by Ian Mann
July 27, 2021
Elements of, rock, folk and classical music can be detected, but it’s still primarily a jazz record, and one that is likely to reveal new facets on each repeated listening.
(Ubuntu Music UBU0068)
Matt Ridley – double bass, Alex Hitchcock – saxophone, Ant Law – guitar, Tom Hewson – piano & keyboards, Marc Michel – drums
“The Antidote” is the third album as a leader from the British bassist and composer Matt Ridley and follows in the wake of his two releases for Whirlwind Recordings, “Thymos” (2013) and “Metta” (2016).
These recordings are both reviewed elsewhere on the Jazzmann site and feature the core quartet of Ridley, pianist John Turville, drummer George Hart and saxophonist Jason Yarde. Yarde guests on the first disc but had become a full time member of the group by the time of the second.
In 2013 I was lucky enough to see a quartet featuring Ridley, Turville and Yarde, plus drummer Nick Smalley, deputising for Hart, performing the “Thymos” material at The Hive in Shrewsbury, a show also reviewed elsewhere on this site.
Ridley’s playing first came to my attention back in 2009 at a performance with pianist Will Butterworth’s trio at Presteigne Assembly Rooms. He then moved on to work with the late, great pianist and composer Michael Garrick (1933-2011) and subsequently with the Lyric Ensemble, a group fronted by singer Nette Robinson and saxophonist Tony Woods dedicated to keeping the “poetry and jazz” aspect of Garrick’s music alive.
Ridley is also part of the MJQ Celebration quartet alongside pianist Barry Green, vibraphonist Jim Hart and drummer Steve Brown, a unit that pays homage to both the music of the MJQ and Michael Garrick. Ridley also records and tours internationally as part of a quartet led by pianist Darius Brubeck, son of the jazz immortal Dave Brubeck. He has also been part of the Art Of Rhythm Trio, led by guitarist Ant Law and featuring drummer / percussionist Asaf Sirkis.
Others with whom Ridley has worked include saxophonists Tim Garland and the late Don Weller, pianists Nikki Iles and Kit Downes and vibraphonist Jim Hart, plus Ethio-jazz star Mulato Astatke and steel pan virtuoso Leon Foster Thomas.
For his first outing on the Ubuntu imprint Ridley has assembled a new band, all busy and in demand presences on the London jazz scene. This time the line up has been extended to a quintet with Ridley joined by Ant Law on guitar, plus saxophonist Alex Hitchcock, pianist Tom Hewson and French born drummer Marc Michel. Like Law both Hitchcock and Hewson are bandleaders in their own right and have had their own recordings reviewed elsewhere on the Jazzmann.
“Thymos” explored aspects of Middle Eastern music, something that came about as the result of Ridley’s collaboration with oud player Attab Haddad who guested on that album.
Meanwhile “Metta” was inspired by Buddhist philosophies and placed a strong emphasis on melody, a quality that continues on this new recording.
Ridley’s album liner notes for “The Antidote” reflect on the increasingly polarised state of the modern world. They even make reference to the Covid pandemic, despite the fact that the music was actually recorded in late October 2019 by the renowned engineer Sonny Johns, who Ridley very much views as the sixth member of the band.
Of the music itself Ridley comments;
“This album represents my humble attempt at creating music that reconciles the differences between us all. Rather than create a ‘jazz album’, my intention has always been to bring together aspects of all the music and culture that I have experienced in my time on Planet Earth, while also respecting and honouring the Jazz Tradition.”
He acknowledges that music has the power to both divide and unite, stating;
“I sincerely hope this body of work offers as much for the seasoned jazz listener, as for the ‘uninitiated’. Something you could listen to while going about your daily routine, but also worthy of your full attention. Perhaps something that will encourage reflection, and realisation that we are not so different after all.”
