by Ian Mann
August 23, 2019
Excellent singing and playing from all concerned, and a series of engaging compositions from Cawley that skilfully deploy the human and technological resources available to him.
(Ubuntu Music UBU0024)
Here’s another album that’s been waiting for a Jazzmann review for an indecently long time.
Released in May 2019 “Catenaccio” is the first solo album for way too long from pianist, composer and all round keyboard player Tom Cawley and introduces a new band featuring vocalist Fini Bearman, flautist Gareth Lockrane, bassist Robin Mullarkey and drummer Chris Higginbottom.
A former member of NYJO Cawley came to prominence as a member of the first incarnation of Acoustic Ladyland before leaving to form the piano trio Curios, featuring bassist Sam Burgess and drummer Joshua Blackmore.
A supremely versatile musician Cawley has also worked extensively with rock and pop artists, including Peter Gabriel, with whom he enjoyed a lengthy tenure as keyboard player and musical director, and U2. He has also worked with some real jazz heavyweights, among them vocalist Gregory Porter and drummer Jack DeJohnette.
Others with whom Cawley has worked are fellow pianist Kit Downes, saxophonist Frank Griffith, trumpeter Freddie Gavita and the New Zealand born composer and multi-instrumentalist John Metcalfe. He has also been a key member of Scottish drummer and composer Tom Bancroft’s Trio Red.
Over the years Cawley has proved himself to be particularly adept at collaborating with singers, often as a co-writer. Among those with whom he has worked are Georgia Mancio, Trudy Kerr, Ingrid James, Tammy Weis, Natalie Williams, Gwyneth Herbert, Tony Momrelle, Brendan Reilly, Joy Rose and Karen Lane.
He has also retained his jazz ‘chops’ via regular work with the Ronnie Scott’s house band and as a professor of jazz piano at the Royal Academy of Music in London.
The title of “Catenaccio”, a footballing term for the uninitiated, reflects Cawley’s love of sport and the football analogy extends to some of the individual track titles, plus the album cover art. And it’s not just soccer, Cawley is also a huge Formula One fan and during his Curios days wrote a composition dedicated to the racing driver Jenson Button.
Away from the playing field and the race track the music is also informed by another of Cawley’s obsessions, his equally intense love of synthesisers. He explains;
“Increasingly over the last few years I’ve been exploring different textures and recording with an array of different synths. I’ve been developing a live electronica set as well as producing music in my home studio. I wanted to start a new band which had synths right at its core, but whose aesthetic was still primarily a jazz one, with original tunes, improvisation and interaction.”
With regard to his compositional methods he says;
“I think of everything I write as songs, whether they have words, or indeed vocalists, or not. In the case of this project I was writing the music and everything was suggesting itself to be sung. There’s a particular emotional impact that the human voice has which instrumental music cannot always carry, and I was very keen to add that sort of strident quality to the tunes that I was writing. Fini Bearman brings them to life and adds amazing depth and engagement in that way”.
All of Bearman’s vocalising is wordless and the music of Catenaccio has routinely been compared to that of Flora Purim era Return to Forever, with the music of Weather Report also being used as a convenient reference report. I’m also reminded of the much loved Turning Point, the late 1970s/early 1980s British quintet led by the late bassist and composer Jeff Clyne and which also featured vocalist Pepi Lemer and keyboard player Brian Miller.
The sound of the opening “The Ungainlies” has invited those Weather Report comparisons but Cawley has revealed that it was in fact inspired by the song “Movement and Location” by the contemporary American bluegrass act, The Punch Brothers. Distinguished by its constantly evolving melody the piece features Cawley’s layered synths and Bearman’s soaring wordless vocal lines, these sometimes linked in with Lockrane’s flute. Mullarkey and Higginbottom provide the rolling, consistently evolving grooves while the instrumental solos come from Cawley on keyboards, adopting an electric piano sound, and Lockrane on flute, with Higginbottom then enjoying something of a drum feature towards the close.
We segue almost seamlessly into the celebratory “Jabulani”, which Cawley describes as being written in more or less song form – verse, bridge chorus, “I love a chorus” he explains, “they’re underused in jazz, but being able to come out of a solo section straight to a chorus gives a tune great energy and lift. The solo section of this tune is a good example of me writing something with exactly these musicians in mind, I just stay out of the way and let them do their amazing thing”.
