by Ian Mann
August 30, 2016
Richly nuanced, multi faceted writing and highly skilled playing. One of the most consistently beautiful albums that I've heard all year.
“Frame of Reference”
(Jazzhead Records HEAD222)
The Australian pianist and composer Sean Foran is best known as a member of the acclaimed Brisbane based trio Trichotomy, also featuring drummer John Parker and bassist Sam Vincent, the latter a fairly recent replacement for the long standing Pat Marchisella.
Trichotomy have released a series of excellent albums including “Variations” (2010), “The Gentle War” (2011) and “Fact Finding Mission” (2013), all of which have been favourably reviewed on the Jazzmann. The band have also been fairly frequent visitors to the UK and it’s been my pleasure to cover Trichotomy live shows in Stratford upon Avon (2010) and at Café Jazz in Cardiff (2011 and 2013).
In 2014 Trichotomy released “Healthy”, a collaborative album made in conjunction with the contemporary Australian chamber music group Topology. It’s possible that it was this jazz/classical crossover project that provided the spark for this solo album from Foran. “Frame of Reference” again espouses a ‘chamber jazz sound’, this time in the company of four exceptional British based jazz musicians.
One of the reasons for the frequency of Trichotomy’s visits to the UK is the fact that Foran studied at Leeds College of Music and has since maintained a strong connection to the British jazz scene. Recorded in England at the studio of engineer Curtis Schwartz “Frame of Reference” features four British based musicians that Foran particularly admires, namely saxophonist Julian Arguelles, guitarist Stuart McCallum, cellist Ben Davis and fellow Leeds alumnus Joost Hendrickx (drums). The music was written specifically for these band members with much of it being recorded on the first or second take as the ensemble quickly established a strong and instinctive musical rapport.
Foran has said of the project;
“This was something that I’d thought about for a while and I wanted to write and record some music that featured a different line up to the trio that I usually work with. It’s more chamber based than my trio material, and also more textural. The saxophone, guitar and cello complement each other in a really interesting way and open the music up to so many possibilities for melodic and harmonic interactions. Most of all there’s space for everyone to improvise, it feels very open and melodic and I think there’s a sense of optimism in the music, a sense of calm”.
The qualities of which Foran speaks are apparent from the outset and the opening track “Room with a View”, which first introduces itself via the gentle ripple of Foran’s arpeggios, the leader joined in turn by the characteristically melancholy timbres of Davis’ cello, then the atmospheric sound of McCallum’s guitar accompanied by the tinkle of cymbals and the rumble of mallets. The mood brightens with Foran’s elegant piano solo and the incisive fluency of Arguelles’ reeds with the energy levels reaching a peak with a surprisingly explosive drum feature from the impressive Hendricks. The effect of this middle section is like that of sunlight breaking through dark clouds. The piece then resolves itself in the gently atmospheric style with which it began.
“Une Fille” is again introduced by Foran at the piano and the mood is initially busy and purposeful with Arguelles sax providing a breezy melodic motif as Hendrickx’s brisk drumming moves the tune along. However as the piece progresses the mood becomes more reflective and there’s a lovely passage of pensive, lyrical unaccompanied piano which evolves into a more orthodox piano solo in the trio format. There’s a brief cameo from Davis in the early stages of the piece plus more substantial solos from Arguelles and McCallum later on, the guitarist impressing with his elegant, thoughtful playing and dark hued tone. Foran’s insistently percussive piano figures underpin a further feature from Hendrickx before a more reflective group coda.
As with its predecessor there’s a lot going on in this track. Foran’s writing has a bitter-sweet quality with each composition offering an impressive variety in terms of both emotions and dynamics. Yet there are no jarring contrasts, each piece evolves logically, seamlessly and organically, this a tribute both to Foran’s compositional skills and to the superb quality of the playing. The pianist has cited the influence of the guitarist and composer Pat Metheny on his writing and there’s something of the American’s cinematic scope and breadth of colour in Foran’s compositions.
The delicate splashes of Hendrickx’s cymbals introduce the title track which subsequently features the blend of Davis’s warm, rich cello and Arguelles airy soprano sax underpinned by Foran’s piano arpeggios. In a typically multi-faceted composition we also hear the sound of the cello played both pizzicato and with the bow as the quintet immerse themselves in more obviously improvised waters, subsequently emerging again with Arguelles’ evocative, incantatory soprano solo. McCallum then takes over the reins with some startlingly original guitar soloing prior to a final group theme statement.
