Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019

by Ian Mann

September 28, 2021


Free improv isn’t for everyone, but this release is one of the better examples of the genre and as such is recommended to all fans of this style of music.

Tom Challenger / Alexander Hawkins / Mark Sanders


(Sche-ima Records 005)

Tom Challenger – tenor saxophone, Alexander Hawkins – piano, Mark Sanders – drums

This limited edition CD is the fifth release on Tom Challenger’s own imprint Sche-ima Records, the album title an anagram of the label name.

The previous four Sche-ima releases, “Dress” (2017), “Walls” (2019), “Paxt” (2019) and “Beetle and Bail” (2021) have all been entirely solo recordings, with Challenger variously credited with saxophone, keyboards and samplers.

This latest release, recorded in December 2020, teams him with two of the UK’s leading improvisers, pianist Alexander Hawkins and drummer / percussionist Mark Sanders to form a stellar free jazz trio.

Huddersfield born Challenger has appeared on the Jazzmann web pages on numerous occasions, whether leading his own groups, such as the electro-jazz quartet Ma and the contemporary New Orleans inspired ensemble Brass Mask, or as a prolific sideman, on the London jazz scene.

Challenger has been part of the bands Dice Factory, Outhouse, Porpoise Corpus, Fofoulah and Riff Raff, the letter led by bassist Dave Manington. He has also worked with pianists Bruno Heinen and Dan Nicholls, guitarist Hannes Riepler and fellow saxophonists George Crowley and Mike Chillingworth.

A particularly fruitful association has been with Kit Downes in the church organ /saxophone duo known first as Wedding Music and subsequently as Vyamanikal. The pair first recorded for the boutique label Slip Records but the surprise success of the Vyamanikal project subsequently led to Downes signing as a solo artist with ECM. Challenger contributes to both of Downes’ releases for the prestigious German label, “Obsidian” (2018) and “Dreamlife of Debris” (2020).

Challenger has also worked in an improvising duo with Pierre Alexander Tremblay (bass and electronics), the pair releasing the album “Rills & Courses” in 2017.  At the other end of the scale he has played large ensemble jazz as a member of bassist Callum Gourlay’s Big Band.

One of Challenger’s current projects is the international trio Uncanny Valley, which teams him with the Sunderland born, Berlin based bassist Phil Donkin and the iconoclastic German drummer, composer and bandleader Oli Steidle.

Turning now to “Imasche”, which features three lengthy collective improvisations, the most substantial of these clocking in at over half an hour in length.

The first of these is “BriXii”, which commences with the whisper of Challenger’s tenor sax, delicately shadowed by Hawkins’ piano and the finely detailed furtiveness of Sanders’ drums and percussion. The piece evolves organically, gradually gaining momentum through a series of darting melodic phrases, the trio so finely balanced that you can almost hear them thinking. In time Challenger’s tone acquires a harder edge and Hawkins’ piano runs become more jagged, inspired by the likes of Cecil Taylor, Keith Tippett and Myra Melford, while Sanders’ drumming becomes busier and more assertive. There are solos from both Challenger and Hawkins, the saxophonist always maintaining an innate sense of melody, no matter deeply he probes. Challenger’s explorations are followed by a tumultuous, highly percussive outpouring from Hawkins. Once the pianist has reached a kinetic peak the level of intensity is reduced and the musicians enter into a more impressionistic three way exchange, with Hawkins briefly dropping out to allow for a thoughtful dialogue between Challenger’s sax and Sanders’ drums. The pianist’s return then finds the trio ramping up the energy levels again in a garrulous series of collective exchanges, with Challenger finally pushing his tenor into the realms of extended technique. Enter into this music in the right frame of mind and this seventeen minute plus excursion becomes an absorbing journey, a totally immersive experience for musicians and listeners alike, capturing the true spirit of free improvisation.

“GesS”, which clocks in at a little under nine minutes, is a more impressionistic affair, featuring the eerie sounds of plucked and scraped piano strings, the atmospheric clang and rustle of Sanders’ small percussion, and Challenger’s softly blown multiphonics. Sander’s use of small bells and gongs sometimes gives the music an oriental feel, while at other times kalimba like sounds hint at something more African. Challenger’s excursions into the uppermost registers of his instrument are almost flute like at times, adding to the fragile beauty and general mysteriousness of this exotic improvised music.

Finally we come to the epic that is “TanN”, which commences in almost subliminal fashion with the delicate, glacial rippling of Hawkins’ unaccompanied piano, the surface occasionally ruffled by sharper, single note stabs.  Sanders then joins in, almost imperceptibly at first, with a brush stroke here, a mallet rumble or a cymbal shimmer there. Finally Challenger enters the proceedings, his melodic lines gently snaking around the fragile lattice of piano and percussion in a series of absorbing, but low key trio exchanges. Again one can hear the close empathy between the musicians, the sense that they are listening to and responding to each other, even as they increase the intensity and push more deeply into avant garde territory with the sometimes baleful sound of Challenger’s sax leading the way. Things quieten down with a passage of solo saxophone multiphonics, with Challenger subsequently engaging in a wispy dialogue with Hawkins, before Sanders’ percussion shadings add to the increasingly crepescular atmosphere. More almost impossibly high register sax sounds, plus the gentle chime and rustle of various percussive devices returns us to the style of the earlier “GesS”, before the trio gradually begin to build the momentum once more, subtly navigating a number of twists and turns along the way. These include another solo saxophone episode, which first expands into a fiery dialogue with Hawkins and then into a full on trio exchange with the addition of Sanders’ drums as the trio finally ramp up the energy levels. Challenger finally drops out, clearing the way for a brief but impassioned Hawkins solo, bringing this phase of the performance to a peak. The trio then round things off with a surprisingly low key outro, defying expectations to the last.

Since the easing of Covid restrictions I have attended and reviewed a number of local jazz performances, but have yet to get to a full on free improv gig.  Like Richard Williams, reviewing this same recording for his Blue Moment blog, I have to say that I’ve missed this often challenging but frequently rewarding genre of the music. I guess I’ll just have to wait until such music comes back to one of my regular haunts, the Queens Head in Monmouth, a venue that both Sanders and Hawkins have visited. I’d love to see this trio there.

I have covered a few improv recordings recently, but these are no substitute for the full on live experience. That said this offering from the Challenger / Hawkins / Sanders trio comes mighty close, thanks to the excellent playing of the musicians involved allied to the quality of the mix by engineers Alex Bonney and Barney Brosnan, which captures all the detail and nuance of the music. One could easily imagine oneself to be in the same room as the trio.

Free improv isn’t for everyone, but this release is one of the better examples of the genre and as such is recommended to all fans of this style of music.

“Imasche”, together with the other Sche-ima Records releases is available via Tom Challenger’s Bandcamp page. It’s a ‘cottage industry’ style release with hand printed, personalised artwork, which can only add to its appeal.


From Tom Challenger via email;

Thank you so much Ian -
As always your review is insightful, but also so brilliantly researched.

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