The mood is suitably joyous, with Bearman’s voice continuing to soar while Lockrane takes the instrumental solo honours on flute, dancing lithely above the vibrant, rock influenced rhythms generated by Mullarkey and Higginbottom. The title comes from the type of football used at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The lightness of the ball, and its propensity for moving in the air to the great consternation of the world’s goalkeepers, made it a controversial choice at a tournament that was a pretty miserable one for England!
“Nutmeg” is gentler and more impressionistic, although hardly lacking in grandeur as Cawley initially constructs a cathedral like wall of sound on his various synths and Bearman’s voice floats in ethereal fashion, the quasi orchestral approach achieving an almost cinematic effect. The mood then lightens with a gentle Brazilian style rhythm emerging as Bearman sounds more like Flora Purim than ever and Lockrane fills the Joe Farrell role on flute. Cawley’s synths wander in and out and provide the necessary glue to hold it all together.
“Zona Mista” also commences in gentle fashion with a brief passage for just voice and keyboards, before a darker, more sinister sound quickly emerges via a Bitches Brew / Headhunters style funk groove and dirty sounding keyboard textures as Cawley solos on electric piano. The busy Higginbottom is in particularly impressive form behind the kit while Bearman and Lockrane combine to sugar the pill a little.
“Left Peg” flirts with cheesiness via its retro synth sounds and direct melodies, but even so one can’t help being beguiled by it. It’s a piece that acts as a perfect illustration of Cawley’s point that he thinks of everything he writes as “songs”. This piece has a decidedly song like structure and sounds very much like a hit pop anthem without lyrics, although effective use is again made of Bearman’s wordless vocals.
Bearman’s breathy wordless vocals introduce “Regista”, here sounding a little like Norma Winstone, and remain an essential component until Cawley takes over to solo on keyboards. Higginbottom’s nimble, neatly energetic drumming also plays a key role.
The music that comprises “Row Z” rather belies the tune’s title. Rather than being violent and unsubtle it is in fact moody and atmospheric, with drifting synths, ethereal vocals, cymbal shimmers and mallet rumbles combining to genuinely beautiful effect.
The piece acts as a kind of introduction to the closing “Rabona”, a more appropriate reflection of its title thanks to its colour and vibrancy and its use of Latin rhythms. It’s a real roller coaster of a tune with a number of variations of pace, but the mood is joyous and upbeat throughout with buoyant grooves, soaring vocals and a scintillating solo from Lockrane on flute.
The term “Catenaccio” refers to fluid movement between positions on the field of play and this is expressed musically by Cawley’s superbly integrated five a side team. The captain’s keyboards are at the heart of the music throughout and he weighs in with his fair share of goals (solos). The other players are also given ample opportunities to express themselves with Bearman and Lockrane frequently coming to the fore as Mullarkey and Higginbottom keep things tight at the back, occasionally coming forward for a set piece.
“Catenaccio”, surely a band name as well as an album title, is an album that Cawley has been working towards for some time via unrecorded studio projects such as Songs Without Words, The Bear & The Fish and False Nine, the last of these another moniker derived from football.
It has obviously been a labour of love and this is apparent from both the hand picked squad and the attention to detail in the writing and arrangements. Some have mourned the lack of an acoustic piano, but this is clearly where Cawley is at these days and his new direction has produced some highly intelligent and enjoyable music. There’s certainly a debt to Corea and Zawinul here and those who accuse Cawley of being derivative do have a point, but it’s probably best to ignore this and just sit back and enjoy the music. And there’s certainly much to enjoy, excellent singing and playing from all concerned and a series of engaging compositions from Cawley that skilfully deploy the human and technological resources available to him to deliver music that consistently absorbs the listener’s attention. One can also imagine that Catenaccio would prove to be a hugely exciting proposition in the live environment.
I’ll admit to being a little sceptical about this album when I first heard it, but it’s one that proves to be a bit of a ‘grower’, revealing new depths and delights with each subsequent listening. Just enjoy it for what is is.
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