by Ian Mann
May 31, 2023
Banks proves himself to be an intelligent composer and a distinctive guitar stylist. He receives excellent support from a hand picked band of collaborators. An album that deserves to be widely heard.
(Stoney Lane Records SLR1981)
Steve Banks – guitar, Sam Crockatt – saxophone, Rebecca Nash – piano, Henrik Jensen – bass, Mark Whitlam – drums
Steve Banks is a guitarist, composer, arranger, bandleader and educator based in Bristol. He also maintains strong links with the Birmingham jazz scene, hence the appearance of this album on the Birmingham based Stoney Lane record label.
Banks’ playing has previously been heard on albums by the vocalist Sara Colman, two of which, “What We’re Made Of” (2018) and “Ink On A Pin – A Celebration of Joni Mitchell” (2022) are reviewed elsewhere on this site.
Banks played a key role on both of these recordings and he has also worked with the Bristol based bassist and composer Greg Cordez. In 2021 he toured with the What She Said project, led five of Bristol’s top female musicians – Sara Colman, Rebecca Nash, Katya Gorrie, Ruth Hammond and Tammy Payne.
Banks now releases his own album, featuring the three part suite “Emboldened” plus three other compositions. The quintet that Banks has assembled to play his music is largely based in the South West of England and features saxophonist Sam Crockatt, pianist Rebecca Nash, Danish born bassist Henrik Jensen and drummer Mark Whitlam.
Like so many recent recordings “Emboldened” was a project that began during the first Covid lockdown and Banks’ album notes reflect at length on the legacy of the pandemic and of the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements. The music was conceived as a response to the challenges of disease, racism, sexism, corporate greed and environmental destruction. It emphasises the importance of common humanity and international inter-connectedness as Banks explains;
“I decided to create a project reflecting what I saw around me. I chose to write a suite of music with three movements documenting the positive journey of people facing challenge and adversity; “Fear”, “Belief” and “Unity”. I wanted to offer an optimistic and reassuring experience for the peaceful majority. A message that we are heard and we do have influence. That everyone across the world shares a common humanity and that we are strongest together in adversity. I called this suite “Emboldened”.
Musically the suite draws inspiration from the work of jazz composer Maria Schneider and from the wider jazz and blues traditions.
The album commences with “Fear”, the first movement of the “Emboldened” suite. Piano, bass and drums usher in the music, quietly at first, with Whitlam’s delicately detailed percussion shadings a distinctive feature. The introduction of Banks’ guitar adds a greater edge and urgency to the proceedings as the piece continues to unfold. The guitarist utilises his range of effects wisely, playing with a controlled intensity that at times reminded me of Robert Fripp. Crockatt’s sax is used sparingly, sometimes doubling up with the leader’s guitar.
The saxophonist features more conspicuously on the second movement, “Belief”, a more optimistic tune that features a sparkling piano solo from Nash, a bandleader in her own right and a regular presence on the Jazzmann web pages. Banks takes over on guitar for another fluent excursion, the joyousness of his playing now more reminiscent of Pat Metheny. Crockatt, again also a leader in his own right, finally grabs his opportunity with a tenor solo that combines both power and fluency.
Guitar and tenor then coalesce on an uplifting final section that is positively anthemic in its effect.
Crockatt and Nash combine on “Unity (Prologue)”, a short introduction to “Unity (Main Theme)”. Although it’s only a minute and a half long it’s not quite a duet as the rest of the band come in before the close.
“Unity (Main Theme” is introduced by Whitlams’s drums and is another positive, up-tempo piece. Crockatt and Banks exchange solos, both playing with great fluency and with a strong melodic focus. Jensen, yes he’s a bandleader too with his own excellent Followed By Thirteen group, steps forward to solo on bass before Banks emerges once more with a stratospheric guitar solo that helps to end the suite on a suitably triumphant note.
Banks has studied composition and improvisation with fellow guitarist Mike Walker, of Impossible Gentlemen fame. Walker gave Banks the assignment of writing a composition with a melody in two different keys. Inspired by the writing of pianist Fred Hersch and the late trumpeter Kenny Wheeler Banks eventually wrote “Two Brothers”, a title suggested both by the nature of the exercise and the several pairs of brothers within Banks’ extended family.
Banks’ melody is initially enhanced by the warm tones of Crockatt’s tenor sax, this leading to a beautiful Jensen bass solo, skilfully supplemented by Nash’s piano and Whitlam’s drums. The leader subsequently takes over the melody on guitar, later supplanted by Crockatt. Whitlam’s drumming features strongly alongside the saxophonist in the anthemic final stages.
“Just Listen” celebrates the art of listening, particularly between musicians. Banks also adds the barb “I wonder how different the world could be if our leaders were better at listening…”. Quite.
Of course this quintet is particularly adept as listening to each other, as they demonstrate here and throughout the album. The piece ranges through a variety of moods and styles with Crockatt’s sax solo prompting some of the hardest edged and most freely structured playing of the set. Banks and Nash are also featured soloists with fluent explorations of their own, each prompted by the bustling grooves of Jensen and Whitlam. The drummer is then featured himself before the close.
The album concludes with “Always For You And Forever Yours”, the title taken from a line in the Tom Waits song “Take It With Me”, which provided the source of inspiration. Banks’ tune is a ballad with a song like structure and is introduced by the Americana stylings of his unaccompanied guitar. Double bass and brushed drums are added and a substantial trio section has something of the feel of Metheny or Bill Frisell about it. Nash joins and delivers a gently lyrical piano solo before Crockatt’s tenor is added, imparting the song with a genuine anthemic quality before the gentle coda.
“Emboldened” represents an excellent début recording from Steve Banks and the album has been very well received by the jazz media, and rightly so. Banks proves himself to be an intelligent composer and a distinctive guitar stylist, despite the comparisons that I have made he has developed a strong individual voice on his chosen instrument. He receives excellent support from a hand picked band of collaborators, who all impress individually while still being part of a superb all round group performance. It’s an album that deserves to be widely heard.
Banks will be playing a short series of UK dates in support of the album and the Bristol date will also feature works by four young British and Ukrainian musicians that Banks has been mentoring and who have been composing music based on the Emboldened Suite’s themes of Fear, Belief and Unity.
The dates are;
14/06/2023 – The Vortex, Dalston, London
27/06/2023 – The Spotted Dog, Digbeth, Birmingham
29/062023 – Spin Jazz, Oxford
01/07/2023 – St, George’s, Brandon Hill, Bristol
Banks is also working with the Birmingham based musician Jonathan Silk to create an arrangement of the “Emboldened” suite for big band. This will be premièred on 25th November 2023 at the Wiltshire Music Centre in Bradford on Avon and will feature the Wiltshire Youth Jazz Orchestra conducted by Mike Daniels. The performance will also include works by two of the young musicians currently being mentored by Banks.
Further details regarding these live shows can be found on Banks’ website.
“Emboldened” is available here;
From Steve Banks via email;
Thank you so much for taking the time to provide such a great review of Emboldened.
It means a lot that you enjoyed the album and also provided such detail and insight in your description.
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