by Ian Mann
January 19, 2022
With its plethora of melodic hooks the album is immediately accessible, but in the home listening environment it also reveals hidden depths.
(Rhythm Section, RS039)
Jack Stephenson-Oliver – keyboards & synthesisers, Cameron Dawson – bass & bass synthesisers
Dougal Taylor – drums & percussion
Vels Trio was formed in Brighton but is now based in London. The young threesome have developed something of a cult following, touring extensively in the UK and Europe and attracting the attention of a similarly youthful audience.
The band’s rise has been aided by the support of the influential DJ and radio presenter Gilles Peterson and they have appeared live alongside such artists as Sons of Kemet and Moses Boyd.
The individual members of Vels Trio have appeared with some of the risings stars of the London music scene, Stephenson-Oliver with vocalist Poppy Ajudha, Dawson with singer / songwriter Puma Blue and Taylor with trumpeter / vocalist / multi-instrumentalist Emma-Jean Thackray.
The trio made their recorded début in 2017 with the release of the EP “Yellow Ochre”, which was subsequently re-issued in 2020. 2017 also saw the release of the still available digital track “Stepping Into Tomorrow”, a collaboration with synthesiser player Danalogue of the bands The Comet is Coming and Soccer 96.
“Celestial Greens” represents the band’s first full length album and features eleven original tracks, all credited to Vels Trio with the exception of opener “Dormant Daze”, which is credited solely to Stephenson-Oliver.
The album was largely recorded at Kate Bush’s private Wicker Studios in Welling with her nephew Raven Bush handling engineering and production duties alongside the band.
Raven Bush comments;
“The aim of the game was to keep the post production to a minimum and capture the rawness as much as we could. Every member has their own sound, being the heavy players they are they come with their thing, so I was just encouraging them to be themselves and I didn’t fuck with it very much. This record to me is the sound of Vels playing in a room. All the trickery is in their fingers”.
The Vels sound is hard to determine. The band list their range of influences as including Robert Glasper, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock Thundercat, Austin Peralta and Canterbury scenesters Soft Machine and Caravan.
I’d add the contemporary bands GoGo Penguin and Mammal Hands to that list, plus pianist Dominic J Marshall’s experiments with electronica in his DJM Trio guise. Of course these acts were all influenced in their turn by the great Esbjorn Svensson Trio (E.S.T.).
I recall seeing Vels Trio perform at the 2019 Cheltenham Jazz Festival when they appeared in front of a largely young audience at the standing only venue in the Basement of the House of Fraser department store. As part of a tightly packed pre-pandemic crowd I couldn’t actually see the band but got my head down and enjoyed their combination of deep grooves and catchy melodic hooks. I wasn’t totally convinced at the time, citing a lack of genuine jazz content, but perhaps that wasn’t the point as Vels describe themselves as “trying to make pop music”.
My coverage of the Cheltenham show can be found as part of my Festival coverage here;
Given my reservations about the Cheltenham performance I was pleasantly surprised at just how much I have enjoyed this new recording. It’s perhaps best approached not as a ‘jazz’ album but as a collection of contemporary instrumental pop music, as the band themselves intended.
Opener “Dormant Daze”, written by and featuring Stephenson-Oliver, features the sounds of synth washes and arpeggiated keyboards and acts as a kind of ‘overture’ for the album. For all the contemporary trappings there’s an agreeably retro feel to the trio’s work, informed by their collective love of vintage synths. I remember wandering down to the front after the Cheltenham show to investigate Stephenson-Oliver’s keyboard set up, which on that occasion featured which on this occasion contained a Samson Carbon 49, a Nord Electro 5 and a Moog Grandmother.
Recorded at London’s Total Refreshment Centre “The Wad” was released as a single and features the input of TRC’s engineer Danalogue (aka Dan Leavers). The band describe the piece as “a sleazy night drive out of the city and into the stratosphere”. A typically catchy synth hook and infectious mutating grooves inform the piece, which has a way of worming its way into your brain and staying there.
“A Safe Space For Mates” is a brief (twelve seconds) snippet of studio noise and chatter, featuring instruments and voices and a tantalising glimpse of a hook / riff.
Almost immediately we’re hurtling headlong into “McEnroe” with its driving hip-hop inspired bass and drum grooves and dirty sounding synths. It’s a darker sound than previously but both the melodies and the rhythms remain infectious, with the piece undergoing a series of metric changes as it develops. During the course of its seven minute duration the trio successfully manage to capture some of the manic energy of the track’s dedicatee. For many listeners, myself included, this represents one of the album’s stand out tracks.
