by Ian Mann
April 01, 2020
This eponymous début album represents a confident and satisfying opening statement from Sefrial. Their music draws on many influences and is consistently interesting and inventive.
Sophie Stockham – alto sax, Jake McMurchie – tenor sax, Joe Wilkins – guitar, Greg Cordez – bass, Matt Brown – drums
Sefrial is a new quintet featuring some of the leading musicians on the fertile Bristol jazz scene.
The band was founded by alto saxophonist Sophie Stockham, perhaps best known as a member of the sextet Dakhla Brass, whose excellent third album “Murmur”, dating from 2018, is reviewed here; https://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/dakhla-brass-murmur
Stockham also leads her own trio and has played tenor sax with vocalist Victoria Klewin’s Truetones group.
Drummer Matt Brown is also a member of Dakhla Brass, and, like Stockham, is a self taught musician. Brown is actually the main composing presence on this début album from Sefrial, having had a hand in the writing of all seven tracks. Among his other projects he is also one half (with Andrew Neil Hayes) of the sax/drums/electronica duo Run Logan Run and is also a member of the Bristol based electro-improvising trio Modulus III. Brown’s other credits include sideman work with vocalists Victoria Klewin and Lillian Boutte, saxophonists Jake McMurchie, Andy Sheppard and Pee Wee Ellis, Blues guitarist/vocalist Matt Schofield, and bassists Greg Cordez and Rich O’Brien. The presence of two of Brown’s Sefrial bandmates in this list only goes to show how tightly knit the Bristol jazz scene is. On the wider music scene he has toured widely with Rodriguez (of “Searching for Sugarman” fame) and with former Black Crowes guitarist Marc Ford. He has ‘depped’ for drummer Clive Deamer in Get The Blessing and also performed with This Is The Kit, led by singer and songwriter Kate Stables.
Tenor man Jake McMurchie is best known as a member of the long running and highly popular quartet Get The Blessing, a band with a national reputation and a string of excellent albums to their credit. He also leads the electro-jazz quartet Michelson Morley as well as a slightly more orthodox acoustic jazz quartet. Others with whom McMurchie has worked include Cordez, trumpeter Andy Hague and pianist Will Butterworth.
Bassist and composer Cordez leads his own groups and a quintet including McMurchie plus a number of other leading Bristol jazz musicians released the excellent album “Paper Crane” in 2015.
Review here; https://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/greg-cordez-paper-crane
The album was particularly well received and in 2017 Cordez crossed the Atlantic to record the follow up, “Last Things Last”, in Brooklyn with a quintet of leading New York based musicians.
Review here; https://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/greg-cordez-last-things-last
Others with whom Cordez has worked include vocalist Sarah Ellen Hughes.
I’m familiar to a degree with the playing of all the musicians profiled above. However, for me, guitarist Joe Wilkins represents the ‘wild card’ of the Sefrial line up. I’ll admit to have never having heard of him before this CD dropped through my letter box, but a brief on line search suggests that he’s a versatile musician who plays across a variety of musical genres, including jazz and blues. He certainly makes a distinctive contribution to this début Sefrial album and plays a substantial part in the success of the record.
Sefrial take their name from a John Zorn composition that was subsequently recorded by Medeski, Martin & Wood and during their early days the band played the music of others. Subsequently they began to write their own material and this self released début features seven original compositions, collectively arranged by the band.
Sefrial’s music is an amalgam of jazz and alt rock that also borrows heavily from Americana, with Wilkins’ guitar a particularly distinctive component within the group’s sound.
The guitarist makes his presence felt on the opening track, “Stone Eye”, written by Brown and arranged by the group, the piece has also been released as a single. Propelled by a loping electric bass groove and a solid back beat from the drums the tune features the unison horn melody lines of Stockham and McMurchie. But it’s with Wilkins’ guitar solo that the track really achieves lift off. The guitarist’s playing has been compared with that of Jimi Hendrix, Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot and here his blend of twanging, demented Americana perhaps comes closest to the latter. When Wilkins eventually signs off the squalling saxes of Stockham and McMurchie take over on this attention grabbing opener.
