by Ian Mann
January 26, 2017
An excellent début from this well balanced ensemble.
(Two Rivers Records TRR-020)
Solstice is a new London based sextet featuring some of the capital’s leading jazz performers. Several of the musicians involved are band-leaders in their own right and all are busy, in demand sidemen or women. All have appeared frequently on the Jazzmann web pages in various capacities and in a wide variety of musical contexts. It’s therefore probably no exaggeration to describe Solstice as something of a contemporary British ‘supergroup’.
The Solstice line up features Tori Freestone (tenor & soprano saxes, flute), Brigitte Beraha (vocals), John Turville (piano), Jez Franks (guitar), Dave Manington (double bass) and George Hart (drums).
It may be a new band but there are several well established alliances within the group. Freestone and Franks co-lead the group Compassionate Dictatorship, Beraha and Turville work together as a duo, Beraha is part of Manington’s group Riff Raff and both Manington and Hart emerged from the London based Loop Collective. A lack of space prevents detailed biographies of all six musicians but despite the newness of this project the group members all know each other very well through their involvement on the London jazz scene and particularly the Walthamstow based E17 Collective, with which most of the band are closely associated. The album appears on the Two Rivers record label founded by vocalist Alya Marquardt and the attractive, quirky and distinctive artwork is by yet another singer, the multi-talented Fini Bearman.
United by a shared love of good music and good food the sextet’s début album adopts a culinary theme with all the group members bringing pieces to the table. The programme features eight original compositions plus Manington’s arrangement of Bjork’s “Anchor Song”. Solstice claim to be influenced by the music of Brazil, New York and France and name Hermeto Pascoal, Edward Simon and Pierre de Bethmann as particularly important sources of inspiration.
The culinary theme kicks in straight away with the song “Ultimate Big Cheese”, co-written by Manington and Beraha. Featuring Beraha’s pure toned vocal (the lyric isn’t actually food related) and Freestone’s flute the music is bright, airy and highly melodic, the mood upbeat and optimistic. At times I was variously reminded of Brazilian music and the gentler side of Canterbury style British prog with Beraha’s voice vaguely reminiscent of National Health’s Amanda Parsons. Whatever the influences may have been the piece makes for a tasty and satisfying starter.
Turville’s “Mourning Porridge” features Beraha’s wordless vocalising, shades of Parsons again and, of course, Norma Winstone. Beraha is a skilled practitioner of the art of the ‘voice as instrument’ and she combines highly effectively with her fellow musicians, particularly Franks on guitar and Freestone on tenor. The piece is also notable for an excellent solo from Manington who combines a deep resonance with an easy melodicism.
“The Anchor Song” first appeared on “Debut”, Bjork’s first solo album dating back to 1993. The original featured her vocal set amongst a sparse brass arrangement played by Oliver Lake, Gary Barnacle and Mike Mower. Manington’s arrangement stays true to the spirit of that recording but expands it to twice the length while finding something fresh to say in the process. Initially Beraha sings the brief lyric fairly straight and in the style of the original, accompanied only by Turville’s piano and Freestone’s tenor. Subsequently the band speed the song up so that it becomes a celebration with Beraha repeating the lyric in a very different manner before moving on to scat joyously. There are also enjoyable instrumental solos from Franks and Manington. Overall it works remarkably well.
Franks’ “Tilt” features the composer on acoustic guitar as folk timbres combine with Beraha’s soaring wordless vocal. There’s also a flowingly lyrical piano solo from the consistently excellent Turville.
The first of two compositions by Freestone “Avocado Deficit” teams her warm, breathy tenor with Turville’s measured piano accompaniment and Beraha’s gently haunting wordless vocal. The music gradually develops in layers with the addition of drums plus Freestone’s tenor, at first subtly probing, but later full on anthemic, eventually lending the piece an epic quality prior to the quieter resolution.
Beraha’s “Her Words, Like Butterflies” place the emphasis on the writer’s voice and words with the influence of Norma Winstone readily apparent. There’s also a sparklingly expansive piano solo from Turville, cast here in the John Taylor role.
Freestone’s second piece, “Universal Four”, first appeared on her acclaimed 2014 trio album “In the
Chop House” featuring Manington and drummer Tim Giles. The tune is actually in seven but sounds very different here with Beraha’s piping wordless vocals sharing the melody line with the composer’s tenor. It’s an episodic piece that goes through a number of phases and finishes with a rousing drum feature for the consistently impressive Hart who plays with great sensitivity and acumen throughout the album.
