arrangement of the set, and the closest in spirit to Jamal, at least until the lengthy, almost subliminal fade.
The album closes with a brief rendition of the much covered “The Christmas Song”, written in 1945 by Robert Wells and Mel Torme. The trio had performed the song for the elderly residents of the Brookside House care home in Liverpool the week before, an occasion which had moved all three musicians, so they decided to keep it in the set. Played straight, with Jesson on brushes, this instantly recognisable tune also got a great reception at the Hermon, and possibly came as a bit of light relief after some of the earlier complexities. Snippets of audience sounds periodically find their way into the recording as a whole, and it sounds as if the trio were given a warmly appreciative reception at the Hermon. Wish I’d been there, especially in the light of subsequent events.
This is the third album that I’ve reviewed lately that has featured standards or other non-original material and in each case the group concerned has very much stamped its own identity upon the music. “That’s the very spirit of jazz”, some might argue, but too often performances of standards are homogenised and present a group of musicians taking the easy option or just going through the motions. Not so for Coltrane Dedication, the Julian Nicholas / Emil Viklicky / Petr Dvorsky / Dave Wickins Quartet or the Magpie Trio. All three groups approach their chosen material with a real sense of adventure, but all do so in very different ways.
I love Magpie Trio’s contemporary and spontaneous interpretations of old material, with the group approaching their sources in a spirit of genuine affection, but still determined to leave their own stamp and an updated sensibility on the music. “Creative scavenging” indeed.
“We are wholeheartedly indebted to the community of African American musicians who laid the foundation stones for this music and provide us with the huge artistic wealth that we benefit so much from today” declares Jesson.
Amen to that.
“Magpie Trio Live” is available from;