In a recent interview with Selwyn Harris for Jazzwise Magazine explains his choice of title;
“Partly the reason that I called it ‘The Antidote’ was to prove the jazz sceptics wrong. The people who say ‘jazz is all very competent but where’s the tune? Most jazz historically has got amazing melodies but in contemporary jazz there’s quite a lot of it where the melodies are maybe angular and not singable. I find myself scratching my head as well about those sort of tunes. I want to be inspired by the melody of the tune I’m playing and not just whether it’s a good vehicle for improvising on”.
Ridley is a highly versatile musician who has played both electric and acoustic bass across a variety of genres, and he harbours similar reservations about aspects of both classical and rock music, the lack of groove in the former, and the “posturing, modishness and dumbing down” of the latter. He is also sceptical about jazz-rock and also jazz-classical crossovers.
That said there are a lot of different elements coming in to play on “The Antidote” Ridley grew up in the 1990s and was first inspired to take up electric bass by Flea of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Other bands that he admires from that era include Manic Street Preachers, Pearl Jam and Radiohead. Inevitably the presence of Law’s electric guitar brings a more overt rock feel to Ridley’s music, but “The Antidote” also includes a four part suite inspired by his recent forays into classical music, which saw him complete a degree level diploma in classical double bass in 2017.
The press release accompanying the album offers further brief insights as to the inspirations behind individual tracks. Ridley describes album opener “Thalo Blue” as “euphoric, symphonic rock meets twisted odd-time groove in a through composed odyssey”. It begins quietly, with the sound of unaccompanied acoustic piano, subsequently joined by Law’s electric guitar shimmers and the leader’s bowed bass.
With Hewson now doubling on electric keyboards the music then gathers pace with Hitchcock’s incisive saxophone surfing that odd meter groove of which Ridley speaks. Law’s electric guitar brings a prog rock sensibility to the music, his playing reminding me variously of Allan Holdsworth and Phil Miller, both sadly no longer with us. The combination of sax, guitar and keyboards gives the music a certain symphonic drama and grandeur and Ridley’s writing also makes effective use of contrast and dynamics as the piece ends in the same atmospheric manner in which it began, with Ridley again making effective use of the bow.
The title of “The Minotaur” represents a follow on from “The Labyrinth”, which appeared on Ridley’s previous album “Metta”. The “labyrinthine complexity” of the meters defines both titles and “The Minotaur” is an eight minute plus excursion that is also rich in terms of colour and texture. Along its sinuous course it also incorporates eloquent solos from the leader on pizzicato double bass, Hewson on acoustic piano and Hitchcock on tenor sax, with Law’s guitar essentially used as a textural device. Michel gives a finely nuanced performance behind the kit and features more strongly towards the close of the tune.
“Ebb and Flow” is a tune title that seems to characterise Ridley’s music very nicely. It begins with Hewson alone at the acoustic piano and expands to include a delicate passage of melancholic, cello like arco bass, which helps to create a sense of drama.
Ridley then reverts to the pizzicato technique for a further solo, accompanied by piano, brushed drums and the gentle wheedling of Law’s guitar. Hitchcock later assumes the lead on tenor sax as the momentum continues to build, eventually handing over to Law for a powerful solo with “Ant’s guitar turned up to eleven”. However on this “journey of extremes” there is still time for further lyrical moments, with the sound of arco bass briefly returning.
The “canonical melody” of “Yardeville” was first written when Jason Yarde and John Turville were in the band and the piece was subsequently performed, but not recorded, by them. Ridley dedicates the tune to his former bandmates and it proves to be a lyrical piece featuring intertwining piano, guitar, sax and bass lines and delicately nuanced drumming. Occupying the roles previously filled by Yarde and Turville both Hitchcock and Hewson feature prominently, with Hitchcock concentrating on soprano sax. Ridley also features strongly with a dexterous pizzicato solo, this followed by solo outings from Hewson on piano and Hitchcock on soprano. It’s unusual to hear Hitchcock, usually a tenor specialist, featuring so extensively on soprano, but he acquits himself well on the straight horn. Significantly Yarde, his predecessor, also tended to specialise on soprano when playing with Ridley’s group.
