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Max Wright Quintet / Tom Millar Quartet

Max Wright Quintet / Tom Millar Quartet, Cafe Jazz, Cardiff, 05/10/2017.


by Ian Mann

October 06, 2017


Ian Mann enjoys the music of two excellent young bands and takes a look at "Unnatural Events", the debut album from the Tom Millar Quartet.

Max Wright Quintet / Tom Millar Quartet, Café Jazz, Cardiff, 05/10/2017.

This double bill was the first Hackensack jazz session of the autumn season and featured two excellent young bands. Organised by students at the nearby Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama the Hackensack jazz sessions take place on the first Thursday of the month and aim to present the “fresh and the new”. The concerts are always in the double bill format and generally feature young, emerging musicians. The organisers operate a pricing policy whereby audience members pay £5, £7 or £10 according to their economic means and/or dedication to the music.

Tonight’s session featured the Max Wright Quintet, a new band featuring students from the RWCMD and the London based Tom Millar Quartet, a group of slightly older, more experienced, fully professional musicians who are currently touring the UK in support of their début album “Unnatural Events”, which appears on the Spark record label. I intend to report on the performances of both bands and to take a closer look at the recording from the Millar Quartet.


First to take to the stage at a pleasingly well attended Café Jazz was the quintet led by the young drummer and composer Max Wright. The leader was joined by fellow RWCMD students Josh Heaton (tenor sax), Norman Willmore (alto sax), Michael Blanchfield (piano) and Matheus Prado (double bass). Of these Prado was the only musician whose playing I was previously familiar with thanks to his numerous appearances in Brecon at both the annual jazz festival and the regular Brecon Jazz club nights.

The Wright Quintet was only formed recently but I was impressed by just how well together the group was at this early stage in its lifetime – tonight was the band’s first real public gig. Their set featured a beguiling mix of two jazz standards, two original compositions by the leader and an intriguing Wright arrangement of a lesser known Bob Marley tune.

The quintet kicked off with an arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s “Epistrophy”,  an apt choice as the centenary of Monk’s birth approaches on October 10th. This familiar, but still engaging, standard allowed saxophonists Heaton and Willmore, plus pianist Blanchfield to demonstrate their already impressive ‘chops’ in a series of expansive but fluent solos as Prado and Wright provided the necessary rhythmic propulsion.

I was even more impressed with the Wright original “Collider”, a highly rhythmic work that had something of a New York M-Base / Downtown feel about it and which featured Heaton and Willmore working effectively in tandem on both the main theme and its subsequent variations. Willmore was the featured soloist here and there seems to be something of a buzz about this young man’s playing among the regular cognoscenti of the Cardiff jazz scene. The word is that Norman Willmore is a name to look out for, a musician with a bright future ahead of him.

I also enjoyed Wright’s innovative, slowed down jazz arrangement of the Bob Marley tune “Johnny Was A Good Man” from the 1976 album “Rastaman Vibration”. Solos here came from Heaton on tenor, Prado on melodic double bass and Blanchfield at the piano with Wright’s subtle drum support now revealing his abilities as a colourist.

The quintet’s barnstorming take on Sonny Rollins’ modern standard “Airegin” was inspired by a version by Wynton Marsalis and saw Heaton taking the first solo, stretching out powerfully and at length over Prado’s fast bass walk and Wright’s sizzling ride cymbal. The drummer varied his attack during Willmore’s solo, his briskly brushed grooves complementing Prado’s still rapid walk. Blanchfield followed at the piano and there were also features for Prado and Wright as each group member relished their moment in the spotlight in a high energy performance that elicited a loud and enthusiastic response from the crowd.

Finally we heard the second Wright original, a tune called “13.1” and named after the distance of a half marathon. Unaccompanied bass introduced another piece of original writing that was taut, rhythmic and riff based and which again featured Heaton and Willmore combining effectively. It was Heaton who delivered a suitably marathon tenor solo on another piece that won the approval of a large and supportive audience, many of them fellow students, at Café Jazz.

I have to say that I was highly impressed with this young band, not just for the playing which was excellent all round, but also for the quality of Wright’s composing and arranging. The two original pieces stood up very well and the adaptation of the Marley tune was genuinely interesting and innovative.

I spoke with Max afterwards and he clearly envisages a bright future for this band. He intends to record an EP of his original compositions, which on this evidence should be well worth hearing, and to look for more gigs. Let’s hope he is able to realise his ambitions. Tonight’s performance revealed that this is a group with bags of potential and helped to get the quintet’s career off to a terrific start.


Some time ago I was sent a copy of “Unnatural Events”, the début alum of the quartet led by London based pianist and composer Tom Millar. I liked what I heard, hence my presence this evening at a date forming part of an extensive tour in support of the album, which was released on September 15th 2017.

Born in Sydney, Australia Millar was raised in London and studied at King’s College, Cambridge and at the Royal Academy of Music in London. More recently he has received tuition from Django Bates in Switzerland. The writing on “Unnatural Events” was also influenced by the compositional methods of American trumpeter Dave Douglas.

