by Ian Mann
September 01, 2021
The standard of the playing is undeniably high throughout, with Henshaw subtly leading from the kit but without overpowering his regular band members or his illustrious guests.
The Elliott Henshaw Band
“Who’d Have Guest?”
(Ubuntu Music UBU0090)
Elliott Henshaw – drums, percussion, Andrew McKinney – bass, Matt Steele – keyboards, James Pusey – guitar, Simon Willescroft – saxophones
Bob Mintzer, Sammy Mayne, Fiona Asbury – saxophones, John Wheatcroft, Mike Outram, Tommy Emmerton, Simon Lind, Mark Cox – guitars, Bryan Corbett – trumpet, Gwilym Simcock, Richard Beadle – piano, Miranda Wilford, Noel Sullivan – vocals, Simon Goulding – bass, Dave Weckl – drums
Chris Traves – Hammond organ, trombone, percussion, Tom Walsh – trumpet, Simon Niblock, Chris Aldridge – saxophones, Pete Billington, Mel Wickens, Pete Whitfield – strings
Elliott Henshaw is London based drummer, composer and educator who divides his time between the jazz and session worlds.
As a session musician he has worked with a whole list of famous names including Shirley Bassey, Jon Lord and Roger Glover (Deep Purple), Paul Anka, Michael Ball, Jane McDonald, Sheridan Smith, David Benoit, Russell Watson, Tony Hadley, The BBC Big Band, The Drifters, Gwen Dickie, Georgie Fame, Beverley Knight and Phil Collins. He currently acts as the drummer and musical director for both Tony Christie and Leo Sayer and has played in ‘the pit’ at over twenty West End shows.
In addition to his session work he has also performed with some heavy duty jazz musicians, among them guitarist Mike Stern and saxophonists Eric Marienthal and Bob Mintzer. The last named returns the compliment by appearing on this album, Henshaw’s second with his five piece band, all experienced session players. It follows “Is That Not What You Wanted?”, released as far back as 2005.
Henshaw’s other projects include the seventeen piece Spice Fusion ensemble, founded in 2013 by Henshaw and arranger Simon Niblock, who also acts in this capacity on four of the tracks on “Who’d Have Guest?”. Spice Fusion have released two albums to date, 2014’s “Trying Too Hard” and the 2017 follow up “Trying Hard 2”.
The Elliott Henshaw Band play in a contemporary fusion style inspired by Mintzer’s Yellowjackets, Dave Grusin, Al Jarreau, David Sanborn and the James Taylor Quartet. The new album features five compositions from Henshaw and two from the band’s guitarist James Pusey. Guests Miranda Wilford and Noel Sullivan also make compositional contributions and there are also two pieces by saxophonist and composer Andy Scott.
Henshaw has selected the guests that appear on the album and their talents complement the playing of the core quintet and the horn section of Walsh, Traves and Niblock. The multi-talented Traves also serves as an engineer and producer, making a substantial contribution to the finished album.
Written by Henshaw album opener “Tea And Toast” emerges from a circling keyboard motif and the martial style chatter of the leader’s snare drum to embrace acoustic guitar and the shimmer of percussion. A relaxed fusion style vibe is subsequently established featuring the sounds of electric piano and the authoritative sound of Mintzer’s tenor sax. Mintzer solos with an admirable fluency, bringing something of the spirit of the Yellowjackets with him. He’s followed by Wheatcroft, whose guitar soloing exhibits a tightly controlled intensity and a strong rock influence. The sound of the Henshaw band and their guests is further enhanced by the punchy punctuations of the Walsh / Traves / Niblock horn section, with Mintzer taking over again with a second solo towards the close.
Guitarist James Pusey takes the compositional credits for “Direct Input”, with the Birmingham based trumpeter Bryan Corbett the guest soloist. “Shaft” style rhythm guitar opens the piece, punctuated by brass and reed stabs. An authentically funky groove is established with the first solo being taken by Matt Steele on electric piano. Corbett then cuts loose on trumpet, playing with a stridency and fluency that is reminiscent of his trumpet hero, Freddie Hubbard. I don’t know if Henshaw has spent time in Birmingham or whether he knows Corbett thanks to the trumpeter’s work as a session musician. But it’s not just about the guests, composer Pusey gets to enjoy a guitar solo and leader Henshaw is also featured at the drums.
