by Ian Mann
September 08, 2020
Highly accessible music that is likely to hold considerable appeal to the younger end of the jazz demographic, as well as still reaching out to older, more conventional jazz listeners.
(Ubuntu Music UBU0044)
Jacky Naylor – piano, Nick Jurd – double bass, Jonathan Silk – drums
Meraki is a trio comprised of three graduates from the Jazz Course at Birmingham Conservatoire.
Led by Yorkshire born pianist and composer Jacky Naylor the group also features bassist Nick Jurd and drummer Jonathan Silk, two stalwarts of the Birmingham jazz scene.
Naylor’s early piano tutors included Mark Donlon and the late John Taylor and during his time at Birmingham the young pianist also developed an interest in composition. Such was his flair for the subject that he won the Conservatoire’s prize for Big Band Composition, an award that won him lessons from the great American contemporary jazz composer Maria Schneider.
In the wake of Schneider’s tutelage Naylor composed the city themed suite “Rough Boundaries”, which he recorded in 2016 with the Birmingham Jazz Orchestra, the resultant album garnering considerable acclaim. “Bilbao”, one of the pieces from the suite, was subsequently awarded the 2018 Dankworth Prize for Composition.
Following his studies in Birmingham Naylor moved on to the Royal Academy of Music in London to study for a Masters. Here his tutors included pianists Kit Downes, Nikki Iles and Gwilym Simcock, bassist Jasper Hoiby and saxophonist Stan Sulzmann.
In 2019 Naylor received a Youth Commission from Lancaster Jazz Festival resulting in the suite “Industrial”, written for his London based sextet. However the work also represented something of a return to roots for Naylor as it explored elements of the Industrial Revolution in relationship to the textile mills of Saltaire and Keighley in his native Yorkshire.
Formed three years ago Meraki finds Naylor exploring his compositional abilities in a small group context. He explains the choice of band name thus;
“Meraki comes from a Greek word which describes the love, heart and soul that you put into something, or the essence of yourself that you put into your work”.
Musically the band is influenced by leading European jazz trios such as E.S.T and Phronesis, while the inspiration of former mentors such as Kit Downes, John Taylor and Gwilym Simcock, all at one time or another leaders of their own trios, can also be heard.
Aided by Arts Council of England funding Meraki’s eponymous début was recorded in May 2019 at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios with an engineering team headed by August Wanngren, the Danish engineer famous for his numerous collaborations with Phronesis. The album was recorded shortly after Meraki had completed an eight date UK tour and the performances bristle with the kind of confidence that can only be honed in live performance.
Album opener “9 lives” finds the trio developing an increasingly complex rhythmic interplay based around pedal notes. Dynamically the piece ebbs and flows, with the rhythmic machinations leavened by Naylor’s darting piano melodies. The latter stages of the piece really find the band raising the energy levels, the hard driving rhythms combining musical sophistication with a visceral excitement. Unmistakably European in origin there are echoes here of Phronesis, E.S.T. and even Neil Cowley, synthesised into something that is still very much Meraki’s own.
The arpeggiated intro to “43” suggests the influence of minimalism, but the trio are soon moving far beyond that with this delightfully quirky, stop/start composition that suggests Django Bates as another possible influence. Nick Jurd steps into the light with a confident, resonant bass solo as Silk’s drums chatter around him and Naylor supplies economical piano accompaniment. Again, this is a composition that covers a good deal of ground, with Naylor exploring the full potential of the piano trio as the composition weaves its way through a wide range of styles and dynamics.
The brief “interlude 2” (all the album titles are in lower case) is gentle and atmospheric, almost hymn like, with Jurd’s soft bass pedal the anchor for Naylor’s sparse piano chording and Silk’s cymbal shimmers.
It acts as the prelude to the E.S.T. like “two sides of the same coin”, which features Naylor’s airy piano melodies buoyed by Silk’s brushed drum grooves. Jurd delivers another excellent bass solo, combining a deeply resonant tone with melodic inventiveness and an admirable dexterity. Naylor then stretches out more expansively as Silk switches to sticks and the energy levels begin to ramp up, before eventually subsiding once more.
“sherpa” is based around an urgent piano arpeggio and a dynamic performance emphasises the close rapport between Naylor and Silk as the pair trade ideas off each other, with Jurd cast in more of an anchoring role. Naylor’s solo combines a percussive power with great fluency and an essential joyousness, and the piece also includes a feature for Silk, an accomplished composer and bandleader in his own right. Although based in Birmingham for many years Silk originally hails from Scotland and is a former BBC Radio Scotland Young Jazz Musician of the Year.
“dr jekyll and mr hyde” features Jurd displaying his skills with the bow, his introductory arco bass melody accompanied by Naylor’s economical piano chording and Silk’s atmospheric mallet rumbles and cymbal shimmers. Presumably this impressionistic opening passage symbolises “dr jekyll” before “mr hyde” takes over via a variety of complex and powerful rhythmic exchanges. Jurd is later heard to good effect without the bow, while Naylor embarks on a discursive solo, buoyed by the bustle of Silk’s drums. The drummer also enjoys his own feature towards the close of the piece.
“interlude 3” is a slightly more substantial relative of its earlier namesake, again centred around Jurd’s bass but with Naylor providing a greater melodic input and with Silk adding subtle, but colourful, brushed accompaniment.
“in a sailing boat” launches with a combination of watery, high register piano and the rustle of sea shell percussion. Subsequently things become more conventional with the piece developing gradually and organically, subtly developing out of the main theme to embrace solos from Naylor and Jurd and something of a feature for Silk. Stately and unhurried, but hardly lacking in dynamism, it represents one of the album’s most substantial pieces.
The album closes with the song like “simple things”, centred round a recurring piano vamp, which later gives way to more substantial solos from Jurd and Naylor while Silk adds brisk grooves, alternating between brushes and sticks. Although E.S.T. continues to be a touchstone there are also shadows here of more contemporary, rock and dance influenced developments, such as GoGo Penguin.
All in all this represents a solid and highly promising début from Meraki. Naylor’s pieces are a beguiling combination of the simple and the complex, he uses repetition in an imaginative and positive manner, and the group displays a commendable ability to harness a groove. This all makes for highly accessible music that is likely to hold considerable appeal to the younger end of the jazz demographic, as well as still reaching out to older, more conventional jazz listeners.
But for all its accessibility Meraki’s music doesn’t sacrifice anything in terms of musical intelligence and sophistication, and many of these pieces can truly be said to be multi-faceted as they negotiate a beguiling series of thematic, rhythmic and dynamic twists and turns. The standard of the playing is excellent throughout, with both Jurd and Silk playing a huge part in the overall creative process, and the input of engineers August Wanngren and Peter Beckmann should be acknowledged too.
One suspects that the trio are likely to stretch out even further in the crucible of live performance and this prospect makes them an exciting proposition in the event of the live scene ever returning to anything like normal.
At this early stage of their career Meraki still arguably wear their influences a little too conspicuously, although they largely seem to have avoided being labelled as ‘derivative’. This début album already shows them to be forging an identity of their own, and one suspects that there will be even better things to come from this highly accomplished young trio.
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