Millar’s quartet was formed at the Academy and the album features the talents of guitarist Alex Munk, bassist Misha Mullov-Abbado and drummer Dave Storey, the latter replaced at the kit tonight by Dave Hamblett.

Tonight’s performance commenced with “Azura Days”, also the opening track on the album and a piece inspired by a Mediterranean holiday. Lively, but complex, the piece featured tricky unison guitar and piano passages and vibrant odd meter grooves. At times I was reminded of the short lived quartet co-led by guitarist Pat Metheny and pianist Brad Mehldau. In the live environment both Millar and Munk were more expansive in their soloing than they were on record, where the piece clocks in at a relatively concise four minutes.

Both live and on disc “The Seafarer” proved to be something of an epic, an episodic piece combining folk like melodies with a genuinely cinematic quality – shades of a Metheny influence again perhaps? The piece was introduced by Mullov-Abbado’s unaccompanied double bass before Hamblett’s mallet rumbles and cymbal shimmers provided additional drama. This was followed by an atmospheric passage of unaccompanied piano before the addition of bass, drums and guitar prompted a more orthodox jazz piano solo that positively sparkled. Munk’s sustain heavy guitar solo then brought a rock influence to bear on a piece rich in terms of depth, drama, colour and dynamic contrast – a genuine voyage of discovery.

Next the quartet tackled a composition by Munk from the repertoire of his Flying Machines group, a band in which Hamblett also plays. It was the drummer’s softly brushed grooves that provided understated support to the gently lyrical solos delivered by Millar at the piano and Munk on guitar.

Two pieces on “Unnatural Events” feature the vocals of guest artist Alice Zawadzki who adds ethereal wordless singing to the elegant, lyrical and uplifting “Choro”. Zawadzki also sings the words of the Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89) on Millar’s setting of the poet’s “Inversnaid”, a work carrying a strong environmental message that has gained additional pertinence in the 21st century.

The song like quality of Millar’s “Inversnaid” melody ensured that tonight the piece also convinced as an instrumental with Hamblett’s brushed grooves again underpinning solos from Munk and Millar.

“Woad” is one of the most powerful, rock influenced pieces on the album with its taut, infectious, odd meter grooves and fleeting flashes of Metheny-esque melody. Mullov-Abbado, a muscular presence on the bass all evening, led off the solos with a robust but virtuosic solo. He was followed by Millar, a flowingly expansive and increasingly animated figure at the piano. But it was Munk who elicited the biggest cheer of the evening with a surging, rock influenced guitar solo combining choppy chording and mercurial single note runs. The latter stages also included something of a drum feature for Hamblett, who had proved to be a dynamic and inventive presence behind the kit.

The performance concluded with a beautiful reading of Millar’s ballad “Park Hill”, a composition that recently received airplay on BBC Radio 3’s Jazz Now programme. Notable for Munk’s atmospheric Frisell-like guitar the piece also has a gospel like tinge which was given greater emphasis tonight in Millar’s piano feature as the leader shared the solos with Mullov-Abbado’s melodic but deeply resonant bass. The piece ended with a short, but evocative, unaccompanied piano coda.

At this juncture our time was, unfortunately, up as Hackensack’s Alina Miroshnichenko, a jazz vocal student at the RWCMD, thanked both bands, plus the fans who had turned out in their numbers for this first event of the season and had helped to make it such such a success. There were some who would have liked to have heard more from the Millar band but no encore was forthcoming.

Nevertheless this was a great start for Hackensack and a hugely successful event for both groups, who each got an excellent reception from the crowd. Musically there was much to enjoy from both acts although background noise from the restaurant section, always an issue at Café Jazz, sometimes intruded on the more introspective moments.

One of the big plus points of Café Jazz is the presence of a ‘proper’ grand piano but on this occasion it could have done with better ‘miking’. The piano sound wasn’t quite loud enough, a problem that affected both bands, and on occasions the instrument was drowned out by the horns or by the guitar.

These, though, are minor quibbles on an excellent and highly enjoyable night of music making from two very talented young bands.

Besides the tunes mentioned above “Unnatural Events” also includes the Jan Garbarek inspired title track, a piece that features Munk playing a solo on an electric sitar that he found in the studio. It’s a highly distinctive sound, and one that I don’t think I’ve heard since Denny Dias’ solo on a similar instrument on the Steely Dan classic “Do It Again”. I think that instrument had been abandoned in the studio too!

There’s also the vigorous “Power Chord Thing”, not quite as metallic as the title might suggest, but one of the most energetic, vibrant and rhythmic pieces on the album.

The Millar quartet have created a highly original group sound, one that is a little over elaborate at times and self consciously ‘clever’, but overall “Unnatural Events” makes for highly recommended listening.

The Tom Millar Quartet is still on tour in the UK with remaining dates as listed below;

October 6th: Burdall’s Yard, Bath
October 19th: Keble College, Oxford
October 20th: Chichester Jazz Club
October 24th: Jazz at the Spotted Dog, Birmingham
October 25th: Swing Unlimited, Bournemouth
October 26th: Ram Jam Club, Kingston
November 15th: EFG London Jazz Festival @ the Green Note, Camden

Tom Millar:

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