Henshaw’s “Along Came Milly” lowers the temperature, a mellifluous composition, though not quite a ballad, featuring Willescroft’s lilting soprano saxophone melody and the uplifting sounds of soaring strings. The featured soloist is pianist Gwilym Simcock, who plays with his customary grace and invention.
Henshaw has worked with vocalist Miranda Wilford before, the pair co-writing the song “Seize The Day”, a tribute to Henshaw’s late mother. “Monte Carlo”, the song that features here, was written by Wilford and Ariel Amejeiras and sees the music heading back into funk and soul territory with a serving of rap on the side. Wilford relishes in her ‘girl about town’ persona as she sings the witty, somewhat tongue in cheek lyric.
The Henshaw tune “JP” emerges out of a simple piano figure and features the relaxing sound of soprano sax, presumably played by guest Sammy Mayne, underscored by cushioning strings. Later the song explodes into life with second saxophone guest Fiona Asbury featuring, alongside the leader’s drums. Eventually this most schizophrenic of compositions fades away, ending in much the same manner as it began.
The wattage is upped again with the terse funk of “Hiding To Nothing”, written by James Pusey and featuring his fellow guitarist Mike Outram. Willescoft’s rough hewn tenor features alongside Outram’s typically turbo-charged, rock influenced guitar. There are passages where I suspect that Outram is in fact duelling with Pusey, helping to make this one of the album’s strongest tracks.
“Faithless” sees the return of lyrics with a song written by guest vocalist Noel Sullivan. The funk and soul quotient remains high, with McKinney’s deep bass grooves helping to drive the song. Sullivan’s powerful, soulful vocals tell the tale of a relationship breakdown while the instrumental honours go to Willescroft on saxophone and guest guitar soloist Tommy Emmerton.
“You Are”, the shortest track on the album, is another of Henshaw’s gentler pieces, cut from the same cloth as the earlier “Along Came Milly”. Soprano sax and strings feature once more, alongside guest pianist Richard Beadle.
Also by Henshaw “Trying Too Hard” is presumably a scaled down version of the title track from Spice Fusion’s début. Willescroft’s sax surfs a relaxed but propulsive groove, while guest guitarist Simon Lind weighs in with some chunky guitar chording and fluent, rock inspired soloing as the energy levels continue to mount. Matt Steele cuts loose with a sparkling piano solo before Willescroft returns, with Henshaw himself enjoying a powerful drum feature towards the close.
The last two pieces are written by saxophonist and composer Andy Scott. Henshaw, Pusey and Willescroft, plus Simcock, were all members of Scott’s large ensemble Group S and appear on his excellent 2017 release “Ruby & All Things Purple”, reviewed here;
There are more guest guitar soloists on this Elliott Henshaw recording than there are on a Steely Dan album. The featured axeman on Scott’s composition “Red Beret”, the title possibly a Prince homage, is Mark Cox, who adds his talents to a typically colourful and inventive Scott chart. The funk quotient is again high, especially when Cox delivers a typically powerful, rock influenced solo. Also coming to the fore is bassist McKinney with his own funky solo excursion.
The album concludes with “Scotty The Brave”, which incorporates a feature for American drummer Dave Weckl, presumably one of Henshaw’s drum heroes, and bassist Simon Goulding. It’s a typically multi-faceted Scott composition that also includes strong contributions from saxophonist Willescroft and pianist Steele. It’s not made clear from the album packaging whether Henshaw and Weckl go head to head, one would like to think that they do.
I’ll admit that when I first heard this album my first impression was that that it was too slick and smooth by half and represented the kind of fusion that I grew out of listening to a few years ago. That said repeated listening reveals hidden depths and the standard of the playing is undeniably high throughout, with Henshaw subtly leading from the kit but without overpowering his regular band members or his illustrious guests. The funk quotient is high with a strong emphasis on groove and rhythm, but there is also subtlety within the compositions and the arrangements, making this more than just an all star jam session.
It’s an unpretentious album and the emphasis is very much on the groove and on having fun in the studio, which helps to give the music an undeniable energy and chutzpah. It’s an album that’s likely to appeal more to out and out fusion fans than to listeners of straight-ahead jazz and the record has been very well received in the fusion camp. I’m not sure what Henshaw’s plans are for taking this music out on the road but like much fusion I suspect that it is music that works even better in the crucible of the live environment, where the focus is more firmly on rhythm and energy rather than mere slickness.
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