by Ian Mann
January 24, 2021
An impressive blend of energy and intelligence. The album feels raw, exciting, authentic and vital, but without compromising the quality of the writing or the musicianship.
Orlando Le Fleming
“Romantic Funk : The Unfamiliar”
(Whirlwind Recordings WR4763)
Orlando Le Fleming – electric & acoustic bass, Philip Dizack – trumpet, Will Vinson – alto sax,
Sean Wayland – keyboards , synths, Kush Abadey – drums (except tracks 3 & 5).
Nate Wood – drums (tracks 3 & 5)
Orlando Le Fleming is a British born bassist and composer who studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London before beginning to establish himself on the UK jazz scene. He had also been a promising cricketer and had briefly played the game professionally, before his love of music eventually won out. In a sense his career is a mirror image of that of former England cricket captain Alistair Cook, an accomplished musician who played clarinet and saxophone to a high standard before deciding to concentrate on his sport.
I first recall seeing a young Le Fleming perform sometime in the late 1990s at Colchester Arts Centre when he was part of the ‘Electric Project’ quartet led by pianist and composer Julian Joseph, who was experimenting with electric keyboards at the time. As I recall the band also included guitarist Adam Salkeld and drummer Mark Mondesir, but although it was an excellent gig I don’t think that the quartet ever got to record.
In any event Le Fleming’s playing left an impression on me, although I wasn’t to see him play live again for another twenty years when he appeared at The Jazz Café in Camden as a member of the Migration ensemble led by the Mexican-American drummer and composer Antonio Sanchez. That event formed part of the 2018 EFG London Jazz Festival and the Migration band also included another British born musician, pianist and keyboard player John Escreet.
Both Le Fleming and Escreet are now based in New York, Le Fleming having made the move to the US in 2003 after playing on the UK scene with Joseph, pianists Jason Rebello and Tom Cawley, saxophonists Iain Ballamy, Tommy Smith and Jean Toussaint, trumpeters Guy Barker and Gerard Presencer and vibraphonist Roger Beaujolais, among others.
He quickly established himself State side, performing with such high profile names as vocalist Jane Monheit and one time Miles Davis drummer Jimmy Cobb. Others with whom Le Fleming has worked include saxophonists Branford Marsalis and Seamus Blake, pianists Joey Calderazzo, Bill Charlap and David Sancious, guitarists Kurt Rosenwinkel, Wayne Krantz and Lage Lund and drummers Billy Cobham, Ari Hoenig, Jochen Reuckert and Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts. It’s a pretty heavyweight list, and one which indicates the esteem in which Le Fleming is held.
In addition to being an in demand sideman Le Fleming has also forged a career as a solo artist, releasing his first album as leader, “From Brooklyn With Love”, in 2010. This was a quartet offering featuring Will Vinson on alto sax, Lage Lund on guitar and Antonio Sanchez at the drums.
He has also recorded with the co-operative OWL Trio, featuring Vinson and Lund, a group taking a contemporary, ‘chamber jazz’ approach to the standards repertoire.
Le Fleming’s next solo album “Romantic Funk” was released in 2017 and the title has subsequently become a band name, although the line up on this second Romantic Funk recording is substantially different to that on the first. The début featured Le Fleming plus a string of guests, many of them regular collaborators, but the current Romantic Funk line up is very much a ‘band’.
It’s a quintet line up that has honed its ‘chops’ with a regular residency at the famous 55 Bar in the heart of Greenwich Village. In recent years the 55 has become even more widely known to music aficionados as the place where David Bowie first linked up with saxophonist Donny McCaslin and his band, the musicians who contributed so much to Bowie’s final album, the excellent “Blackstar”. McCaslin’s own career has really taken off since then, and there’s also something of McCaslin’s influence in the music of Romantic Funk, the same kind of mix of jazz chops and rock attitude.
Despite the use of technology (electric bass, electric keyboards) Le Fleming’s album notes emphasise the fact that he doesn’t like his music to be overly sanitised and that he places a greater emphasis on “human interaction and group creativity”. Coming off the back of the band’s 55 Bar residency the album was recorded ‘live in the studio’ over two days in January 2020, a couple of months before the Covid crisis really took hold. Drum duties are shared between Kush Abadey, who appears on six of the eight tracks, and Nate Wood who does the honours on the other two. All of the material is composed by Le Fleming, who states;
“In under two days in the studio, this album was all played live, with very few edits and overdubs. The musicians are of such high quality that the risk taking paid off; for me, the inexpressible magic of the group and moment in time was captured. When writing this album, I was very conscious of the improvisational sections being tailored for the specific musicians, allowing them freedom to express their quirks. I encouraged risk taking and tried to make it fun for them without being too much of a control freak. It’s very much a cohesive band, as we work-shopped this material at the 55 bar over the last year. The ‘Romantic’ in Romantic Funk is more in line with romantic ideals such as the indefinable, unbounded, inexpressible, unfamiliar.”
The album takes its title from the last word in this quote and Le Fleming has also referred to the recording as being a tribute to the fusion music of the 1980s. Nevertheless “The Unfamiliar” never sounds dated and the music bristles with an energy and attitude that is very much of the ‘now’.
