Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


by Ian Mann

January 09, 2020


An excellent début as a band leader from one of the British jazz scene’s most prolific and dependable sidemen. Colourful and intelligent compostions, an enjoyable and accessible listening experience.

Calum Gourlay Quartet

“New Ears”

(Ubuntu Music – UBU0043)

Calum Gourlay – double bass, Helena Kay – tenor saxophone, Kieran McLeod – trombone, James Maddren - drums

Scottish born bassist and composer Calum Gourlay first came to my attention back in 2009 when he appeared on the Mercury Music Prize nominated “Golden”, the début album by the trio led by pianist and composer Kit Downes.

Downes has gone on to become a major player on the international jazz scene and is currently signed to ECM Records. Gourlay may have kept a lower profile but for the past decade or more he has been a consistently busy presence on the UK jazz scene, continuing to work with Downes as well as collaborating with many other leading musicians, including saxophonists Trish Clowes, George Crowley, Will Vinson, Tommy Smith, Josh Arcoleo,  Rachael Cohen, Alice Leggett, Martin Speake and Martin Kershaw, trumpeters Colin Steele and Freddie Gavita, pianists Sam Leak, Hans Koller and Tom Hewson, vocalists Kurt Elling and Sheila Jordan, guitarist Dan Messore and drummer Dave Hamblett.

As well as being an in demand sideman for small group work Gourlay is also a highly accomplished performer in a large ensemble context. He has been a member of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, with whom he has enjoyed collaborations with such major international names as saxophonist Joe Lovano, guitarist John Scofield and fellow bassist Arild Andersen.

Gourlay also leads, and composes for, his own long running Big Band (originally a joint project with trumpeter Freddie Gavita), a popular ensemble that enjoys a monthly residency at London’s Vortex Jazz Club. At the other end of the scale he has released the album “Live at The Ridgeway”, a collection of performances for unaccompanied double bass. Review here;

The “New Ears” quartet is essentially a ‘band within a band’, hardly a new concept for jazz, as Gourlay explains;
“The idea for the quartet came from my Big Band residency at The Vortex. Helena, Kieran and James have been important musicians in my Big Band so I began to think this could be a great band in its own right. With the quartet it was easy to write things for the trombone and tenor to play together. It has all the energy, sound and colours of a contemporary big band, but with only four members”.

He might have added that he and Maddren go back even further. The pair both appeared on “Golden” and have worked together as a rhythm section on many occasions since, with Downes, Trish Clowes and others.

Gourlay put the music for “New Ears” together around the turn of the year (2018 into 2019), hence the pun of the album title. The album was released in December 2019 but the start of this New Year seems like a good time for me to take a look at it.

On February 3rd 2019 the quartet performed these tunes in public for the first time at The Vortex. The following day they went into London’s Fish Factory studio to record them with engineer Ben Lamdin, with Alex Bonney and Peter Beckmann later becoming involved in the production process, alongside Gourlay himself.

The programme consists of seven Gourlay compositions written specifically for this line up.
With regard to the opening piece, “Be Minor”, Gourlay comments;
“A teacher of mine once told me to imagine what kind of tune you would want to hear first at a gig. ‘Be Minor’ was my attempt to write a glorious opener for the gigs and for the album”.
The music features a rolling groove, established by Gourlay and Maddren, and the colourful dovetailing of the two horns, with trombone and tenor sax combining to make an impressively big and powerful sound. Mid-way through the tune the rhythm section drops out, leading to an effective series of exchanges between Kay and McLeod, swooping and soaring in delicious and daring counterpoint. Through his work with others Gourlay has established a reputation as a dexterous and highly melodic bass soloist and these qualities are much in evidence during his feature here. There’s also something of a feature for the excellent Maddren, one of the most in demand drummers of his generation. Vibrant, melodic and accessible, yet still chock full of sophisticated musical ideas, this is indeed the “glorious opener” that Gourlay was striving for.

