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The Fresh Sound Ensemble

Common Threads

by Ian Mann

February 10, 2023


There is some interesting and varied writing on “Common Threads” and some excellent playing from all involved.

The Fresh Sound Ensemble

“Common Threads”

(Fresh Sound New Talent FSNT 645)

Featuring a host of London based musicians “Common Threads” is a celebration of the thirtieth anniversary (in 2022) of the Barcelona based record label Fresh Sound New Talent.

First founded by Jordi Pujol in 1983 Fresh Sound Records initially specialised in re-releasing historical, out of print jazz recordings.

In 1992 Pujol started the New Talent arm of the operation and began by documenting the music of the then young musicians who were performing regularly at Small’s Jazz Club in New York City. Some of these have gone on to become major stars of the international jazz firmament, among them pianists Brad Mehldau, Robert Glasper and Kris Davis, guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, but they all got their first break with FSNT.

The label has also released music by European musicians and in recent years Pujol’s attention has increasingly been drawn to the fertile London jazz scene. Young British musicians to have released albums on FSNT include saxophonists Alex Merritt, Sam Braysher and Alex Hitchcock, trumpeter Steve Fishwick and guitarist Tom Ollendorff, all of whom are involved in the making of this celebratory recording.

When he first decided to issue a commemorative album Pujol turned to the young UK musicians that he had recently been recording. In his album notes he explains how the The Fresh Sound Ensemble project came about;
I came up with the idea of involving the young musicians from the emerging London scene, with whom I had been recording lately, and putting the musicians together in a co operative project. All of them, refreshing voices on the contemporary jazz scene. The next thing I did was talk to most of them and explain the reason for my call, stressing that this project could be a unique meeting, in which a group of musicians of the same generation and from the same country could at the same time offer together to the world all the talent they treasure. To my satisfaction, their response was a unanimous “you can count on me”! Following this very positive and encouraging response, I contacted Alex Merritt, who had already been very accommodating in our first conversation, and he offered to take over the production and coordination of the project. We were both happy to share the same enthusiasm and determination to achieve our musical goal”.

The music was recorded at two separate sessions at Porcupine Studios in London with bassist Andrew Cleyndert acting as recording engineer.

The first took place on August 11th 2022 and featured the following musicians;

Sam Braysher – alto sax
Ronan Perrett – alto sax, clarinet
Adele Sauros – tenor sax
Alex Merritt – tenor sax
Michael Chillingworth – tenor sax, bass clarinet
Steve Fishwick – trumpet
Tom Ollendorff – guitar
Conor Chaplin – bass
Jay Davis – drums

This line up recorded eight of the album’s eleven tracks. The other three were recorded at a different session on October 6th 2022 by a smaller ensemble featuring the talents of;

Sam Braysher – alto sax
Ronan Perrett – alto sax, clarinet
Alex Hitchcock – tenor & soprano sax
Alex Merritt – tenor sax
Steve Fishwick - trumpet
John Turville -piano
Conor Chaplin – bass
Jay Davis – drums

All of the material is written by members of the band with Merritt explaining something about the writing process in his own album notes;
“I approached the musicians included here and set a brief for people to try and write a new composition or arrangement for this album using whichever line up they wished from this pool of fantastic musicians. As such you will find a balance of smaller and larger group performances, full octets and nonets with featured soloists alongside chordless quartets and more traditional, but no less fresh, saxophone led quartets and quintets”.

Finnish saxophonist Adele Sauros flew in from her native Helsinki to guest on the August session and it’s her composition “Erased” that opens the album. Commencing with a gentle horn chorale the piece is rich in terms of colour and texture. The introductory horn counterpoint is followed by a bass and drum groove established by Chaplin and Davis that provides the platform for further colourful horn interplay, more punchy this time, before the composer steps forward to solo fluently and incisively on tenor saxophone. Written for the full nonet it’s an engaging, multi-faceted opener with plenty of interest going on, a composition that attracts the attention of the listener without bludgeoning them over the head.

From the same session comes Ronan Perrett’s composition “30”, which features the sounds of fractured rhythms and low register horns, with the composer’s astringent alto and Chillingworth’s hard edged tenor the featured solo instruments. Drummer Davis turns in a powerful performance on this tune, skilfully negotiating the rhythmic demands of Perrett’s writing.

Taken from the October session Merritt’s own “JT And The Planets” features a different line up, an octet that includes Perrett on clarinet and Hitchcock on soprano sax, and which also introduces the piano of John Turville. However I’d hazard a guess that the title of the piece actually represents a homage to the late, great pianist, composer and educator John Taylor. Turville, the other JT, gets to fill the Taylor role here and is one of two featured soloists, the other being Merritt himself on tenor. It’s a slow paced piece in the style of a lament, or even a threnody, with Turville’s lyrical piano augmented by sombre horn textures and sensitive bass and drums. Merritt’s tenor then probes thoughtfully as the music gradually builds a gentle momentum.

