by Ian Mann
April 20, 2012
An excellent blend of structure and freedom with a uniformly high standard of musicianship and some visceral, fiery, exciting playing.
(FMR Records FMRCD318-0811)
Predicate is a new-ish band first put together in 2010 by London based multi instrumentalist Alex Ward and featuring a quartet of players associated with the capital’s free improv scene. Ward, also a highly accomplished clarinettist, plays electric guitar exclusively throughout this recording made in the company of Tim Hill (alto & baritone saxes), Dominic Lash (double bass) and Mark Sanders drums). It’s a heavyweight line-up and the music reflects this, but there’s an immediacy and accessibility about “Predicate” that is notably absent from many improv recordings.
Largely this is due to Ward adding a strong compositional element to the music. His extensive and informative liner notes describe his methods for “writing for improvisers” and makes reference to a number of his previous projects including the song based bands Camp Blackfoot and Alex Ward & The Dead Ends. The seeds for this current project were sown by the through-composed music of the guitar/drums duo Dead Days Beyond Help, formed with drummer Jem Doulton and documented on the albums “Access Denied” (2008) and “The Verbing”
Listening to this album it’s almost impossible to believe that Ward still regards the guitar as his “second instrument”. As an improviser he cut his teeth playing clarinet alongside the late, great Derek Bailey and some of Bailey’s techniques have clearly rubbed off on his guitar work too. These days Ward is probably best known for his guitar playing and particularly for his role in the high octane improvising power trio N.E.W. alongside drummer Steve Noble and double bassist John Edwards. The trio are a particular favourite of my co-writer Tim Owen and Tim’s review of a March 2011 N.E.W. show at London’s Vortex Jazz Club can be found elsewhere on this site.
Bassist Dominic Lash is another Tim Owen favourite for his work with saxophonist Tony Bevan, pianist Alexander Hawkins and bassist/guitarist Joe Morris among others. Lash has recently returned to the UK to settle in Bristol following a year’s stay in the USA where he performed with leading musicians from both the New York and Chicago scenes. He’s a highly versatile player and a superb technician, conjuring distinctive sounds from his instrument both with and without the bow.
Ward states that his intention for the Predicate group was for it to have a clearly delineated rhythm section (Lash and Sanders) and lead instrument (Hill’s saxophones) with his own guitar sitting in between. In reality Ward’s solos are just as thrilling as Hill’s but he fulfils his aim by virtue of the fact that his guitar is very much the fulcrum of the group.
Album opener “The Denied” begins with an atmospheric drum/percussion intro from Sanders, an improv veteran with more than seventy five recordings on his CV. He’s joined by Lash’s grainy bowed bass and Hill’s brooding, elongated saxophone lines. There’s an eerie air of quiet menace about this richly cinematic opening piece. An impressive start.
By way of contrast “Courtesy Class” is edgy, urgent and insistent with Hill squalling on alto above a busy undertow featuring Ward’s percolating “hammered on” guitar, Sanders’ free flowing drumming and Lash’s propulsive bass. Hill isn’t a player that I’ve come across before but his musical relationship with Ward goes back some twenty years and here he plays with a visceral power that’s hard to resist. Ward’s own solo is equally fiery, turbo charged guitar with its roots in Hendrix and filtered through Derek Bailey and Marc Ribot. After the two soloists have vented their spleens the storm subsides and the piece concludes in the more impressionistic style established by “The Denied”.
Great riffs are a feature of this record with Hill’s roaring baritone intro to “Stub” a particularly fine example. He subsequently proves himself to be an agile and imaginative soloist on the larger horn, pushing the instrument to its limits with his guttural, high powered solo. Once again Ward matches him for intensity with an urgent, coruscating solo. Ward’s background in rock bands imbues his playing with the attack and volume of rock but he also has the fluency of a gifted improviser. These qualities, allied to an astonishing guitar technique and the judicious use of whammy bar, foot pedals and other effects make his rip roaring solos objects of both fear and beauty. In a piece that almost follows the classic theme/solos/theme structure of jazz there’s an engaging solo drum interlude from Sanders before Hill returns with that walloping baritone riff. Great stuff.
“Happy New Year” sees Hill adopting an almost exaggeratedly “jazzy” tone on alto and the first stages of the piece have something of the woozy charm of Sebastian Rochford’s Polar Bear with a dash of Charles Mingus thrown in for good measure. Ward’s solo takes the music somewhere else entirely, his solo has the choked intensity of Hatfield And The North’s Phil Miller, with maybe a hint of Robert Fripp. It’s intriguing, imaginative and absorbing on every level.
The album’s centre piece is the near fifteen minute “Forecast” which builds from a spooky solo arco bass introduction to encompass unhinged, razor slash guitar, ferocious sax barrages and kinetic drumming alongside more impressionistic passages in the brooding style of the intro. As a guess I’d hazard that there’s more genuine improvisation here than elsewhere on the album.
The closing “Candidates” offers a complex theme, smouldering then burning solos from Hill on alto and Ward on guitar and assured rhythmic interplay from the ever adaptable Lash and Sanders.
I recently saw Predicate performing this material live at The Queens Head in Monmouth and was highly impressed by all four of them. Ward, like Fripp a sit down guitarist, wrung ringing clusters of notes from his instrument in a bravura display of technique and extended technique. Hill’s saxophone work impressed with its intensity and inventiveness and the rhythm team of Lash and Saunders meshed together superbly giving the front line soloists a firm but flexible and interactive platform to work from. The pair also shone individually, Lash with his flexibility and the inventive quality of his solo contributions and Sanders with his power, stamina and intelligence, generating an impressive variety of sounds from his customised kit. Significantly all four musicians were reading, suggesting that much of the music was through composed but with scope for improvisation, this including a solo guitar episode from Ward, the first time that particular tune (“Forecast” if memory serves) had been treated that way.
The Predicate album is one of the most stimulating I’ve heard all year, an excellent blend of structure and freedom with a uniformly high standard of musicianship and some visceral, fiery, exciting playing. The structured nature of the material does the music no harm at all and the volume and intensity of much of the material should also hold appeal for adventurous rock listeners, fans of Mr Fripp’s King Crimson perhaps.
Predicate is also likely to be appreciated by admirers of the so called “punk jazz” groups like Led Bib, Acoustic Ladyland and trioVD. The intensity of the quartet’s music is often reminiscent of those groups at their best.
Critical reaction to Predicate has been unanimously favourable and the band has further live shows coming up. It could just be that, in jazz terms at least, the multi talented Mr. Ward has something of a hit on his hands. Recommended to all adventurous listeners, not just improv die hards.