A second single, “May As Well Be”, emerges out of a series of bubbling, babbling synth percolations, first coming on as a kind of synth ballad with its, wispy, dreamy keyboard textures. Later the trio beef up the grooves, steering the music into more hooky, pop based territory. At one point Stephenson-Oliver produces a keyboard sound that reminded me of Dave Sinclair’s Hammond playing with Caravan as they stir a little retro-pyschedelia into the mix.
It may well be that Vels view the title of third single “Pop Stuff” as a statement of intent. It features the familiar mixture of catchy keyboard motifs and powerful grooves, the textures and tonalities of the keyboards skilfully manoeuvring between light and shade. It’s Stephenson-Oliver’s ability to coax a broad range of sounds from his keyboards that is arguably Vels’ greatest strength. It’s not jazz improvising but his quasi-orchestral approach to his keyboards and synths adds depth and interest to the Vels sound and like the best jazz soloists he rarely stays in one place for long. “Pop Stuff” incorporates a dark and moody Bladerunner style coda that effectively undermines the title of the song. The band describe this spooky closing passage as “pitched down slowcore”.
“40.2” is another ‘snippet’, although this time a more substantial one featuring a bass heavy groove, swirling synth textures and Taylor’s powerful and insistent drumming.
This is followed by the more substantial “The Winter Games”, a six minute plus excursion that sees the trio finding their way through a variety of wintry sonic landscapes with drummer Taylor delivering one of his most nuanced performances as well as featuring as a soloist. With Stephenson-Oliver soloing on Fender Rhodes. It’s arguably the most obviously ‘jazz’ piece on the record, albeit a brand of jazz characterised by electric era Miles, Hancock’s Headhunters, and more recently by Robert Glasper. Another stand out piece.
“Quick Zeus”, with its heard driving drums, supple funky bass and cheesy, cheery synths is Vels at their most upbeat and poppy, and also sees them tipping their hats in the direction of modern electronic dance music.
“CEEGEE” is another brief snippet, sounding as if it were once part of a larger whole.
Given it’s title I’d suggest that it’s probably an out take from “Celestial Greens” itself, which closes the album.
The title track is the only piece that I recall being mentioned by name at Cheltenham. Appropriately it’s one of the album’s most substantial pieces, initially centred around Dawson’s electric bass motif and Taylor’s subtle hip hop inspired grooves. Spacey synth and Rhodes then steer the band into fresh territory, now backed by a more fractured rhythm as Stephenson-Olivers’s keyboards spiral skywards triumphantly.
Having reached a peak the piece resolves itself with a gentler ‘come down’ passage.
When covering the Cheltenham event I wondered whether Vels Trio’s music, so successful in the live environment, would stand up to home listening. I’m delighted to say that it most emphatically does and that my misgivings were totally unfounded.
With its plethora of melodic hooks the album is immediately accessible but in the home listening environment it also reveals hidden depths. On disc there’s more stylistic, rhythmic and dynamic variation and the range of different keyboard sounds is a constant source of fascination. For all its immediacy “Celestial Greens” is an album that is likely to reward repeated listening.
I’m also impressed by the way in which Vels Trio blend the old and new, using the retro sounds of vintage synths to create a music that is unmistakably contemporary. One can hear a whole raft of influences in the trio’s work, George Duke and Joe Zawinul also come to mind in addition to those previously mentioned, yet the resultant music ends up sounding very much their own.
Vels Trio may hold limited appeal to straight-ahead jazz listeners, but fans of the more contemporary end of the jazz spectrum, such as myself, should find plenty to enjoy here. Curious rock listeners and fans of electronic music will also enjoy the Vels sound and already they have garnered a young, hip following for their distinctive blend of ‘instrumental pop music’.
“Celestial Greens” is an album that should firmly establish Vels Trio on the musical map and as a force to be reckoned with. The group is currently on tour with forthcoming UK dates listed below;
Jan 19 2022 - Norwich, UK - Art Centre
Jan 21 2022 - London, UK - Moth Club
Jan 22 2022 - Leeds, UK - Headrow House
Jan 23 2022 - Glasgow, UK - The Hug and Pint
Jan 24 2022 - Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK - The Cluney 2
Jan 26 2022 - Brighton, UK - Green Door Store
Vels Trio’s recordings are available at;