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Tim Richards? Great Spirit

Tim Richards? Great Spirit

by Ian Mann

November 08, 2006


Richards' writing and arranging skills are second to none. The subtle funk and blues elements of his music keep it accessible but provide a framework for some great solos from the members of his band.

Last year pianist Tim Richards and his nine-piece band Great Spirit released the album “Epistrophy”. This featured not only Thelonious Monk’s title tune but also an impressive array of original compositions by Richards and his musical associates.

Richards’ superb arrangements were brilliantly played by an all-star band whose line up was an excellent blend of youth and experience.

The album itself is reviewed elsewhere on this site and is one of very few albums to gain the coveted Jazz Mann Five Star award.

The prospect of seeing this exciting music performed live was too good to resist. The touring line up shows some changes from the record. Richards himself is at the helm and album personnel Dick Pearce (trumpet) and Roger Beaujolais (vibes) remain along with Ed Jones (tenor sax) and Leon Stenning (guitar).

Coming in for the tour are Finnish guest Jari Perkiomaki on alto and Dave Blackmore on baritone. The very young rhythm section consists of bassist Chris Dodd and drummer Dave Smith.

The band commences with “Hill House” from Great Spirit’s previous album “Suite For The Shed”. Recorded in 1999 this was commissioned by Simon Thackray, founder of The Shed in Brawby, Yorkshire one of Britain’s most celebrated jazz venues. The formation of Great Spirit also coincided with the twentieth anniversary of the start of Richards’ previous group Spirit Level which operated as a quartet or occasional quintet over the course of its existence.

“Hill House” makes a great opener with its insistent but subtle funk groove and punchy horn section arrangements. Beaujolais kicks the whole thing off and the vibes dart in and out of the spaces left by the horns. Ed Jones takes a typically robust tenor solo. This man has worked with both Incognito and US3 and hence is no stranger to the funk idiom. Aussie guitarist Stenning contributes a solo that shows his rock influences. His excellent playing on the “Epistrophy” album was a most welcome discovery and a major factor in the album’s success.

The following “Cliffs” from “Epistrophy” is funkier still with Richards switching to electric keyboards and Dodd to electric bass. The slick horn arrangements and Richards’ use of electric piano are occasionally reminiscent of the slinky funk of Steely Dan.

It’s therefore fitting that Stenning, who bears a marked physical resemblance to the Dan’s Walter Becker should again play a prominent part in the proceedings both as a rhythm player and as a soloist. Despite his obvious rock influences Stenning is always tasteful and supportive and never resorts to rock star histrionics and posturing. Dick Pearce adds a typically thoughtful trumpet solo, floating effortlessly over the rhythms.

Monk’s “Epistrophy” segues into Richards’ own “Apostrophe” before Monk’s theme is subsequently reprised. Matters commence with Jones’ unaccompanied tenor sax. On record he uses bass clarinet but this was unavailable this evening. The tenor sounded just fine however and as the piece unfolded excellent solos came in turn from Beaujolais, Blackmore on baritone and Perkiomaki on alto. Chris Dodd showed up well on acoustic bass, soloing fluently.

Tenor man Ed Jones wrote “Pushing The Boat Back” which also appears on the latest album. It begins with Dodd’s unaccompanied bass before featuring some clever interplay between the horns. Richards solos ruminatively on electric piano over the shuffling, slightly sinister rhythms.

Blackmore is featured on baritone before Beaujolais treats us to a dazzling vibes solo. Beaujolais is a flamboyant performer who uses four mallets to create chords on his instrument, a technique pioneered by US vibes man Gary Burton. Beaujolais combines the lyricism of Burton with his own more extrovert approach. It is fascinating to see and hear him in full flight. At times he almost looks as if he’s surfing on the instrument’s foot pedal!

“Kirsten Sunday Morning” brings the first set to a storming conclusion. This is a composition by American trumpeter Jack Walrath who previously guested with Spirit Level both live and in the studio. This tune first appeared on Spirit Level’s 1986 album “Killer Bunnies” but is a particular favourite of Richards’ and he has now arranged it for the nonet. The band romps through the piece with Jones delivering a raunchy tenor solo followed by Stenning’s guitar. The driving drumming of Dave Smith is a constant throughout and at the end he is allocated a drum feature, soloing powerfully over the comping of Richards.

The second set begins with a new, as yet unrecorded composition entitled “Shapeshifting”. Richards loves the blues and that influence is apparent in his piano playing here. Blackmore takes a gutsy baritone solo and there are more pyrotechnics from Beaujolais plus another fine solo from Pearce.

“Over The Moon” from “Epistrophy” is another old Spirit Level tune and has also been played by Richards’ trio. Richards’s funky and bluesy piano solo has a sliver of Silver about it. Indeed the tune’s central riff is one Horace himself would be proud of. The flying Finn Perkiomaki adds a keening, wailing alto solo.

Richards describes “The Lost Valley “from” Suite For The Shed as “something of an epic” featuring as it does half a dozen solos. Richards himself switches between gospel drenched acoustic piano and funky electric. The solos are book ended by Perkiomaki who this time is featured on soprano. His first solo is followed by Blackmore who has switched to alto then it is the turn the impish Jones on tenor. Pearce and Beaujolais also feature before Perkiomaki returns.

“Island On The Edge Of The World” also from “Shed” is inspired by the remote Scottish island of St. Kilda. The ethereal atmosphere of this piece is enhanced by Stenning’s effects drenched guitar which performs an eerie duet with Smith’s shimmering cymbals. Richards’ nimble piano features too and even in a piece inspired by such a remote location the spirit of the blues is still inherent in his playing.

The closing “From The Deep” is again drawn from “Epistrophy”. It is an uplifting way to finish a gig. A sparky dialogue between Periomaki’s alto and Pearce’s trumpet is followed by a rousing battle between the four horns. Stirring stuff and a fitting climax to a great evening of music which is well received by a small but knowledgeable and enthusiastic Coventry Jazz crowd.

Richards’ writing and arranging skills are second to none. The subtle funk and blues elements of his music keep it accessible but provide a framework for some great solos from the members of his band. However the solos are never mere grandstanding and always sit well within the structure of the compositions. At no time does the music topple over into excess. The whole band performs superbly but special credit must go to the young rhythm team who have to fill the rather large shoes of Tom Herbert and Seb Rochford. Dodd and Smith do this admirably.

The band’s performance at The Sage, Gateshead on November 2nd is due to be recorded by the BBC with a view to transmission on Radio 3 in the New Year. In the meantime both Great Spirit albums are thoroughly recommended. Check out for details of all Tim’s releases and for news of future gigs.

William Shaw of Jazz Coventry is to be congratulated on providing an imaginative programme of jazz in the city. Besides the Arts Centre at Warwick University the society also puts on regular events at the Biggin Hall Pub, Binley Road and at Taylor John’s House at Coventry Canal Basin.
Forthcoming attractions include:
Thu Nov 2nd Bryan Spring Trio at Biggin Hall Pub
Sat 18 Nov John Etheridge Trio at Taylor John’s House
Sun 26 Nov Jonathan Bratoeff Quintet at Warwick Arts Centre
Sat Dec 2nd Chris Bowden Trio at Taylor John’s House

Check for full details.

As for tonight it has been another top class performance from Great Spirit. They really are a great band both live and on record. Both “Suite For The Shed” and “Epistrophy” are highly recommended. The former includes a bonus disc “The Best Of Spirit Level”.

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