The opening track, “I’ll Tell You What It Is Later” takes its title from a Miles Davis quote and is strongly influenced by the trumpeter’s electric music of both the 1960s and the 1980s. Le Fleming and Wayland lay down some filthy electric bass and synth grooves while Abadey brings a contemporary hip hop influence. The piece is something of a feature for trumpeter Dizack, who solos with great authority and fluency, drawing on Davis’ influence, but without copying him directly.
“Phil is a very intuitive, musical player. His choices always seem to make so much sense”, remarks Le Fleming. Vinson’s alto kicks in during the second half of the tune, soaring joyously as the music gathers an unstoppable momentum.
“Waynes” is inspired by both saxophonist Wayne Shorter and guitarist Wayne Krantz, the latter also famous as a denizen of the 55 Bar, having recorded a live album (“2 Drink Minimum)” there. Le Fleming’s cerebrally funky bass groove is at the heart of the piece, again linking up well with Wayland’s keyboards. Tension and release is the theme of the piece as Dizack and Vinson work in tandem before trading incisive solos. They are followed by the imaginative Wayland on synth.
Vinson, like Le Fleming, was born in the UK but has been based in New York for over twenty years. He has generally been considered to be a straight ahead jazz player but releases like this, and the recent Whirlwind release “Trio Grande” with Antonio Sanchez and Israeli guitarist Gilad Hekselman, have seen him venturing into different, more rock orientated waters of late, and doing so very convincingly.
“The Myth of Progress” slows the pace a little, a more reflective piece featuring the melancholy blend of Dizack’s trumpet and Vinson’s alto, but still retaining an element of underlying funkiness thanks to Wood’s triplet driven drum groove, in addition to Le Fleming’s bass and Wayland’s keys. Vinson briefly features as a soloist, alongside the leader’s liquid, lyrical electric bass, before Dizack’s trumpet solo really lifts the energy levels in the closing stages.
“Struggle Session” maintains the largely introspective mood, as the horns intertwine in a broadly rubato style above Abadey’s richly creative, constantly evolving drum patterns. Dizack’s trumpet solo is deeply emotive and melancholic as any notion of funkiness is temporarily put on hold.
The groove is very much back as Le Fleming raises the energy levels once more on the infectiously funky “FOMO Blues”, which features bubbling electric bass, squiggling synthesiser and the punchy twin horn attack of Dizack and Vinson, all allied to the whirlwind of Nate Wood’s virtuoso drumming.
“More Melancholy” commences with an improvised keyboard introduction by Wayland, who adopts a sound located somewhere between synthesiser and organ. “I love Sean’s other- worldly note choices and the sounds he builds on his synths. His beautiful free intros are much better, less predictable and more personal than any I could have written”, remarks Le Fleming.
Wayland’s keys are joined by the leader’s liquidly lyrical electric bass and Abadey’s delicate and evocative cymbal work. With Dizack sitting out Vinson then takes centre stage with a searingly emotive, gracefully soaring alto sax solo, punctuated by another keys / electric bass / drum & cymbal interlude.
Of his long standing collaborator Vinson’s contribution to the album Le Fleming comments; Will’s lyrical saxophone is sublime on this album. Every solo he plays is thoughtful, expressive and captures the mood of the moment.”
“Mischievous is a tune that live up to its title and was written for the group as a ‘blowing vehicle’.
“We really stretch this one out live, and this version captures that feeling” says Vinson.
With its funky grooves and stuttering melodies the piece also incorporates some audacious metric changes allied to some tightly knit instrumental interplay, particularly between the horns. Wayland’s keys also play a significant role, as do the dynamic rhythms laid down by Le Fleming and Abadey.
Le Fleming dedicates the concluding piece, “The Inexpressible”, to his family. It builds gradually from an improvised duo intro featuring just his acoustic bass and Wayland’s keyboards to embrace a ‘spiritual’ style groove with the leader’s bass still very much to the fore. Dizack’s trumpet displays a melancholic lyricism that again suggests the influence of Miles Davis, while Le Fleming features as a soloist with a more extended outing on acoustic bass.
As an album “The Unfamiliar” delivers an impressive blend of energy and intelligence. With Le Fleming leading from the bass, predominately of the electric variety, the music is grounded in rhythm, but avoids the predictability of so much jazz-funk. Aided by Abadey or Wood the leader ensures that his grooves are not only propulsive, but also intelligent and consistently evolving. With players of this calibre there is never any danger of a groove becoming a rut. Both Abadey and Wood give powerful and intelligent performances behind the kit and link up well with the leader.
As a composer Le Fleming also comes up with some good melodic ideas and he is also well served by his front line players, Dizack and Vinson, who both solo with fluency, imagination and conviction and also work well within the ensemble as a whole. Wayland also makes telling contributions as a soloist and deploys his all electric keyboard set up with intelligence and imagination, adding depth to the group sound and forming part of the glue that holds the group together.
‘Fusion’ albums can often sound too smooth and overproduced and don’t always accurately represent the power that a band can be capable of generating in live performance. Le Fleming’s decision to thoroughly workshop the material at regular gigs and then to record it in a ‘live in the studio’ situation avoids these pitfalls and as a result the album feels raw, exciting, authentic and vital, but without compromising the quality of the writing or the musicianship.
I know that comparisons can be odious, but anybody who has enjoyed Donny McCaslin’s recent output should also find much to enjoy here. The music of Kneebody also represents another valid reference point.
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