“Blue Fugates” was named after the famous Fugate family from Kentucky, carriers of a genetic trait that leads to the disease methemoglobinemia, which gives sufferers blue-tinged skin. Gourlay has described his composition as being “written as a blues without a traditional 12 bar form”, or even as “a blues gone wrong”. Nevertheless it’s still a splendid piece, the writing sometimes reminding me of another great bassist and composer, the peerless Charles Mingus. There’s plenty of the blues in McLeod’s rousing trombone solo, delivered above a loping bass and drum groove. Kay then weighs in with a smoky tenor solo and the composer again features at the bass.

Bass and drums gently usher in the title track, which has a more contemporary ‘European’ feel. Kay and McLeod combine well on the complex theme before Kay strikes out to deliver an impressively fluent solo statement. She’s followed by the leader at the bass, who is skilfully shadowed by Maddren throughout. Further impressive ensemble playing follows as the quartet continue to explore the intricacies of Gourlay’s piece. It makes for highly absorbing listening.

“Solstice” adopts a gentler, ballad like approach with the two horn players displaying great sensitivity as they combine effectively. Similar qualities apply to the rhythm section, with Maddren deploying brushes throughout. There’s a melancholic air about the music, but an agreeable warmth too that imbues the overall sound with considerable beauty.

“Ro” re-introduces something of the earlier blues feel, but within a slightly quirky contemporary framework. Fluid, rolling, bass led grooves allow Kay and McLeod the opportunity to stretch out and express themselves eloquently with expansive and compelling solos, and there’s also some excellent interplay between the pair.

Despite its title “Emotional Trombone” actually features both McLeod and Kay, the pair working effectively and sympathetically in tandem, their lines intertwining and dovetailing in an absorbing dialogue underpinned by gently propulsive bass and brushed drums. The piece ends with an impressive passage of double bass from Gourlay, subtly underscored by the soft patter of Maddren’s brushes.

The album ends as it began on a rousing note. “Trinity” is ushered in by the rhythm section, who establish a tensile groove which acts as the springboard for the powerful horn motifs. With Gourlay’s bass providing the fulcrum Maddren is given room to roam and there are also declamatory horn solos from Kay on tenor and McLeod on trombone.

This is a particularly well balanced quartet who rise to the challenges of working within a chordless format with considerable aplomb. The familiarity of the members with each others’ playing, a quality honed within the ranks of Gourlay’s Big Band is apparent throughout. Indeed there are echoes of the big band sound throughout these compositions and arrangements.

Kay and McLeod combine effectively throughout, often seeming to merge into a single entity, but they also manage to express their individual musical personalities through their solos. The long established rhythmic team of Gourlay and Maddren exhibits similar qualities. Besides keeping time immaculately both musicians are also restlessly creative and help to ensure that this is very much a quartet of equals. Gourlay allows himself a considerable amount of solo space and uses it effectively, his playing being both impressively agile and dexterous and highly melodic. His bass is also at the heart of the ensemble passages, and together with Maddren he provides a great platform for the horn soloists.

Both the joyousness and the subtlety of the quartet’s music is captured by the engineering and production team who help to bring out all the colour and nuance of the band’s sound.

The music of chordless groups can sometimes be challenging and spiky, but although it isn’t exactly an easy listen there’s a warmth and vibrancy about this quartet that makes “New Ears” an enjoyable and accessible listening experience. Gourlay has a strong melodic, as well as rhythmic, sense and this comes out in his colourful and intelligent compositions.

“New Ears” has been well received by the British jazz community and has received some excellent reviews, and rightly so. It’s a recording that represents a great team effort, but ultimately the triumph is Gourlay’s. “New Ears” represents an excellent début as a band leader from one of the British jazz scene’s most prolific and dependable sidemen.

The official launch of “New Ears” takes place tonight, Thursday 9th January 2020 at The Vortex Jazz Club, Dalston, London.

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