by Ian Mann
July 21, 2006
Seesaw is very much the product of a confident working band.
Alto saxophonist Christian Brewer has been on the scene for a while now but this is only his second outing as a leader. Over the years Brewer has played pop and rock sessions with the likes of Paul Weller as well as being active in a jazz context with many of the UK’s leading players. He had a particularly productive spell with trumpeter Damon Brown and appeared on two of Brown’s albums. Pianist Leon Greening who also appears on “Seesaw” was also a member of Brown’s group.
By his own admission Brewer is a bit of a late developer as a composer and leader. His first solo album “Introducing Christian Brewer” appeared in 2002 and featured Greening alongside the then fairly new rhythm section of bassist Tom Herbert and drummer Seb Rochford (another former Brown alumnus).
The new album “Seesaw” has been well received by the critics. Only Greening remains from the previous record. Tristan Mailliot, a more straight ahead drummer, has taken over from Rochford and his partner in the rhythm section is young bassist Phil Donkin.Twenty five year old Donkin is something of a rising star and has been tipped for international success. Brewer refers to him as “the new Dave Holland”. I saw Donkin play with pianist Gwilym Simcock’s quintet at Cheltenham Jazz Festival and he is certainly a very talented young musician. Mick Coady replaces Donkin on the two compositions not sourced from within the band i.e., Charles Mingus’ “Duke Ellington’s Sound Of Love” and Thelonious Monk’s “Let’s Cool One”. Brewer felt that for all Donkin’s talents Coady’s softer sound was more suited to these numbers.
Another prodigiously talented young musician completes the quintet. Young Cornishman Jim Hart appears here on vibes but he is also highly proficient on both drums and piano. Like Donkin he has created quite a stir. Cornwall’s answer to Lionel Hampton perhaps?
Besides the Mingus and Monk pieces already mentioned the rest of the material is written by members of the quintet. The style is firmly in the be-bop tradition reflecting Brewer’s love of Charlie Parker (of course) and John Coltrane but also senior figures on the British scene such as Peter King and Don Weller. In addition to these Art Pepper is a particular favourite of Brewer’s and he tries to capture something of Pepper’s spirit in his playing.
The album includes a number of fast, tricky, bustling pieces that are technically challenging to play but there are also some hauntingly beautiful ballads such as “Duke Ellington’s Sound Of Love”.
The opening track, a Brewer/Greening composition is in the fast and tricky category and is an exhilarating way to start an album. It features Brewer’s agile alto, Hart’s swinging vibes and Greening’s sparkling piano all driven along by Mailliot’s powerful drumming as the group negotiate a series of hairpin twists and turns.
“Singapore” by the same writers is more reflective and features Greening’s thoughtful piano over Donkin’s rich bass undertow. The piece unfolds slowly opening up to reveal it’s delights such as Brewer’s fluent, probing alto and a dextrous subtly funky solo from Donkin’s growling bass.
Brewer’s “In A Hurry” is not quite as fast and furious as the title suggests. It is certainly up-tempo but has a light and airy feel. Greening contributes a rippling piano solo and the leader again demonstrates his prowess on the alto. Hart adds extra colour with another inventive solo on the vibes and Donkin is also given more solo space.
“Duke Ellington’s Sound Of Love” is just beautiful with Greening exhibiting his lightness of touch on piano and Brewer showing his capabilities on a ballad. His playing is emotional but also controlled and fluent. Coady and Mailliot provide understated but appropriate support and Hart’s shimmering vibes also add to the atmosphere.
Hart’s composition “So You Said” ups the tempo and re-introduces the light and airy feel. It provides a vehicle for Hart to show his abilities on the vibes with a dazzling solo reminiscent of the great Gary Burton. The second half of the piece grows in intensity and features some incisive playing from Brewer.
Brewer’s “Step Backwards” is a mid-tempo number featuring the leader’s pensive alto, Greening’s equally thoughtful piano and more fluent soloing from the talented Donkin who gets a remarkable amount of solo space on this album. He doesn’t waste it.
Monk’ s “Let’s Cool One” is given a great swinging groove by Coady and Mailliot. Brewer’s bluesy alto, Hart’s chunky vibes and Greening’s percussive piano take full advantage of the backdrop before Coady and Mailliot trade fours and Brewer takes us out still swinging.
Brewer and Greening’s title track closes the album and at over eleven minutes it’s the longest and most ambitious track on the record. Donkin and Mailliot negotiate a number of time signatures but are always driving and swinging providing an excellent base for the soloists to work from. Brewer, Hart, Greening and Donkin all solo to good effect and the whole thing is a bit of a tour de force on which to finish.
Seesaw is a good album and features some great playing from all involved. Brewer is at the heart of everything and his playing is confident and immaculate. Greening is just as fine although he has apparently been critical of his own performance. It still sounds pretty damn good to me. Hart adds colour to the arrangements and obviously has a highly promising future. The rhythm section of Donkin and Mailliot are on the ball throughout handling some very complex material with aplomb and providing an ideal balance between power and sensitivity. Seesaw is very much the product of a confident working band.
My only criticism would be of the writing as some of the original themes are not particularly memorable despite the fine playing contained therein. “Singapore” and “Seesaw” are probably the pick of the originals followed closely by “Thanks But No Thanks” “Duke Ellington’s Sound Of Love” is the outstanding cover and arguably the finest track on the album.blog comments powered by Disqus