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Water Speckled Midnight

by Ian Mann

March 05, 2024


There will be many listeners who will enjoy Q3’s brand of contemporary melodic jazz, music that borrows from the tradition, but which never gets subsumed by it.


“Water Speckled Midnight”

(Lenox Music)

Martin Hallmark – piano, Kevin Flanagan – tenor sax, Tiago Coimbra – electric bass, Oscar Reynolds – drums

Despite the band name Q3 is actually a Cambridge based quartet led by the pianist and composer Martin Hallmark. My thanks to Martin for forwarding me a review copy of the group’s latest album, “Water Speckled Midnight”, which was released in January 2024. It follows “Spider Dance” (2014) and the well received “The Monkey Puzzle Tree” (2019).

Hallmark and Coimbra have been constants throughout the band’s existence but the drum chair on the previous two albums was filled by Steve Hynes. Formed in 2013 as a trio (hence the band name, I guess) the debut album featured Flanagan as a guest, the American born saxophonist subsequently joining as a full member. “Spider Dance” also featured a guest vocal from Helen Marcia McDonald.

In 2012 Hallmark studied with the late, great Chick Corea, this experience providing the inspiration behind the founding of Q3. Other influences for the band as a whole include pianists Robert Glasper and Brad Mehldau, saxophonist Michael Brecker and bassist and producer Marcus Miller.

Q3’s music features Hallmark’s compositions exclusively and is informed by jazz, funk, latin and middle eastern / mediterranean influences. “Water Speckled Midnight” was recorded at Alpheton New Maltings in Suffolk in August 2023 with John Ward at the mixing desk.

Hallmark says of the new recording;
“Much of the music on this record was written during the Covid pandemic in 2020 and 2021. This is not a lockdown album, but it is to some extent inspired by that period of isolation and confinement to a single location. Many pieces are a reflection of places visited, and returned to, and the journeys we take to get there, from a physical, personal and musical perspective.”

His album notes also shed further light on the inspirations behind some of the individual pieces, but I’ll deal with these on a track by track basis.

The album commences with “Through the Clouds”, a composition dedicated to the memory of Hallmark’s late uncle Peter Slater (1919-44), who I can only assume lost his life during World War II. There’s an appropriately elegiac quality to a piece that opens in a broadly ballad style with the warm sounds of Flanagan’s tenor sax to the fore. Hallmark takes over for a lyrical piano solo before Flanagan returns to feature more expansively, his tone becoming increasingly impassioned as his solo develops. It’s then the turn of Coimbra on electric bass, who brings an understated funk element to the proceedings.

“Odyssey” was written as a homage to Chick Corea and is performed in the ‘piano trio’ format. Commencing with a Morse Code style pulse the piece subsequently embraces Latin style rhythms as Hallmark delivers a solo that can only be described as ‘Corea-esque’. The ‘Morse Code’ motif periodically returns to punctuate Hallmark’s pianistic peregrinations, and although the piece is an obvious homage it’s still an inventive and highly enjoyable composition that also includes a feature for the quartet’s impressive new drummer Oscar Reynolds.

“Emerald Eyes” is a ballad written for Hallmark’s wife, Kate. Flanagan returns and demonstrates his skills as a ballad player before handing over to the composer, who delivers an expansive but lyrical piano solo. Coimbra’s liquid electric bass solo recalls Steve Swallow, with Flanagan returning to lead the final theme statement.

“Nomads” re-introduces the band’s funk leanings with a relaxed groove underpinning the subtle interplay between the leader’s piano and Flanagan’s tenor sax. Coimbra’s electric bass solo introduces a flamenco influence, which is stirred lightly into the funk source. Hallmark’s piano solo begins by providing a moment for quiet reflection, before becoming more exuberant and funky. Flanagan’s tenor solo also sees him building from quiet beginnings before unleashing a fluent and powerful solo that has elicited comparisons with the late, great Michael Brecker.

“Nocturne” was inspired by Hallmark’s attempts to play the music Chopin during the lockdown period, a process that he credits for “getting my left hand moving better on the piano”. Blending jazz and classical forms the performance commences in the piano trio format with the leader’s playing complemented by liquidly melodic electric bass and brushed drums. Flanagan then adds warm, conversational tenor sax, his sound rich and elegant. The saxophonist’s fluent solo is followed by Hallmark’s own lyrical offering and then by Reynolds’ brushed drum feature.

The title track is named for a species of lichen living in the liminal area “where the land meets the sea”. It’s a quirky piece that sometimes reminded me of the ‘post Loose Tubes’ school of artists– (Iain Ballamy, Django Bates, Mark Lockheart, Julian Arguelles etc.), but which also embraces a more conventional sense of jazz swing. Its rhythmic complexities form the platform for cogent solos from Flanagan and Hallmark, plus something of a drum feature for Reynolds.

Unaccompanied piano ushers in “Rondo di Girulata”, setting the scene for the introduction of the rest of the band, with Flanagan providing a subtly probing tenor sax solo and Coimbra delivering an articulate electric bass feature that again nods to those flamenco influences.  Flanagan also adds an impressive sax cadenza towards the close. Reynolds negotiates some complex drum parts and gives an excellent performance, his playing providing the necessary propulsion for the soloists but also incorporating a wealth of nuance and detail.

“A Good Day For Breathing” is airy and gently uplifting with Flanagan’s tenor initially taking the lead. Hallmark then expounds over increasingly complex rhythms before handing back to Flanagan, who now solos more expansively. Coimbra then takes over with another Swallow style electric bass feature.

“Turnaround Time” (could the title be a tip of the hat to Hank Mobley) re-introduces a Latin feel and is a jaunty piece that incorporates lively rhythms plus joyous solos from Flanagan on tenor and Coimbra, the latter excelling with a percolating electric bass feature. These two are followed by Reynolds, whose excursions around the kit are underpinned by the leader’s piano vamp. 

The album concludes with “Postlude”, a relatively brief (three and a half minutes) piano trio performance featuring the lyrical sound of the leader’s keys allied to soft, springy electric bass and Reynolds’ deft drumming, featuring a mix of brushes and sticks.

“Water Speckled Midnight” represents an impressive statement from Q3. Hallmark’s compositions are unfailingly melodic but they also feature a variety of musical styles and are rich in terms of colour, detail, texture and dynamics. The standard of the playing is excellent throughout and the band are well served by the studio team headed by John Ward, who deliver a crystalline mix that fully brings out the subtleties and nuances of both the writing and the playing.

There may be some listeners who will find it all a bit too smooth, but there will be many more who will enjoy Q3’s brand of contemporary melodic jazz, music that borrows from the tradition, but which never gets subsumed by it. Hallmark’s compositions are informed by his own experiences and sound all the better for it.

I also have to say that I was also very impressed with Flanagan, a fluent tenor sax soloist who has channelled the acknowledged influences of Michael Brecker and Sonny Rollins into a very convincing style of his own. I thought I detected something of Dexter Gordon and Coleman Hawkins in his playing too. In any event he’s a musician that I would like to hear more of.

I suspect that Q3 also represent an excellent live attraction. Readers in their main catchment area of East Anglia and South East England are encouraged to check them out.

“Water Speckled Midnight”, plus Q3’s two previous albums, can be purchased here;


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