by Ian Mann
July 16, 2021
An impressive début from Western-King, with some intelligent writing from the leader and some exemplary playing from all the musicians.
(Ubuntu Music UBU0086)
Alex Western-King – tenor saxophone, Sam Leak – piano, Jonny Wickham – double bass,
Jay Davis – drums, with guest James Copus – trumpet
“Sideslip” is the début album from twenty six year old saxophonist and composer Alex Western-King, a first class honours graduate of the Jazz Course at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
Western-King initially trained as a classical clarinettist, attending the prestigious Wells Cathedral School. He discovered jazz through the school big band and at the age of sixteen took the brave decision to concentrate on jazz saxophone rather than classical clarinet.
At the Guildhall his tutors included saxophonists Alex Garnett, Jean Toussaint, Iain Ballamy, Stan Sulzmann and flautist Gareth Lockrane. He cites all of these, but particularly Garnett, as having a profound influence on his playing and career.
Western-King is a regular presence at the Late Late Shows at Ronnie Scott’s and has performed at many other leading music venues. He has also toured regularly with the Basie inspired swing band Down for the Count. Others with whom he has performed include vocalist Dame Cleo Laine, bassist Alec Dankworth, saxophonist Julian Siegel and Snarky Puppy keyboard player / trumpeter Justin Stanton.
Western-King is also a published author, having written the instructional book “Complex Jazz Phrases for Saxophone”.
“Sideslip” features a core quartet comprised of Western-King on tenor sax, Sam Leak, a bandleader in his own right, on piano, Jonny Wickham on bass and Jay Davis at the drums. They are joined on the title track by trumpeter James Copus. All five musicians are vital and busy presences on the London jazz scene, who will no doubt relishing the prospect of getting back to work in the coming months, all being well.
The programme on “Sideslip” features seven original compositions by Western-King, with some input from Wickham as regards the writing and mixing processes. The album is produced by Alex Garnett with the engineering duties being undertaken by Ben Lamdin, Alex Bonney and Peter Beckmann. The album was recorded over the course of two days at Lamdin’s Fish Factory studio in September 2020.
Western-King’s liner notes state;
“I have always found music as the best way to communicate in moments of emotional turmoil. This album is a snapshot of one year of my life, documenting my growth out of dark place and into the light”.
The nature of this emotional and spiritual journey is reflected in some of the tune titles, but musical theory also informs some of the writing, with Western-King providing occasional insights into the inspirations behind specific individual compositions.
“This album is a meeting point between my love of straight-ahead bebop and the chaos and fragility of free jazz” he states, before continuing “There is a magical moment in which musicians sit perfectly on that line between Jazz and free improvisation”.
Album opener “Make Way” sits comfortably within the bebop tradition, with Western-King’s fluent and impressively big toned tenor leading the way. The saxophonist has cited the great Sonny Rollins as a source of inspiration and there’s certainly evidence for this within his sound. Western-King takes the first solo on tenor, followed by the impressive Leak at the piano. Meanwhile Wickham and Davis prove to be an intelligent and flexible rhythm team, skilfully avoiding the obvious rhythms and helping to give the music a contemporary edge.
Incidentally, Leak has featured on the Jazzmann web pages on numerous occasions as the leader of his own trio, of the quartet Aquarium and even of his own Big Band, an aggregation that gave an excellent performance at the The Spice of Life as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival. The Big Band performed a suite specifically commissioned by the Festival, but sadly the music remains undocumented on disc.
Of the composition “Disorder Reordered” Western-King states;
“I first discovered my love of this musical balance listening to John Coltrane’s ‘Transition’, an album that creates an energy that I believe cannot be practised or transcribed. I wanted to create a space in ‘Disorder Reordered’ in which my band felt that they could improvise without restriction whilst still clinging onto the sense of form and functionality found within Jazz”
A tricky, bop inspired theme provides the springboard for the improvising, commencing with a colourful drum feature from Davis, this followed by a feverishly inventive solo from Leak, fuelled by Davis’ agile, skittering drum accompaniment. Western-King sits out for quite a while, before weighing in with some typically muscular, but sure footed, tenor, soloing fluently before coalescing impressively with Leak on a unison re-statement of the complex theme. With its distinctive, highly individual soloing combining with more disciplined ensemble sections this appropriately titled piece see Western-King successfully fulfilling his intentions.