The album’s only cover is a brief arrangement of the Wayne Shorter composition “Infant Eyes”, a selection partly informed by the birth of Ridley’s young son a few months prior to the recording. The tune features one of Shorter’s most haunting melodies and the ensemble play it straight through, in the style of a song, with no orthodox jazz solos. Law’s guitar is prominent in the arrangement and Ridley moves between plucked and bowed bass, with Michel turning in a particularly sensitive performance behind the kit. It’s all over in just under three minutes with Ridley remarking; “it’s quite nice to have something that doesn’t have solos. It’s just a little bit of a breather in the middle of the album”.
This musical palate cleanser presages the four part “Suite”, which commences with pt. 1 “Gautoma”, which Ridley describes as “unashamed fusioneering, the first part of the suite takes no prisoners”. With Law cranking his amp again, Hewson switching between acoustic and electric keyboards and Ridley delivering some of his most muscular bass lines the quintet certainly get stuck in, but there’s plenty of rhythmic and melodic complexity too, and a degree more contrast than Ridley’s summary might suggest. Hitchcock’s saxes weave their way in and out of the complex rhythms and he features as a soloist, performing powerfully alongside Hewson on acoustic piano. Ridley’s cameo on solo double bass towards the close provides the contrast and helps to form a link into the next movement.
Ridley describes pt. 2 “Stranger Things” as being “spacey, trippy, hypnotic and alluring”
It is one of three tracks from the album to have been released as a single, the others being “Infant Eyes” and “Yardeville”. Unaccompanied bass introduces it, joined by acoustic piano and drums, followed by the keening of guitar and sax, with Law’s FX helping to give the music the qualities of which Ridley speaks. Law delivers an elegantly spiralling solo and also combines effectively with Hitchcock’s sax as Michel lays down a hypnotic drum groove. Hewson solos expansively on acoustic piano, and even introduces a hint of wilful dissonance to the performance. Ridley’s rock influences begin to come to the fore here, as they continue to do on the following movement.
Although the album was recorded in October 2019 Ridley dedicates pt. 3 “Adagio for the Fallen Stars” to the musicians who lost their lives during 2020 due to Covid and other causes – names such as Wallace Roney and Lee Konitz come to mind, Lyle Mays and Jon Christensen too.
Ridley describes the piece as a “poignant rock ballad” and there’s a song-like quality about this elegiac piece, introduced by the sound of acoustic piano and featuring Hitchcock’s direct and beguiling sax melody. The saxophonist then solos more expansively, still focussing on melody, his incantations underscored by choral like electronic textures and Michel’s sturdy drumming. As Hitchcock’s sax soars above the increasingly complex and powerful rhythms the music takes on a genuinely anthemic quality.
Pt IV “Finale” is centred around a 15/16 meter and incorporates strong melodies and powerful solos. Ridley describes the piece as delivering some “musical fireworks”, but as ever there is plenty of subtlety combined with the pyrotechnics. The unusual meter provides the jumping off point for virtuoso solos from Hewson on acoustic piano, Ridley on bass and Law on guitar.
“The Antidote” has been well received critically, despite its obvious ‘fusion-esque’ trappings. The album title looks set to become a group name and Ridley has done much to cultivate a ‘band’ mentality with its roots in rock music, rather then presenting his quintet as a bunch of inspired jazz soloists.
Ridley’s imaginative, multi-faceted writing helps to facilitate this approach and the group very much plays as an ensemble with the individual solos always forming part of the bigger picture.
The music represents an intriguing blend of accessibility and complexity. Elements of, rock, folk and classical music can be detected, but it’s still primarily a jazz record, and one that is likely to reveal new facets on each repeated listening.
Despite his focus on melody Ridley’s all instrumental music is probably still too complex and sophisticated to find true mass acceptance, but one suspects that fans of Pat Metheny’s music, for example, would find much to enjoy about “The Antidote”.
The playing is excellent throughout and Ridley’s hand picked crew serve his music well
One would imagine that The Antidote will also represent a highly exciting live proposition, as some lucky listeners will discover on 28th July 2021 when the band play an already sold out show at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho, London.
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