by Ian Mann
March 17, 2021
A series of multi-faceted compositions that combine genuine beauty with a very impressive level of musical sophistication, with each composer bringing something characterful to the table.
“Food for Thought”
(Ubuntu Music UBU0061)
Tori Freestone – tenor & soprano saxes, flute, Brigitte Beraha – voice, John Turville – piano & keyboards, Jez Franks – guitar, Dave Manington – double bass, George Hart – drums
“Food for Thought” is the second album release from the sextet “Solstice”, the title a continuation of the loosely food based theme established on their début “Alimentation”, which appeared on the Two Rivers imprint in early 2017.
It’s probably fair to to describe Solstice as something of a contemporary British ‘supergroup’. Many of its members are bandleaders in their own right and have appeared frequently on the Jazzmann web pages in various capacities and in a wide variety of musical contexts. A lack of space prevents detailed biographies of all six musicians, but the Jazzmann site includes reviews of albums on which Freestone, Beraha, Turville, Manington and Franks have all featured as either leaders or co-leaders.
There are also several already well established alliances within the group. Freestone and Franks co-lead the group Compassionate Dictatorship, Beraha and Turville work together as a duo and Beraha is part of Manington’s group Riff Raff, while both Manington and Hart emerged from the London based Loop Collective. The group members also 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.
“We all have similar influences and have worked together in varying formats for many, many years, resulting in a unique blend” explains Beraha.
The music on “Food for Thought” was developed while the band were touring their first album. It introduces a more obvious rock element to their sound as Freestone explains;
“At first listen ‘Food for Thought’ sounds more like a rock album than a jazz one. It soon becomes clear that here is a true contemporary jazz melting pot with an eclectic list of influences from all over the world. The result is contemporary jazz with strong elements of prog rock, a dash of Brazilian, a smattering of world music, an infusion of folk and a pinch of classical music that veers from avant garde ensemble passages to free improv and back”.
With the exception of drummer George Hart all of Solstice’s members bring compositions to the table.
The album commences with Freestone’s “Hermetica”, a composition inspired by the great Brazilian composer and multi-instrumentalist Hermeto Pascoal. The tune first appeared on “Criss Cross”, Freestone’s 2018 duo album with pianist Alcyona Mick, which also featured Beraha as guest vocalist on this particular track. Freestone’s piece continues to work well in this expanded instrumental format with Beraha’s wordless vocals soaring alongside the composer’s flute as the boys in the band negotiate the rhythmic complexities of the piece with considerable skill and aplomb. Freestone features as the main soloist with an expansive excursion on flute, her adventurousness matched by Beraha’s swooping vocalisations.
Franks takes up the compositional reins for “P.T.S.D”, which is introduced by the sound of unaccompanied guitar, subsequently joined by double bass and wordless vocals. Drums, tenor sax and piano are subsequently added as the piece continues to expand, based around an adventurous chord structure and variously recalling seventies jazz albums by Kenny Wheeler, John Taylor and Michael Garrick (all of which included the wordless vocals of the great Norma Winstone) or the prog rock of the ‘Canterbury Scene’, particularly those moments that featured singer Amanda Parsons (Hatfield & The North, National Health). Freestone’s powerful incisive tenor sax solo then steers the music in a more obviously jazz direction, this followed by a change of dynamics with Manington’s delightfully melodic double bass solo.
Lengthy, multi-faceted pieces are something of a Solstice trademark on this album, as epitomised by Manington’s nine minute composition “Dreams”, which commences with the sound of his own double bass. Beraha leaves the wordless vocalising behind to deliver an evocative lyric, still singing with great assurance and a spirit of true adventure. Again her voice is blended with the sound of Freestone’s flute, with Hart also making a distinctive contribution from the kit. Franks’ guitar then takes the composition into its next phase, injecting the piece with an energy and urgency that finds expression via Freestone’s tenor and his own molten, rock influenced guitar soloing. Beraha returns to wordless vocalising and Hart continues to feature strongly at the drums. The music then shears off into something more freely structured, before resolving itself with a return to the opening theme and the use of lyrics. The piece as a whole is distinguished by its strong narrative arc and its astute use of dynamics. An ‘epic’ in the best sense of the word.
Turville’s “The Three Omegas” includes a solo from Manington on melodic and highly dexterous double bass. This is followed by an acoustic piano and wordless vocal duet between Turville and Beraha that recalls their 2012 duo recording “Red Skies”. These episodes are set within an attractive overall composition that incorporates strong melodic themes plus a more extended acoustic piano solo from the composer that really sees him taking flight.
Beraha’s “Close to Home” is the lengthiest item on the album and commences with the sound of her echoed vocals, wordless singing that sounds as if it could have been recorded in a church. Her vocal incantations are augmented by eerily atmospheric guitar and percussion. Eventually a groove emerges, framing Beraha’s intonations of her own lyrics. The first major instrumental solo comes from Freestone’s subtly probing tenor, which stretches out above an undulating groove. Turville follows on acoustic piano, supported by Manington’s bass counter melodies and Hart’s brushed drums. Meanwhile the composer’s voice flows like a river throughout the piece, emerging and re-emerging as she continues to visit the kind of long term composition that she explored so effectively on her most recent solo release “Lucid Dreamers”.
Manington’s “Quetzalcoatlus” is a joyous, highly rhythmic piece, driven by his own propulsive bass and Freestone’s lithe but muscular tenor. There’s a kind of cerebral funkiness about the music, a quality emphasised by Turville’s electric piano solo and Franks’ searing guitar pyrotechnics. There are occasional reflective episodes featuring Beraha’s voice, but the singer largely takes a back seat here.
Freestone’s “Familiar Fractals” features the magical pairing of her expressive tenor sax with Beraha’s wordless vocals, dovetailing with an easy familiarity on even the most complex of material. In a piece that skilfully navigates its way through a series of dynamic variations the pair receive excellent support from the rhythm section, with Hart again impressing with drumming that is both highly responsive and hugely dynamic.
The album concludes with Beraha’s song “Haven’t Met You Yet”, a refreshingly simple and effective song that ends the recording on a gently elegiac note following the earlier complexities.
“Food for Thought” finds the members of Solstice expanding upon the promise of the excellent “Alimentation” in a series of multi-faceted compositions that combine genuine beauty with a very impressive level of musical sophistication.
A sextet line up that combines the sonic possibilities of three different melodic instruments with the remarkable flexibility of Beraha’s vocals makes for a broad aural canvas upon which the group can project their compositional ideas. Solstice music is rich in terms of colour and texture and an obvious flair for melody is augmented by the rhythmic possibilities offered by the combination of bass and drums allied to the rhythmic capabilities of guitar and piano. Freestone’s doubling on soprano and flute, plus Turville’s doubling on electric keyboards offers even more variation.
Beraha’s Norma Winstone inspired vocals may be the group’s most distinctive component but the instrumentalists all acquit themselves superbly too. The high standard of the playing is enhanced by the quality of the writing, which is intelligent, varied and highly imaginative, with each composer bringing something characterful to the table.
Like all musicians the members of Solstice have suffered from the economic impacts of the Covid 19 regulations. It is to be hoped that they will be able to perform this richly colourful in music in public at some point in the future.
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