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by Ian Mann

August 26, 2014


A highly promising début from an instrumentalist and composer we are surely destined to hear a lot more of.

Tommy Andrews Quintet

“The Crux”

(Jellymould Jazz JM-JJ015)

Tommy Andrews is a young alto saxophonist and composer and a graduate of London’s Guildhall School of Music. An accomplished section player his large ensemble work includes appearances with NYJO, the BBC Big Band and the London Jazz Orchestra. In small group settings he has supported such artists as Cleo Laine, John Dankworth, Dave Liebman, Mark Lockheart and Steve Sidwell. Andrews is also classically trained and has worked with the composer and broadcaster Howard Goodall and with the conductors Peter Stark and Colin Metters. He’s also versatile enough to have a flourishing session career and his “money gigs” include appearances with the X Factor band and with the pop group McFly, who regularly deploy jazz musicians in their ranks. 

Andrews’ jazz début as a leader is this impressive offering featuring a quintet of excellent young British musicians. Andrews features on alto sax and clarinet and he is joined by his former Guildhall contemporaries Nick Costley-White (guitars) and Rick Simpson (piano) plus rising star drummer Dave Hamblett and the more experienced bassist Dave Manington, the latter a founding member of the Loop Collective. It’s a very classy band that does full justice to Andrews’ lengthy, episodic compositions. And make no mistake, Andrews’ writing is very impressive, his pieces have a cinematic quality and draw on a number of sources from jazz to classical, progressive rock to minimalism. However, he also allows his pieces room to breathe and gives his companions plenty of space in which to express themselves. As a result “The Crux” has a finished, semi conceptual feel, the seven compositions almost sounding like a suite. It’s an album that impresses in terms of its scope and of its leader’s maturity as both a musician and a writer. 

Andrews’ sleeve notes include a lengthy explanation of the album title and his website offers even deeper insights into the inspirations behind ( and construction of) the tunes. Prominent among these is Andrews’ love of rock climbing and other outdoor pursuits.

However the opening “Sirens” was inspired by the sounds of London traffic and develops from Simpson’s opening solo piano ostinato, the role of the piano gradually moving from focal point to accompaniment as the other instruments begin to assert themselves in the carefully textured ensemble passages. Towards the end of the piece is Simpson is allowed his freedom in a flowingly lyrical solo, only for order to be restored as the piece closes with the same solo piano ostinato. Andrews may have written the piece at the piano but it’s a sign of his maturity and selflessness that the opening piece of a saxophonist’s album should be centred around the role of the pianist. And despite the inspiration the piece is a good deal less frenetic than one might first suppose. In fact I found myself thinking of these “Sirens” in the Homeric sense.

The title track is dedicated to Peter Higgs, co-founder of the Higgs-Bosun Particle, it seems that young Mr. Andrews is also fascinated by particle physics. His tune is suitably complicated, divided into a series of distinct sections and drawing inspiration from many musical sources including circus music, prog rock, Swedish heavy metal, jazz pianist Nikki Iles and classical composer Gustav Holst!
A strong opening theme featuring the whole ensemble leads to the choked intensity of Costley-White’s guitar solo, which draws on both jazz and rock sources.  A brief passage of solo piano cools things down before Andrews’ own solo which gradually increases in passion, spurred on by Hamblett’s increasingly powerful drumming. On piano Simpson introduces a touch of lyricism before going on to probe more deeply and intensely, sometimes embracing a wilful dissonance as he locks in with Andrews’ impassioned alto. Finally Costley-White’s angular chording helps to set the scene for final drum flourish. It’s a piece of many twists and turns, sometimes very intense but always thrilling and invigorating, rather like a good rock climb I would imagine.

Andrews dedicates “Crystal Car” to the “British rock climbing legend” Johnny Dawes, the title derived from a Dawes analogy that compared a particularly dangerous climb with the proposition of driving the Monaco grand Prix in a car made of glass. However the music represents a complete contrast to the complexity and intensity of the title track, with Andrews deliberately keeping things simple and putting the emphasis on melody and lushness. It’s the nearest the album gets to a true ballad. Here we get to hear the beauty of Andrews’ alto playing in a relatively unadorned setting. Manington also gets the chance to shine with an opening solo that is melodic, unhurried, resonant and emotionally affecting. 

Simplicity also informs “Mr Skinny Legs”, a dedication to Andrews’ young cousins Jack & Freddie and their nickname for spiders. The tune begins with the precept of taking a simple four note chord and changing one note at a time to create melody and harmonic variety. Perhaps inevitably things later get rather more complicated with a myriad of time signature changes but the essential innocence of the piece remains throughout with more high quality ensemble playing and with fluent solos from Andrews and Costley-White.

“L.H.B.” stands for “Late Heavy Bombardment”, an astronomical term relating to the battering of the inner planets of the solar system by asteroids. This is one of Andrews’ most episodic and cinematic pieces, beginning with Simpson’s flowing and mellifluous piano solos before things take a heavier turn with introduction of a 5/4 riff and Costley-White’s effects laden guitar, his sound inspired by Mancunian prog rock band Oceansize. Things continue to develop through Andrews’ alto solo until the promised “L.H.B” is finally delivered.

“Toscana” or “Sirens Part II” was inspired by the sounds of Italian ambulances! Like its predecessor it begins by being centred around a piano ostinato from which Andrews fashions the melody and its harmonic variations. The leader is featured on both clarinet and alto sax on an evocative piece that more obviously audibly approximates the sirens of the title.

The title of the concluding “Steep” would appear to be an obvious climbing reference. Ostinato figures are again in evidence and provide the springboard for infectious grooves which in turn inspire impressive solos from Simpson and Andrews, the former exuberant and percussive, the latter powerful and fluent. Hamblett also impresses throughout, negotiating the trademark rhythmic complexities with considerable aplomb.

Tommy Andrews is clearly a highly intelligent young man who thinks widely and has a broad range of interests. His music reflects that keen intelligence and although many of his pieces are born out of intellectual curiosity (and more prosaically tinkering about on the piano) they don’t sound merely academic, instead they possess a very human quality that communicates itself to the listener.

Indeed the focus is very much on the writing and the ensemble playing is superb throughout. There’s little focus on conventional jazz soloing, although all the instrumentalists have their moments. Instead this is very much a team effort, the team also including engineers Ben Lamdin, Alex Bonney and Pete Beckmann who between them deliver a mix of pinpoint quality.

“The Crux” is a highly promising début from an instrumentalist and composer we are surely destined to hear a lot more of.

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