Foran’s love of minimalist composers such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass is expressed in the early stages of “Dare to Dream” with its delicately interlocking piano, guitar and plucked cello lines. The music builds slowly and deliberately from these origins, gradually opening like a flower. Arguelles sax provides melody as Hendrickx adds subtly nuanced commentary from behind the drum kit. Davis’ cello solo introduces a dark hued folk element and Foran’s piano feature a glacial beauty before Arguelles solos with his customary intelligence and fluency. But overall the abiding impression is of a beautifully balanced group performance.
With that in mind it’s perhaps appropriate that the next piece should be titled “A Fine Balance”. It opens with a delightfully melodic duet between Foran and Arguelles, the air of wistfulness further enhanced by Davis’ melancholy cello and Hendrickx’s gentle and succinct cymbal accompaniment. As it progresses the piece continues to juxtapose chamber jazz sensibilities with something more ecstatic and celebratory, this mainly due to Arguelles’ soaring soprano and the increasingly energetic support he receives. Foran maintains the new found mood with a joyous, and sometimes highly percussive, piano solo.
“Quiet Times” also invokes Reich and Glass as Foran gradually develops the piece with his own lyrical piano at the core alongside Arguelles’ light, floaty soprano sax. Again the blend of instruments is exquisite as the beautiful chamber jazz aesthetic is maintained. Later the musicians are given room to stretch out with the leader’s expansive but lyrical piano solo paving the way for McCallum’s spiralling melodic inventions, the guitarist again demonstrating that he’s one of the most consistently inventive players of the instrument on the contemporary music scene.
The introduction to “Mish Mash” features the group in chamber jazz mode on one of Foran’s most delightful melodies but soon finds the quintet injecting a greater degree of pace and energy with the leader’s percussive piano and Hendrickx’s vigorous brushed grooves propelling Arguelles mercurial soprano sax. Later the music fragments and shades off into slightly more abstract improvised territory with Arguelles’ sax still to the fore, skilfully building his solo before fading away gracefully and allowing Foran and McCulloch to take temporary charge.
Hendrickx’s cymbal splashes and mallet rumbles, allied to Davis’ cello bass lines, introduce the concluding piece “The Sum Of”. It’s another beautiful slice of chamber jazz with Arguelles’ gently lilting sax sketching the melody while Foran is at his most relaxed with a pellucid piano solo accompanied by cello bass lines and the gentle tick of Hendrickx’s brushes. Davis takes up the bow to deliver a delightful cello solo and McCallum is similarly poised and elegant on the guitar.
Although some may find Foran’s chamber jazz approach a little bloodless I’d like to think that most Jazzmann readers will find a huge amount to enjoy about this album with its richly nuanced, multi faceted writing and highly skilled playing. There are some brilliant individual moments from all of the musicians involved but it’s the overall balance and coherence of the ensemble in conjunction with Foran’s intelligent and colourful writing that impresses most. “Frame of Reference” is one of the most consistently beautiful albums that I’ve heard all year, but there’s genuine rigour and intelligence alongside the prettiness. Highly recommended.
“Frame of Reference” will be released on September 2nd 2016 and UK audiences will also get the opportunity to hear this music performed live when Foran tours the UK during October leading a quintet featuring Davis, McCallum and Hendrickx plus James Mainwaring on sax filling in for Arguelles.
Tour dates below;
Pizza Express, Soho, London.
http://www.pizzaexpresslive.com | 0845 6027 017
Watermill Jazz, Dorking.
http://www.watermilljazz.co.uk | 07415 815784
http://www.lakesidearts.org.uk | 0115 846 7777
Future Inns, Bristol
http://www.jazzatfutureinn.co.uk | 0845 0945588
Turner Sims, Southampton
http://www.turnersims.co.uk | 023 8059 5151
Newcastle Jazz Steps (Foran/McCallum duo only)
http://www.jazzsteps.co.uk | 0115 8770284
Capstone Theatre, Liverpool.
http://www.thecapstonetheatre.com | 0844 8000 410