by Ian Mann
September 19, 2023
The album covers an impressive amount of ground within the parameters of the sax trio format. The trio investigate a number of moods and jazz styles and the standard of the playing is exceptional.
(Auragami Records AGMR-004)
Dave Redmond - double bass, Kevin Beady – drums, Meilana Gillard – tenor & alto saxophones
RBG Trio was formed in 2019 and features bassist Dave Redmond, drummer Kevin Brady and saxophonist Meilana Gillard.
Redmond and Brady can perhaps be regarded as Ireland’s premier rhythm section and they have worked frequently with visiting American musicians such as pianist Bill Carrothers and the late, great guitarist Larry Coryell. Both appear on the excellent Coryell live recording “Last Swing With Ireland”, released in 2021 and reviewed here;
Redmond has also performed with the American pianist Don Pullen and appears on the album “Live at Arklow”. Review here;
Brady has been on The Jazzmann’s radar since 2006 and the release of the album “New Light” by the organ trio Organics, featuring Justin Carroll on Hammond B3, John Moriarty on guitar and Brady at the drums. Review here;
All three group members contributed material to Organics but Brady is also a bandleader and composer in his own right and in 2021 he delivered the excellent album “Plan B”, inspired by Coryell and recorded by an electric quartet featuring Redmond on bass, Carrothers on Fender Rhodes and the great Seamus Blake on tenor sax. The material included five compositions by Brady and three by Carrothers and my review of the album can be found here;
Brady has also released a number of other, earlier albums as part of his long running partnership with Carrothers.
Brady and Redmond also appear on the 2015 album “Burkina” as part of a trio led by the Irish guitarist and composer Tommy Halferty. Review here;
I’m less familiar with the playing of saxophonist Meilana Gillard, although I did review the album “Road Warrior”, a sextet recording by trumpeter and composer Quentin Collins that featured Gillard on alto sax. Review here;
Gillard was born in London, raised in Columbus, Ohio and studied jazz in New York City, where she lived for eight years. She is now based in Derry, Northern Ireland. Also a vocalist, composer and educator her other projects include the six piece soul / r & b band The Funkitects. When in the US Gillard worked extensively with the drummer and composer Charli Persip. Currently she works regularly with the guitarist Phil Robson, another musician who has variously lived and worked in the UK, the US and Ireland.
Gillard is something of a polymath and runs her own record label, Auragami Records. She also creates the artwork for her album releases, including RBG Trio and the earlier saxophone trio release “Dream Within A Dream” (2017), recorded in Ireland with bassist Neil O’ Loclainn and drummer David Lyttle.
Gillard explains the RBG Trio’s origins thus;
“In January 2019, I called Kevin Brady and Dave Redmond for a gig that fell into my lap through IMC at the Wild Duck in Dublin. I had been wanting to play with them for some time and to my delight, they were free and down to play. The gig was instant fun with zero rehearsing and I knew I wanted to play more with them. They called me a couple months later to head to Mexico City to perform at the EuroJazz Festival and do some masterclasses. We had an absolute blast and have continued to play since. We had planned to record and release an album in 2020, but you know what happened then. Lots of great gigs booked throughout 2020-21 were wiped away. Now, we’re so excited to get to release our debut album! We all wrote for this, and with the exception of 2 of the tunes, everything is brand new for us”.
The album was eventually recorded in April 2023 by engineer Alex Borwick at Grouse Lodge Studios, County Westmeath and subsequently mixed and mastered by Dave Darlington at Bass Hit Recording in New York City.
As Gillard has mentioned the programme includes compositions from all three band members and the emphasis is on spontaneity. Gillard again;
“There wasn’t a ton of rehearsing . We had one run through before heading into the studio and it was truly liberating to let the moment shine without nitpicking the life away from it. There were zero tendencies to lean upon, no net. It brought out brand new things within each of us. I’ll never look at prepping for an album the same way after this.”
Meanwhile the alum liner notes state;
“This meant any predictable patterns, comfort zones and pre-conceived notions couldn’t exist within the music. We would have to rely on our instincts, experience and the desire to make each other sound good to carry us. Everything was recorded in one big live room at Grouse Lodge. There is no overdubbing and no fancy, modern studio techniques were employed. This is us three, in a room together – cracks, splits, magic, heartache, excitement, warmth and love”.
