by Ian Mann
May 30, 2023
Bancroft’s writing is intelligent and varied and the standard of the playing from all four musicians is excellent throughout.
Phil Bancroft Quartet
“Degrees of Freedom”
(Myriad Streams MYRIAD 001)
Phil Bancroft – tenor saxophone, Paul Harrison – piano, Aidan O’Donnell – double bass, Stu Ritchie – drums
“Degrees of Freedom” is the first release on Scottish saxophonist and composer Phil Bancroft’s new Myriad Streams project, a web platform / record label that its creator describes as;
An antidote to Spotify, a human not industrial scale presentation of culture, providing a calm place for listeners to get to know one artist - without 100,000 other artists clamouring for their attention. Myriad Streams can perhaps be best understood as a piece of functional art, centred around non-commercial music, exploring the triangular relationship between a listener, an artist and that artist’s work and practice.”
It is intended that Myriad Streams will also feature music from Bancroft’s numerous other projects and from other artists with whom he has collaborated.
Phil Bancroft has been a major figure on the Scottish jazz scene for many years, both as the leader of his own projects and as a collaborator with musicians such as trumpeter Colin Steele, guitarist Graeme Stephen, drummer John Rae, violinist Aidan O’Rourke and tabla player Gyan Singh. He has also appeared on recordings by his sister, the singer and songwriter Sophie Bancroft. Like many Scottish jazz musicians Phil is a highly versatile player who has also worked in the fields of folk, Indian music and contemporary classical music.
Bancroft’s current projects include his sax / tabla duo with Gyan Singh, Trio AAB with his brother Tom Bancroft on drums and Kevin McKenzie on guitar and an alternative quartet featuring guitarist Graeme Stephen, bassist Calum Gourlay and drummer Alyn Cosker.
The Bancroft brothers also play together in Phil’s Standards Trio, a group that also includes bassist Mario Caribe. It is intended that this line up will also release an album on Myriad Streams. Yet another trio features Bancroft with Singh and Stephen and this ensemble will also be featured on the new imprint.
Bancroft is also a member of Sugarwork, the electro-jazz quartet led by Paul Harrison (keyboards, electronics) and of Grit Orchestra, led by Greg Lawson, an ensemble dedicated to preserving the legacy of the late musician and composer Martyn Bennett, a true maverick and a real musical polymath. 4 Notes, a duo collaboration with the DJ Dolphin Boy (aka Andy Levy) also pays homage to the Bennett legacy.
Bancroft has also collaborated internationally, performing with such musicians as guitarist Mike Walker, pianist Makoto Ozone, bassist Reid Anderson, drummer Thomas Stronen and the Indian musicians Ganesh and Kumaresh Rajagopalan.
“Degrees of Freedom” introduces a quartet featuring some of Scotland’s finest jazz musicians, with Bancroft joined by Paul Harrison, here specialising on acoustic piano, bassist Aidan O’Donnell and drummer Stu Ritchie. It was actually recorded some time ago and remained unreleased but the foundation of Myriad Streams has now allowed Bancroft to make the music public. It represents a very welcome addition to his discography.
The album features ten new original compositions by Bancroft who says of the recording;
“The purpose of the album was to explore compositions with more structured chord sequences and how this meets elements of freedom within the music.”
The album commences with “Jewelcase”, a thoughtful composition with a folk tinged melody, first sketched by the leader on unaccompanied tenor sax. Harrison, O’Donnell and Ritchie soon join to provide empathic support, with Ritchie’s neatly detailed cymbal work particularly impressive. Bancroft probes subtly and intelligently during the course of his solo. Harrison and O’Donnell also impress with their solos, the bassist has since moved to New York where he has established himself as an important figure on that city’s jazz scene.
Humorous titles are something of a Bancroft trade mark and “Findlay MacDonald Ate My Hamster” is a spirited romp that combines elements of bebop with the spirit of Ornette Coleman, the latter an acknowledged influence on this quartet’s music. After a free-wheeling opening in sax trio mode Bancroft digs in for an extended solo, vigorously supported by Harrison, O’Donnell and Ritchie’s busy drumming. There’s no letting up in terms of energy as Harrison takes over at the piano, his dazzling solo also throwing O’Donnell’s propulsive bass work into sharper focus. The bassist then enjoys his own feature prior to a rousing sax / drum face off between Bancroft and Ritchie and a spirited group finale, with Ritchie’s dynamic drumming still very much to the fore.
“Who Cares About The B-Test” is less frenetic, but no less compelling. Initially Bancroft explores at a more leisurely pace, subtly supported by his colleagues, but builds up a considerable head of steam as the piece progresses. Harrison is also featured with an expansive solo at the piano.
“May Well Happen” is an elegant, lyrical ballad that features a softer side of the quartet’s playing, while still gently pushing the stylistic envelope. Bancroft’s tenor points the way, but overall it’s an intimate and well balanced ensemble performance.
Another of those whimsical titles, “Larry De Luxe And The Temple Of Zoom” sees our intrepid foursome exploring the world of free jazz and extended techniques on the intro, the sounds including sax multiphonics, cymbal scrapes and under the lid piano rummaging. A more recognisable melodic theme eventually emerges which serves as the basis for more conventional playing and soloing, with O’Donnell enjoying an extended feature at the bass and Harrison soloing lyrically at the piano. Bancroft then stretches out more forcefully, soloing with power and fluency.
“Free” is credited to all four musicians, which suggests that it’s the only totally improvised piece on the record. It doesn’t like ‘free jazz’ as such, the intro to the previous track is actually more like that. Instead it sounds more akin to the spiritual jazz of John Coltrane, with Bancroft’s declamatory tenor backed by the rolling, roiling grooves generated by Harrison, O’Donnell and Ritchie, with the latter in Elvin Jones mode. It’s possible that the music presented here is part of an even longer collective improvisation.
Unaccompanied tenor introduces “Is That You Gladys In The Conservatory”, the leader’s delicate sax musings later joined by piano and the rustle and shimmer of percussion. Bancroft continues his ruminations, skilfully shadowed by his colleagues, eventually handing over to Harrison. Despite the jokey title this is music that is often very beautiful and demonstrates the close rapport between the members of a quartet that had gigged extensively prior to the recording. You can almost sense them listening to one another.
The title track is a surprisingly upbeat offering driven along by Ritchie’s solid but stuttering drum grooves. Bancroft’s tenor sound is big but highly melodic and the whole piece exhibits urgency, vitality and an unstoppable momentum. Bancroft plays with an almost maniacal verve and even in its quieter, more abstract moments the piece possesses a bristling energy.
The album concludes with “The Kinchieburn”, which adopts a more mainstream, bebop inspired feel with Bancroft soloing lucidly on tenor, followed by a sparkling solo from Harrison at the piano and a dynamic feature from Ritchie at the drums. The four musicians then coalesce once more to take the music storming out.
“Degrees of Freedom” is a great way to launch the Myriad Streams project and a hugely successful album on its own account. Bancroft’s writing is intelligent and varied and the standard of the playing from all four musicians is excellent throughout. Bancroft performs with great authority and fluency on tenor and the skill and versatility of Ritchie’s drumming also catches the ear.
It may have taken this music a while to see the light of day but its eventual appearance is very welcome. Well done to all concerned.
Future releases on Myriad Streams will be very keenly awaited. Check out Bancroft’s new platform here;
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