by Ian Mann
July 07, 2015
An album that embraces a variety of musical styles and combines humour with some excellent musicianship to create a distinctive sound that is very much the group's own.
It seems almost unbelievable that the cult Cardiff band Heavy Quartet have been making music for over thirty years. The group was formed in 1983 by saxophonist Rob Smith and drummer Jess Phillips and has become an institution on the South Wales jazz scene. They have also reached out to a wider constituency through their numerous festival appearances including the first twenty five years of Brecon Jazz Festival where they became a fixture on the much missed Stroller programme.
It was here that I first discovered their music and I always used to look forward to my annual encounters with the Heavy Quartet at Brecon. In recent years I’ve kept up with them via festival appearances in Abergavenny and Torfaen and plus their regular gigs (twice a year) at the Queens Head in Monmouth.
Anybody who has ever seen the Heavy Quartet will know that there has always been more than just four of them! As befits a band with a thirty year career the line up has been fluid and at one time included as many as eleven members. In recent years the group has solidified into an octet featuring founder member Rob Smith on saxophones together with the long serving nucleus of Nils Andersson and Brian Yule (trumpets), Neil Pedder (keyboards) and Neil ‘Keyo’ Langford (guitar). Trombonist Gareth Roberts and bassist Ashley John Long both appeared on the group’s previous album “Hardware” (2009) with drummer Christian John the most recent addition to the HQ ranks.
For this album Long shares bass duties with Callum Duggan.
Heavy Quartet’s music embraces a wide range of influences including jazz, rock, funk, reggae and ska and places an emphasis on arresting riffs and melodies and strong rhythmic grooves allied to a subversive element with its roots in the avant garde. Despite their uncompromising stance which has been described as “leftfield” and “iconoclastic” they are also great entertainers and always used to get the crowd up on their feet at those fondly remembered Brecon Jazz Festival shows. Although the group’s focus is now solely on original material the old days found them playing inspired cover versions of songs by artists as diverse as Jimi Hendrix, KC and the Sunshine Band and Nirvana, with the latter’s “Lithium” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” guaranteed crowd pleasers.
“Prime” is so named because it represents the band’s thirteenth album release - although I seem to recall that the publicity for “Hardware” described that album as the 13th, maybe after all this time they’ve just lost count. Whatever, the new album is a very welcome addition to the HQ canon, particularly so after a six year wait. It presents nine new original pieces, many of them regular items in the set lists of recent HQ shows and there’s a real sense that the new material has been thoroughly “played in”.
The addition of Gareth Roberts to the ranks has helped to galvanise the band. He’s a significant composing presence and made a substantial contribution to the success of “Hardware”, contributing four tunes to that album. For “Prime” he supplies a further three pieces , a total matched by Smith while Andersson weighs in with two composer credits and Langford with one.
The album opens with Roberts’ “Something Happy”, the rumble of Long’s bass ushering in the joyous, sunny sounds of guitar, brass and reeds, as influences from Africa and the Caribbean are filtered through a South Walian prism. There are engaging solos from trumpet, tenor sax, guitar and trombone plus typically sharp ensemble playing as Roberts’ tune delivers on the promise of its title.
Smith’s “Superhan” is closer to conventional jazz, a kind of updating of the classic Blue Note sound with rousing unison horn melody lines above insouciant guitar chording, languidly propulsive bass and crisp drums. Expansive solos come from Smith on tenor and Roberts on trombone allied to something of a feature for Langford on guitar.
Roberts takes up the compositional reins again for the suitably edgy and jerky “Psychosis” with its menacing bass line, needling guitar and fractious trombone and trumpet exchanges. It’s another excellent example of a tune doing “exactly what it says on the tin”.
Back to Smith for “Maracatu 4 U” with its lilting melodies and deep funk undertow. The horns play in both unison and counterpoint on the theme with subsequent solos coming from Smith on tenor and Roberts on trombone and with one of the bassists rounding things off. Sadly the album packaging doesn’t actually specify the soloists, which also represents a bit of a problem with regard to the twin trumpet players.
Langford’s “Caramel Swings” combines jazz and rock elements with the composer’s scratchy guitar prominent in the tune’s opening section before he hands over to Smith’s tenor for a more conventional jazz solo. Langford’s own solo is more idiosyncratic and subversive, combining jazz sophistication with rock power and distortion to good effect.
Andersson’s evocative “Serengeti Sunset” continues his ongoing fascination with the legacy of the music of Miles Davis. I’m assuming that the mournfully ringing trumpet is that of the composer on a piece that seems to draw inspiration from various periods of Miles’ career. The memorable melody and deeply resonant bass lines suggest “Kind Of Blue”, while the shimmer of Pedder’s keyboards and Langford’s tasteful guitar feature hint at the later electric era. Whatever the influences it’s an effective piece of music in its own right.
Smith’s “Annoying” begins with a beguiling horn chorale and the ostinato that underpins this continues almost throughout the piece, its insidious presence helping to give the tune its title. A series of musical conversations evolves around this backbone with John’s drums, liberated from a time keeping role, playing a prominent part. The exchanges become more fractious as the piece progresses with Langford’s guitar a spiky presence. At times the music flirts with free jazz, yet is always underscored and anchored by that recurring phrase. It’s a fascinating compositional exercise that actually works very well as a piece of music.
The title of Andersson’s “RSI” also hints at the use of repetition as a writing device. This time it’s a busy bass and drum groove allied to Roberts’ trombone vamp. However things evolve more organically via features for tenor sax and trumpet on a piece that successfully combines jazz soloing with rock rhythms.
The album concludes with Roberts’ “Eating Plectrums” which opens with a brief New Orleans style horn chorale before launching into a ska fuelled romp combining exuberant horn choruses and infectious rhythms. Roberts leads off the solos on fruitily rasping Rico style trombone. He’s followed by Smith’s rough edged, r’n'b tinged tenor and somebody’s flamboyant high register trumpet. After a series of choruses in which the music threatens to collapse in upon itself the piece concludes with a slice of almost impossibly dirty gutbucket trombone from Roberts as he whisks us back to New Orleans.
As ever this is a hugely enjoyable offering from the Heavy Quartet, a record that embraces a variety of musical styles and combines humour with some excellent musicianship to create a distinctive sound that is very much the group’s own. In some ways it’s a typical Heavy Quartet record and there are no genuine surprises here but it’s an album that is sure to be appreciated by the group’s loyal followers and any newcomers are also sure to find plenty to enjoy here.
Fans of the band will be able to hear them performing this music live at the Queens Head in Monmouth on Sunday July 12th 2015 at 9.00 pm. Free admission but with a hat being passed around.
If you’re unable to make this they’ll be back again on December 13th 2015.