“Dark Space” commences with a passage of unaccompanied double bass from Wickham, joined in dialogue but the leader’s quietly elegant tenor. There’s an instinctive rapport between the two musicians, who are later joined by Leak’s piano and Davis’ drums on this introspective, contemporary jazz ballad. Western-King solos expansively, probing deeply, his playing always reflective and suggestive of a musician searching deep within himself.
That journey continues on the similarly introspective “Inner Eye”, which opens with a passage of lyrical solo piano from Leak that has evoked comparisons with Bill Evans. Western-King then joins him on tenor for a brief dialogue, the pair eventually joined by double bass and delicately brushed drums. This piece is even more closely aligned with the jazz ballad tradition and features poignant and beautiful solos from both Western-King and Leak, plus a delightfully melodic double bass solo from the impressive Wickham. Davis gives an immaculate display behind the kit, providing deft splashes of colour and detail.
With regard to the title track Western-King comments;
“Sideslip takes its name from the way the tune moves in and out of different key centres and draws significant inspiration from Thelonious Monk’s ‘Epistrophy’. I have always admired the playfulness of Monk’s angular melodies and how rhythm section players interact with them, and that is something I tried to capture in this tune”.
For this piece the core quartet are joined by guest trumpeter James Copus, who released the album “Dusk”, his own début as a leader, for Ubuntu in 2020.
The music certainly has a suitably playful and Monk-ish quality about it with Western-King and Copus combining effectively, as well as delivering fluent and expansive solos. Copus goes first, skilfully building from quiet beginnings and gradually ramping up the tension as his playing gathers both momentum and intensity, with the rhythm section responding accordingly. The trumpeter and the saxophonist then exchange ideas before Western-King embarks upon his own solo, powerful, fluent and inventive, with the rhythm section continuing to provide suitably propulsive and empathic support. There’s some impressively tight ensemble playing and also a drum feature from the excellent Davis.
Featuring just the quartet “Toe The Line” calms things down again, with Western-King’s warm toned tenor back in ballad mode. Leak features as a soloist, stretching out lyrically and expansively, followed by the leader on tenor.
The album concludes with “The Long Road” which commences with a turbulent bop inspired hook, punctuated by Davis’ frenetic drum salvos. Western-King eventually embarks on a blistering solo, at one point with only Davis’ drums for company as the Rollins influence reveals itself again. Other inspirations include Joe Henderson, Michael Brecker and alto specialists Charlie Parker and Cannonball Adderley.
Western-King’s buccaneering dialogue with Davis represents some of his most audacious playing of the set as he dares to peer into the abyss of free jazz. Eventually Leak reins things back in, comparatively speaking, with a rollicking piano solo that owes rather more to the hard bop tradition. Davis remains a briskly energetic presence throughout with an effervescent performance behind the kit.
“Sideslip” represents an impressive début from Western-King, with some intelligent writing from the leader and some exemplary playing from all the musicians. The members of the quartet have established an excellent rapport over the years and this ability to spark ideas off each other is well captured by Garnett and the production team.
Western-King reveals himself to be a fluent and inventive soloist with the ability to vary his tone to suit the musical situation he finds himself in. He plays with great fire and imagination on upbeat tracks such as “The Long Road”, “Disorder Reordered” and “Sideslip” itself, but exhibits considerable maturity and poise on ballads, particularly “Inner Eye”.
I’ve been a fan of Sam Leak’s playing for a number of years and he doesn’t disappoint as he provides an excellent contribution. I’m similarly impressed by the performances of Wickham and Davis, the bassist a calm and influential grounding presence, the drummer often busy and inventive, but also capable of great sensitivity. Copus provides an enjoyable cameo and some commentators have remarked that they’d have liked to have heard more from him – but at the end of the day this is very much Western-King’s album.
It’s very much in the bop / hard bop lineage and maybe not quite as radical as Western-King’s claims might suggest, but it’s still a damn fine recording. One suspects that this quartet would also be a hugely exciting proposition live. Let’s hope that jazz audiences get the chance to see them in the flesh in the coming months.
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