Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019




by Ian Mann

November 03, 2022


Music that strikes the perfect balance between composition and improvisation and between structure and freedom.



(New Jazz and Improvised Music Recordings NEWJAim12)

Tom Ward – alto saxophone, Cath Roberts – baritone saxophone, Olie Brice – double bass, Johnny Hunter – drums, percussion

Spinningwork is a new quartet featuring four musicians who have all appeared regularly on the Jazzmann web pages over the years in a variety of different musical contexts.

These are musicians who have frequently worked together, although not in this exact combination. Nevertheless they know one another’s playing well, a quality that is reflected in the music on this excellent live recording.

The Spinningwork project arose out of the challenges that faced improvising musicians during the lockdown period, particularly the issues of ‘latency’ that the players encountered when attempting to create spontaneously improvised music in real time on line.

Spinningwork’s drummer, Johnny Hunter, was one of the first musicians to attempt to tackle these challenges, his experiments resulting in the digital album “Studies in Lockdown”, which was released in July 2020 and which is the subject of a Jazzmann feature here;

Roberts was also dealing with similar issues and found a solution via JackTrip, a California based collaboration between Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) and some of Silicon Valley’s software entrepreneurs. JackTrip’s ‘virtual studio’ allows musicians to produce music together remotely via common internet connections, without the latency issues that hampered earlier attempts at online improvising.

Through the medium of JackTrip the members of Spinningwork each brought compositional ideas and sketches to the online ‘studio’, collectively improvising around them and developing them into workable, performable pieces. The use of the phrase ‘compositional sketch’ is particularly appropriate in the case of Roberts who likes to deploy graphic scores in her music making, and particularly with her Sloth Racket quintet, of which Hunter is a member. She describes Spinningwork as  “a collaborative project of four established bandleaders and composers, playing compositions by all the members and with collective free improvisation at its heart”,

With all four musicians contributing to the compositional repertoire the members of Spinningwork convened to play their lockdown material live for the first time at two shows at the 2021 Newcastle Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music. It represented the first occasion that the music had been performed by the four musicians in a shared physical space.

The album appears on the New Jazz and Improvised Music Recordings label (NEWJAiM), a spin off of the Festival that was created by Festival Director Wesley Stephenson during the 2020 Covid pandemic as a means of allowing jazz and improvising musicians the opportunity of continuing to create music in the absence of any live performance engagements. The label has been an outstanding artistic success and has already released many excellent recordings, not least this one. Even now that things have returned to something approaching normality the label continues to fulfil an important role in documenting adventurous jazz and improvised music.

Spinningwork’s album embraces the cusp between written and fully improvised music, to these ears a very exciting and highly satisfying place to be. The programme features six fairly lengthy pieces with Hunter and Roberts each bringing two pieces to the table and Brice and Ward one each. The album has already garnered an excellent review from Andy Hamilton, writing in the November 2022 edition of Wire magazine.

The album commences with the Hunter composition “Jajko!”, an eleven minute tour de force that commences with a cymbal tap from the composer, this introducing an acappella passage of subtly intertwining alto and baritone saxophones, the sound of the horns subsequently acquiring a harder edge before gradually subsiding. The saxes are replaced by the sound of plucked double bass and the tinkling of what sounds like a glockenspiel. Brice continues to take the lead, even as the horns gently wheedle their way back into the equation. Eventually there’s a change of dynamics as the horns resume control, with Roberts’ baritone initially prominent before Ward begins to assert himself with an extended alto solo, with bass and drums roiling beneath. Roberts returns to engage in garrulous dialogue with Ward as the rhythm team approach boiling point. The music then shifts into a freely structured dialogue between drums and horns followed by a more ruminative passage and eventually the return of those twinkling tuned percussion sounds. With its strong narrative arc and the skilful blending of instrumental sounds the piece seems to fly by in the blink of an eye. An impressive start.

Roberts assumes the compositional reins for “Dust That Never Settles”, introduced by an extended dialogue between Ward’s alto and Brice’s bass. These two hand over to drums and baritone, with the bustle of Hunter’s drumming helping to fuel a spiky baritone solo from Roberts, a hugely fluent and gifted improviser on what is sometimes regarded as an ungainly instrument. The horns drop out for a second brief bass / glockenspiel passage before returning,  as Brice and Hunter establish a slow groove above which the saxophonists converse in an eloquent exchange of ideas. Brice introduces the sound of the bow as the music becomes more freely structured and atmospheric. But as Daniel Spicer’s review for Jazzwise points out there are elements of Sloth Racket’s sound in Roberts’ writing for Spinningwork and the music coalesces around an anthemic riff before subsiding again, the piece ending with the melancholy sounds of bowed bass. This is a second piece that exceeds the eleven minute barrier, but once again the way in which the music unfolds and develops is totally absorbing.

Bassist Brice takes up the compositional cudgel for “Moths Drink The Tears Of Sleeping Birds”, which commences with suitably low end sounds featuring whispering horns and delicate mallet rumbles. It’s all darkly atmospheric and crepescular, the mood becoming even more dark and unsettling as the piece progresses. Eventually the music erupts into a glorious free jazz squall with garrulous sax yelpings and bellowings underpinned by a fast paced polyrhythmic onslaught that essentially constitutes a groove. The sax duelling continues in exhilarating fashion before the piece resolves itself with a return to the murky atmospherics of the intro.

Hunter’s second composition, “Chromatogram”, commences with the sounds of drums, bass and baritone sax, with Ward’s alto eventually joining a gradually unfolding free jazz conversation that amply demonstrates the high level of rapport between the players. The listener can sense the musicians listening to each other and responding to one another’s ideas as the music begins to gather a dizzying momentum, culminating in a stunning solo baritone sax passage from Roberts, complete with slap tongue techniques. This evolves into a conversation with the other musicians and thus the process begins again.

Ward’s contribution is the enigmatically titled “Invariance Behind The Flux”, which finds the band initially deploying a kind of woozy counterpoint, expressed via the twin saxes, mallet rumbles and bowed bass. Following the dreamy intro a more assertive, sharper edged sound emerges with pizzicato bass and skittering drums and percussion underpinning the increasingly fidgety sax exchanges.

Spinningwork sign off with a comparatively brief (four and a half minutes) romp through Roberts’ rousing “Kind Regards”, a piece that combines Sloth Racket style riffery with full on free jazz improvising, the horns squalling belligerently above a furious bass and drum barrage. There’s a brief diversion into a sparky bowed bass / baritone sax exchange before the band coalesce for the big finish.

Even at its most uncompromising there’s a joyousness about Spinningwork’s music that stems from the delight that these four master improvisers take from performing live in real time for the first time in eighteen months. It’s music that strikes the perfect balance between composition and improvisation and between structure and freedom. The writing is consistently intelligent and imaginative and gives the musicians a great platform to build on. Credit should also be given to recording engineer John Martindale for capturing the sound and spirit of the performances so well. Also of course to Wesley Stephenson for staging this music live and for getting it out there on disc.

“Some of the finest contemporary free jazz I’ve hear all year” says Andy Hamilton. It’s impossible to disagree with him.

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