by Ian Mann
September 11, 2021
The music of OK Aurora shows an admirable sense of ambition in its endeavours to fuse together elements of jazz, rock, pop & Latin music. The standard of the singing & playing is excellent throughout.
“Only In Autumn”
(Ubuntu Music UBU0088)
Rod Oughton – drums, percussion, vocals, Alina Miroshnichenko – vocals, Ronan Perrett – alto sax, Dan Smith – tenor sax, Billy Marrows – guitar, backing vocals, Jacky Naylor – keyboards, Pete Komor – basses
OK Aurora is an octet led by the drummer and composer Rod Oughton, a graduate of the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama (RWCMD) in Cardiff.
During his student days I was fortunate enough to witness Oughton perform in a number of different line ups, usually at the jazz clubs of Brecon and Abergavenny. Among these were the RWCMD Big Band, the Afro-Cuban ensemble Mañana Collective and guitarist James Chadwick’s trio. I was always impressed by his playing, which was skilful and paid great attention to detail. The range of acts, across a number of genres, with which he has been associated both during and after his period in Cardiff is also a testament to his versatility.
Following graduation Oughton has moved to London and has steadily been making his mark on the English capital’s music scene. OK Aurora features some of the rising stars of UK jazz, among them trumpeter Alexandra Ridout, a former BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year.
From the outset it should be stated that OK Aurora is not a straight- ahead jazz ensemble. With regard to this, his main creative, outlet Oughton is aiming for a blend of contemporary jazz and intelligent pop, with artists such as Steely Dan and Becca Stephens named as significant influences.
The band’s first EP, “Baby Zeza”, was released on Bandcamp in 2019 and is now followed by this full length début album, which first appeared in August 2021. All of the music, including the lyrics, is written by Oughton, who has mentioned singer-songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Neil Young and Crosby, Stills and Nash as early influences. As a writer he is clearly drawn to the song form, despite the fact that his compositions often stem directly from a rhythm or groove.
Oughton’s words are given voice by the Russian born singer Alina Miroshnichenko, another RWCMD graduate. The Cardiff connection is completed by tenor saxophonist Dan Smith and bassist Pete Komor, both now London based but also RWCMD alumni.
Oughton’s album notes offer pithy insights into the inspirations behind individual songs, commencing with the brief but atmospheric “Intro”, a kind of ‘overture’ or ‘curtain raiser’ that, in Oughton’s words, does “exactly what it says on the tin”.
This ushers us into the title track, a breezy slice of jazz flavoured pop featuring funky keyboard and guitar lines, the assured vocals of Miroshnichenko and jazz inspired solos from tenorist Smith and guitarist Marrows. The lyrics refer to “the season that reminds me of an old love”, and are perhaps inspired by the jazz standard “Autumn Leaves”, although this buoyant jazz / funk / pop hybrid sounds altogether different.
The title of “100 Secrets” references “hearing about a friend’s infidelity”. Miroshnichenko delivers a pointed, accusatory lyric above a jagged rhythm, although there are also more reflective moments sprinkled among the rancour. The three horns combine effectively, with Ridout emerging as the featured instrumental soloist.
“Come Clean” is another song dealing with a failed relationship, its shuffling grooves and jazzy chords revealing something of that Steely Dan influence, with Naylor’s electric piano the featured solo instrument.
The catchy, celebratory “Thomasito” has been released as a single and has been described by its composer as a “Cuban-Brazilian mash-up”. Oughton has travelled and studied in both these countries, and also in East Africa. It’s a 7/4 samba that features Miroshnichenko’s voice in a wordless context as she effectively shares the solos with Perrett’s incisive alto sax.
Oughton himself takes the lead vocal on “Nina”, subtitled “The One That Got Away”. Once again the feel of the song is breezy, horn enlivened and Latin-esque, the lyrics telling a tale of love found, and even more rapidly lost, at some kind of indie-disco that plays Velvet Underground records. Oughton proves to be a perfectly adequate vocalist, while the instrumental honours go to Komor’s funky electric bass.
Miroshnichenko resumes vocal duties for “Swipe”, Oughton’s witty commentary on smart phones and their malign influence – sample lyric “when did we all start looking down?” It’s interesting to see lines such as this coming from one so young. The song incorporates an extended solo drum episode from the leader that intrudes dramatically into the body of the previously reflective song, perhaps symbolising the interruption of an unsolicited phone call or message. This triggers a frantic closing passage featuring roiling rhythms and the squall of Perrett’s alto sax, this section somehow reminding me of King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man”.
Oughton describes “Bittersweet” as “A song about memory, and how good memories can hurt the most”. His premise is encapsulated by both the lyrics and the music, with Naylor’s thoughtful keyboard solo a perfect distillation of the title.
Second single “The Limit” takes inspiration from Radiohead and is one of the most forceful pieces on the album. The lyrics address the subject of alcohol addiction while the music incorporates powerful solos from Ridout on trumpet and Marrows on guitar, the latter relishing the opportunity to really ‘rock out’.
“Coming Home” was written as Oughton was returning home from his trip to Brazil and features a lyric that addresses both a waiting partner and London itself. The rhythms give a nod to Brazil and Marrows again takes the opportunity to step up to the plate, sharing the solos with Oughton himself.
The album concludes on a positive note with “Nothing’s Like A New Love”, which is introduced by a delicate horn chorale, out of which a shuffling, hip hop influenced drum groove eventually emerges, this providing the impetus for Miroshnichenko’s soaring vocals, her voice subjected to a little judicious electronic processing. The rest of the band add weight to the increasingly funky groove and the singer’s reading of the optimistic lyric is supplemented by a fluent instrumental solo from tenor saxophonist Smith. Eventually the piece comes full circle and resolves itself as it began, with a delicate horn chorale.
Having previously heard Oughton’s playing in more obvious jazz settings I wasn’t expecting his début album to be so song orientated. “Only In Autumn” took a little getting used to at first, but it is an album that has grown on me with repeated listening. Oughton is to be praised for not just making ‘another jazz / post bop record’ and the music of OK Aurora shows an admirable sense of ambition in its endeavours to fuse together elements of jazz, rock, pop and Latin music. The standard of the singing and playing is excellent throughout with Miroshnichenko proving to be an excellent mouthpiece for Oughton’s writing.
As a composer Oughton exhibits a keen intelligence, skilfully blending a variety of musical elements in a coherent fashion while his lyrics address various aspects of human behaviour with insight and perspicacity. Lyrically only “Nina” seems a little bit ‘throw away’, although I don’t doubt that the words are probably rooted in a personal experience.
As a drummer Oughton leads unobtrusively from the kit, a key part of the ensemble but never overly dominant. His occasional solos are an integral part of the fabric of the music, rather than casual showing off. His mastery of a variety of rhythms has already been discussed, and again feels entirely natural and organic.
In the main “Only In Autumn” works well, although its blend of jazz and pop may be too poppy for most jazz listeners and vice versa. Nevertheless this music has considerable potential to reach out to all those listeners who keep an open mind. One suspects that this classy octet would also represent an attractive live proposition. On this evidence Oughton’s next move will be awaited with interest.
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