Merritt co-leads a quintet with trumpeter Steve Fishwick, a group that also includes Turville, and this band in 2022 released the excellent “Mind-Ear-Ladder” album on FSNT. From the August recording session comes Fishwick’s “El Murcielago”, a more energetic, bebop flavoured offering that offers scope for multiple soloing. Merritt and Chillingworth lead things off, both on tenor, followed by Perrett and Braysher on altos, the composer on trumpet, Ollendorff on guitar, Chaplin on bass and finally Davis at the drums. Good energetic fun, with everybody enjoying a turn in the spotlight.

Credited to drummer Jay Davis the brief “Do You Like Apples?”, from the October session, features the drummer improvising with the Ensemble’s saxophonists, with Perrett (alto) and Hitchcock (tenor) eventually emerging as soloists and trading ideas in feisty fashion. Driven along by the composer’s drums it’s a spiky little offering that nods to the bebop era and maybe Ornette Coleman too.  It’s sharp and invigorating, I rather liked this.

Adele Sauros undertook post graduate studies at London’s Royal Academy of Music and it was during her time in the UK that she got to know Merritt and some of the other Fresh Sound Ensemble musicians. She is currently undertaking further studies on Basel, Switzerland. Sauros’ second contribution with the pen is “Simplicity”, a quartet piece that showcases the gentler, more lyrical side of her writing and playing. It features Chaplin’s melodic bass soloing alongside further solos from the composer on tenor and Ollendorff on guitar. Davis supplies deft and sensitive support from the drum kit.

Merritt also makes a second contribution as a composer. “Anita Life” is another thoughtful piece that unfolds slowly and organically,  gradually gathering momentum with solos from the composer on tenor, followed by the rapidly maturing Ollendorff on guitar. Fishwick on trumpet and Chillingworth on tenor then up the energy levels with a series of increasingly lively exchanges before something of a drum feature from the excellent Davis towards the close. The ensemble playing features the sound of Perrett on clarinet.

Sam Braysher’s “On The Square” is an elegant slow march that features the sounds of his own alto saxophone and Fishwick’s trumpet.

Ollendorff’s “Asimuth” is another piece to offer multiple soloing opportunities. It’s an intriguing and complex piece that mirrors Sauros’ opener by commencing with a bout of horn counterpoint, but with the composer’s guitar becoming more prominent as the piece unfolds. Ollendorff takes the first solo himself, followed by concise outings Fishwick on trumpet, Braysher on alto, Chillingworth on bass clarinet, Merritt and Sauros, both on tenors, and finally Chaplin on double bass.

Hitchcock’s “Bin Raccoon” is the third and final piece from the October session and is introduced by an extended unaccompanied passage from Turville at the piano. Chaplin and Davis, the latter wielding brushes, join to help establish a syncopated groove, this topped off by the horns. There’s a return to the trio format for a further solo from Turville before the composer eventually takes over on tenor, soloing with his customary power and fluency.

The album concludes with a shorter alternate take on Fishwick’s “El Murcielago” with fewer solos. Those featured this time round are Ollendorff on guitar, the composer on trumpet, Perrett on alto, Davis at the drums and finally Braysher on alto.

Congratulations are due to Jordi Pujol for running FSNT for over thirty years, during which time the label has released some six hundred albums and acted as a breeding ground for some serious international jazz talent. It’s good to see so many talented British jazz artists appearing on the label in recent years and UK jazz fans should be both proud and grateful that young musicians from our country are enjoying international exposure and featuring on the world stage. Congratulations are also due to Alex Merritt for co-ordinating the Fresh Sounds Ensemble project in the UK.

There is some interesting and varied writing on “Common Threads” and some excellent playing from all involved. That said I do have some reservations about the album. As a celebratory recording it is curiously downbeat and although the album features music from two different recording sessions, multiple composers, and a combination of both small and large groups there is still relatively little variety in terms of mood and pace. The compositions and arrangements are also heavily biased towards the many saxophones in the band and it would have been good to have heard rather more from Fishwick, Ollendorff and Turville, with maybe a trombone added to the line up.

From a personal point of view I think it’s probably fair to say that several of these musicians have made better albums for the label as the leaders of their own small groups, among them Merritt and Fishwick’s “Mind-Ear-Ladder”, Hitchcock’s “Dream Band” and Braysher’s “Golden Earrings”, the latter a duo recording with the American pianist Michael Kanan. All three of these releases are favourably reviewed elsewhere on The Jazzmann.

Individually I’m a fan of all the UK based musicians that feature on this album and will continue to monitor and support their solo careers. Finnish saxophonist and composer Adele Sauros also represents an exciting new discovery. I’d like to take the opportunity of checking out her work as the leader of her own groups.

“Common Threads” has much to offer and enjoy, but given the individual excellence of the musicians involved I was expecting just a little bit more from this recording.

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