The album features fourteen tracks, thus ensuring that no individual piece outstays its welcome. Gillard provides seven compositions, Redmond five and Brady one, with one spontaneous group improvisation. In the main the themes are simultaneously robust and melodic, and therefore accessible and memorable. RBG Trio’s approach has inevitably attracted comparisons with the classic saxophone trios of Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson but there are also more modern influences at work, I’m sometimes reminded of the UK contemporary sax trio Partikel, for instance. It should also be remembered that in 2020 RBG Trio recorded an instrumental version of the Soundgarden song “Black Hole Sun”, which is still available as a digital single via Bandcamp.
The new album kicks off with the vigorous Redmond composition “Drip Dry”, which features sax and bass underpinned by a shuffling drum groove. Redmond and Gillard take the lead at various times, effectively ‘soloing’, although the trio remains fiercely interactive throughout. Brady’s drums also come to the fore in a short unaccompanied passage, before Gillard’s sax assumes the lead once more.
Gillard’s own “Chrysalis” has more of an ‘old school’ swing feel as she stretches out above Redmond’s bass walk and Brady’s crisp drumming. Her sax probes more deeply as the piece progresses, before she eventually hands over to Brady for another drum feature, after which the main theme returns.
Redmond’s “Centro” is less frenetic, with Gillard’s sinuous sax melodies underpinned by double bass and brushed drums. There’s an atmospheric, noirish quality about the music here, a crepuscular after hours feel. Redmond features with a melodic double bass solo and there’s an engaging dialogue between his bass and Brady’s brushed drums.
Redmond’s bass motif introduces Gillard’s “Learn To Surf”, an instantly alluring piece with a powerful hook, driven by Brady’s sturdy backbeat. Something of the indie / grunge spirit that informed the Soundgarden piece is detectable here as Gillard solos above the muscular rhythms, the performance also incorporating a drum feature for Brady.
Also by Gillard “Take Your Time” is introduced by Brady’s hand drumming and features the composer’s blues tinged tenor on another of those ‘after hours’ sounding pieces. Gillard stretches out above the subtly evolving rhythms, before handing over to Redmond for the next solo, his fluent bass playing still underpinned by Brady’s subtle but inventive drumming.
Two Redmond compositions follow, beginning with the gently brooding “Apres”, ushered in by the sound of the bass and featuring the sounds of mournful tenor sax and delicately brushed drums. This is the track that Gillard refers to as representing “heartache”.
“Faultlines” is a more vigorous offering from the bassist, his strutting lines and Brady’s deft drumming driving Gillard’s ebullient sax soloing. There’s an extended bass solo from the composer on a piece with something of an Ornette Coleman feel about it.
Jointly credited to Redmond / Brady / Gillard “Deep Blue” is a group improvisation that nevertheless sounds as if it might have been composed. Introduced by Redmond’s bass the piece is sombre in tone and features long lined sax mediations over a recurring bass motif and the quiet bustle of Brady’s brushed drums.
The reflective mood continues into Gillard’s “In The Dark”, a seductive and sinuous composition that draws on jazz and rock and sometimes hints at the sound of the Middle East. Centred around Redmond’s bass it allows both the bassist and Gillard to stretch out at length, prior to an inventive, colourful and neatly constructed drum feature from Brady.
Gillard describes her composition “Drum Lullaby” as “experimental” and it’s certainly one of the most abstract pieces on the album with Brady’s drums shaping the narrative of the piece alongside wisps of sax melody and the earthy sounds of Redmond’s bowed bass.
Brady’s composition “A Dude Abides” is more straightforward and features buoyant bass and drum grooves and an infectious sax melody that forms the platform for Gillard’s expansive sax soloing. It’s the track that is perhaps closest in feel to the classic saxophone trio sound of Henderson and Rollins, and also includes features for Redmond and the composer.
With its darting melodies and lively rhythms Gillard’s “Bending Light” maintains the upbeat mood and ends the album on a playful note. There’s an ebullient drum feature from Brady alongside Gillard’s joyful sax soloing.
But, of course, it’s not quite the end, the CD also contains alternative takes of the Gillard composition “Take Your Time” and the Redmond tune “Drip Dry”.
RBG’s take on the art of the saxophone trio has been very well received by the Irish and British jazz press and the album covers an impressive amount of ground within the parameters of the instrumental format. The trio investigate a number of moods and jazz styles and the standard of the playing is exceptional throughout, with engineers Borwick and Darlington capturing all the nuances and fine details of the playing from a very well balanced trio.
The RBG Trio album is available via Bandcamp here;
The trio are about to embark on a tour of Ireland and are also due to appear at the 2023 EFG London Jazz Festival. See https://meilanamusic.com/tour for dates and further details.
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