Sefrial’s music has invited comparisons with that of Polar Bear, courtesy no doubt of the twin sax line up, and McMurchie’s ‘parent’ group Get The Blessing. With McMurchie in the Sefrial ranks and with the band being based in Bristol I’m more reminded of GTB than Polar Bear. Wilkins’ guitar twang reminds me of GTB bassist Jim Barr on the rare occasions that he picks up a guitar. There’s also an element of the Bristol born ‘trip hop’ sound in the band’s music, perhaps not so surprising given that some of Sefrial’s members have worked with Portishead and Massive Attack.
Also written by Brown and arranged by Sefrial “Deep Field” offers a variation on the template as chunky riffing combines with rolling, drum driven grooves and dubby, spacey sax and guitar explorations. With a title derived from astronomy (the Hubble Deep Field) it’s perhaps not so surprising to hear Wilkins’ guitar heading for the outer reaches as he embarks upon another sonic adventure.
Composed by Brown, Stockham and Wilkins “The Gatekeeper” initially lowers the temperature a little after the powerful combination of the opening two tracks. Here the focus is more on mood building with Stockham and McMurchie combining atmospherically in Polar Bear like fashion on the intro. But there’s plenty of energy and more powerful riffing as the momentum begins to build, the two saxes duelling and dovetailing above solid, but constantly evolving grooves. Sefrial may deploy rhythms that are unfamiliar to jazz audiences, but they rarely resort to the obvious patterns of rock either. The group’s grooves are eminently accessible, but they never stay in one place long enough to turn into a rut.
Credited to Brown and Stockham “Juniper” follows a similar course with sinuous sax slithering around Brown’s colourful, mallet generated drum patterns. With Wilkins taking a back seat this is a chance to enjoy the playing of the saxophonists at their best and to appreciate the importance of drummer Brown to the overall sound.
“Iris” is another Brown / Stockham composition and initially seems to follow a similar path to its immediate predecessor. Saxes float dreamily above cymbal shimmers and a gently brushed drum groove. But there’s always a dark undercurrent and any notions of serenity are quickly abandoned as the music enters a freely structured section, out of which emerges a Wilkins guitar solo that builds to a frightening intensity, shadowed by squalling saxes and underpinned by increasingly kinetic drumming.
“Great Auk” is written by Brown and Wilkins and the introduction features the latter in uncharacteristically subdued mood on acoustic guitar, joined by the wistful sounding timbres of Stockham’s alto sax. As the rest of the band join in the music takes on a gently undulating gait, conjuring up images of wide open spaces and tumbleweed blown ghost towns and evoking a kind of ‘Twin Peaks’ atmosphere. There’s a change of mood in the second half of the piece as Cordez sets up an ominous electric bass rumble that underpins Wilkin’s dramatic slide guitar solo, it’s like a thunderstorm in the desert. All this desert imagery doesn’t seem to match the title, but as the rest of the band drop out leaving Wilkins as the lone voice his guitar begins to sound more and more like Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross”, or, perhaps more pertinently, the one in Pink Floyd’s “Echoes”.
‘Albatross’, ‘Great Auk’, both sea birds, take your pick, but don’t expect wafers with it.
The album closes with a piece simply titled “Sid”, another Matt Brown composition arranged by the group. Drifting, atmospheric and ethereal this brief final episode reveals a gentler, more impressionistic side of the band with McMurchie’s warm toned tenor prominent in the arrangement.
This eponymous début album represents a confident and satisfying opening statement from Sefrial. The band has built a strong following in its native Bristol that embraces adventurous rock listeners as well as jazz audiences and the group regularly play at standing only rock venues.
The album lands its two rockiest punches first, the single “Stone Eye” and the spacey “Deep Field” are riff and groove based pieces guaranteed to grab the listener’s attention, particularly in the live environment. But they display plenty of subtlety too and this is a trait that becomes more apparent as the album progresses with later pieces displaying a stronger narrative arc and a wider range of dynamics.
Although many of its members are well known jazz musicians Sefrial isn’t a jazz band as such, its other influences are too strong and numerous, and few of its tunes deploy conventional jazz rhythms or structures. Nevertheless their music is consistently interesting and inventive and in Wilkins they seem to have discovered a particularly distinctive and imaginative instrumentalist.
I very much enjoyed this début album and once the Covid-19 crisis is over I’d welcome the opportunity of seeing Sefrial live, whether in a jazz club or rock club environment.
“Sefrial” is available from the group’s Bandcamp page;
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