Indeed it’s Hart who wrote “Solstice”, the composition from which the band take their name. It begins in unashamedly romantic fashion with the focus on Beraha’s delivery of the lyric before progressing through fluently expansive solos by Turville and Franks. The music subsequently takes a darker, turbulent, more dramatic turn, wilfully embracing a previously unheard dissonance expressed through Freestone’s harsh tenor, Beraha’s extended vocal techniques and Turville’s interior scrapings and scrabblings. The piece resolves itself with a gentler, more atmospheric coda.
The album concludes with Beraha’s song “Unspoken” which first appeared on the 2015 album “Chasing Rainbows” by the group Babelfish, a quartet featuring the singer alongside pianist Barry Green, bassist Chris Laurence and drummer/percussionist Paul Clarvis. It’s a piece that has also been performed live by the duo of Beraha and Turville. The Solstice version features a Brazilian style arrangement that suggests the influence of Antonio Carlos Jobim, one of Beraha’s favourite composers. The recurring lyrical phrase “it’s the cycle of life” gives the piece an uplifting, life affirming quality as Franks on guitar and Freestone on tenor share the instrumental honours with their eloquently inventive solos.
“Alimentation” represents an excellent début from this well balanced ensemble. Solstice place a strong focus on melody and in the main the music on this album is uplifting and infectious in its joyousness. But behind the feel good factor there’s also an impressive musical sophistication. The carefully constructed arrangements are rich in terms of colour, texture and layering and with three melody instruments plus the flexibility of Beraha’s voice providing a broad sonic palette the options available to the group are both extensive and well utilised.
The album has been well received by the critics and I certainly found it a positive and rewarding listening experience. I hope to be able to catch the group performing this music live at one of the events in the busy performance schedule detailed below;
Jan 27th: Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama Castle Grounds, Cathays Park, Cardiff CF10 3ER (029 2034 2854) http://www.rwcmd.ac.uk
Mar 30th 8pm: Cambridge Modern Jazz Club Hidden Rooms, 7b Jesus Lane, Cambridge CB5 8BA (01223 514777) http://www.cambridgejazz.org
Mar 31st, (time tbc) Workshop at Birmingham Conservatoire Paradise Place, Birmingham B3 3HG (0121 331 5901) http://www.bcu.ac.uk/conservatoire
Mar 31st, 8pm The Red Lion, Birmingham 95 Warstone Ln, Birmingham B18 6NG (0121 2339144) http://www.theredlionbirmingham.com
Apr 1st Zeffirellis, Ambleside Compston Rd, Ambleside LA22 9DJ (015394 33845) http://www.zeffirellis.com
Apr 7th, 8pm The Fleece, Suffolk Keeper’s Ln, Leavenheath, Colchester CO6 4PZ (01206 262836) http://www.fleecejazz.org.uk
May 2nd: 8pm The Stables,Wavendon, Milton Keynes MK17 8LU (01908 280800) http://www.stables.org
May 25th: 8pm Bonington Theatre, Notts Arnold Leisure Centre, High St, Arnold NG5 7EE (0115 901 3640) http://www.jazzsteps.co.uk
June 4th Colchester Arts Centre, Essex Church St, Colchester CO1 1NF (01206 500900) http://www.colchesterartscentre.com
June 7th Repton School, Derby The Lodge, Repton, Derby DE65 6FH http://www.repton.org.uk
June 8th Broomhill Arts Centre, Devon Muddiford, Barnstaple EX31 4EX (01271 850262) http://www.broomhillart.co.uk
June 9th Bridport Arts Centre, Dorset 9 South St, Bridport DT6 3NR (01308 424204) http://www.bridport-arts.com
Jun 10th Calstock Arts Centre, Cornwall The Old Chapel, Sand Ln, Calstock PL18 9QX (01822 833183) http://www.calstockarts.org
June 11th Ashburton Chapel, Devon St Lawrence Ln, Ashburton TQ13 7DD (01364 653414) http://www.ashburtonlive.co.uk/
June 13th St Ives Jazz Club, Cornwall Western Hotel, Gabriel St, Saint Ives TR26 2LU (01736 795277) http://www.stivesjazzclub.com
June 15th Leicester Jazz De Montfort University, Leicester http://www.leicesterjazzhouse.co.uk
June 21st Worksop College, Notts Sparken Hill, Worksop S80 3AP (01909 537100) http://www.wsnl.co.uk
Nov 16th Coventry Jazz
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