by Ian Mann
January 25, 2019
Wandering Monster can be justifiably proud of this excellent début. Leader Sam Quintana's writing is mature and evocative, and the standard of musicianship is remarkably high throughout.
(Ubuntu Music UBU0023)
Wandering Monster is a young, new quintet led by the Leeds based bassist and composer Sam Quintana.
The band’s eponymous début album features the leader on double bass together with Ben Powling on saxophones, Calvin Travers on guitar, Aleks Podrraza on piano, Rhodes and organ and Tom Higham at the drums.
The group has already established a strong following in the North of England and are currently touring nationally in support of their first album. They were the winners of the 2016/17 Jazz North Introduces Award and have supported such acts as saxophonist Seamus Blake and the bands Trio HLK and Mammal Hands.
Saxophonist Powling has also played with WorldService Project as well as fronting his own groups, including the twelve piece afrobeat / cosmic jazz ensemble Mansion of Snakes, plus more conventional jazz trios and quartets.
Wandering Monster’s music combines the harmonic, rhythmic and improvisational qualities of jazz with the influences of contemporary rock and metal as Quintana explains;
“My early musical influences saw me playing bass guitar in rock and metal bands. In my late teens I developed a love for jazz, which intensified when I moved to Leeds and started studying the double bass. The musicians that inspired me to start writing for a group were those who blend the jazz and rock genres, the likes of Dave Holland, Kurt Rosenwinkel and Tigran Hamasyan being at the top of my list of influences.”
Quintana still plays electric bass with the instrumental power trio Robots As Menace (which also features Podraza and Higham), with saxophonist Emma Johnson’s band Gravy Boat, and with the four piece pop-rock combo led by Travers. By way of contrast he also plays stand up bass with the Newcastle based bluegrass outfit The Often Herd.
Wandering Monster’s début features six fairly lengthy Quintana originals, all of them lasting between six and nine minutes, reflecting the “inner monsters that we can all possess at some point in our lives”.
From Quintana’s remarks, plus the choice of band name, one might anticipate that Wandering Monster’s music might be akin to the ‘punk jazz’ pioneered by bands such as Acoustic Ladyland, Led Bib and, indeed, WorldService Project; but in the main it’s more measured than that; and it certainly isn’t ‘fusion’ in the 70s/80s jazz-rock sense either.
Instead Quintana’s pieces are unmistakably jazz compositions, often episodic in nature and possessed of a strong narrative arc. The influence of other genres, such as rock and metal, allied to the group’s youthful enthusiasm, helps to give the music a pleasing energy and a very contemporary edge. That said I’m very impressed by the maturity of Quintana’s writing, and of the band’s playing, on this highly satisfying début.
Album opener, the Latin tinged “Samsara”, is anchored by the leader’s big toned, resonant bass and Higham’s flexible drumming as Podraza’s piano shapes the flow of the track, sometimes pounding and percussive, at others darting and lyrical. Powling’s tenor weaves its way in and out of the piece and he also solos authoritatively, probing incisively as the rest of the band kick up a storm behind him. Travers’ guitar is mainly used as a textural device, subtly shadowing the piano and saxophone. Quintana describes the piece as “a journey of re-invention that sees the initial motif re-appear under a different guise after a passage of intense collective improvisation”. It all makes for an attention grabbing and satisfying start.
“The Rush Begins” ups the energy levels even further, one of two pieces designed to highlight the band’s “raucous side” as they “explore themes of anxiety, anger and frustration”. Podraza doubles on electric keyboards on the urgent intro, with its mercurial melody lines and nervy, staccato stop-start passages. There’s an edgy urgency about the music that fuels powerful solos from Powling on tenor and Podraza on acoustic piano, the latter dazzling with his expansiveness and fluency.
As befits its title “Sweetheart” is one of three pieces that “are gentler and more reflective, delving into themes of grief, loss and nostalgia”. The mood is more subdued but there is still much for the listener to enjoy, including Powling’s slow burning tenor solo and Travers’ first extended feature on guitar, his warmly liquid playing is effortlessly fluent and highly effective. Although quieter than the opening two tracks the piece is hardly devoid of energy and its closing stages include an understated, and highly musical drum feature from the consistently excellent Higham, who plays with great flexibility and maturity throughout the album.
“Emoke” explores similar themes and is, if anything, even more reflective, a true jazz ballad. It opens with a gently brooding dialogue between tenor sax and acoustic piano before opening out as the rest of the band come in. Travers features again with a coolly elegant guitar solo, shades of Rosenwinkel, perhaps. Powling is again at his smouldering best on tenor with Higham providing succinct, subtly energetic drum commentary as the saxophonist’s solo gathers an anthemic momentum.
The leader’s bass introduces “Tuco” and his complex but insistent motif helps to fuel one of the quintet’s more ‘raucous’ pieces. Quintana’s bass underpins the dark textures of the increasingly urgent ensemble passages before reverting to a walking figure for Podraza’s acoustic piano solo.
Powling eventually takes over, digging in increasingly forcefully on Coltrane inspired tenor as Travers’ clangorous guitar texturing darkens the waters further.
“Happy Place” closes the album on an elegiac note with its gentle ensemble melodies. Quintana himself shines with a double bass solo that combines deep sonority with great dexterity and a strong melodic sense. His playing is underscored by the gentle swell of Podraza’s Hammond, the latter helping to give the whole piece a subtle Gospel feel. As Powling’s tenor soars skywards in the tune’s closing section there’s a genuinely valedictory air about the proceedings.
Wandering Monster can be justifiably proud of this excellent début. Quintana’s writing is mature and evocative and these multi-faceted pieces reveal that he has much to say as a contemporary jazz composer. He’s also a highly accomplished bassist and the standard of musicianship from all five players is remarkably high throughout. I think I’m correct in believing that they are all graduates of the Jazz Course at Leeds College of Music. As is the nature of the jazz musician I’m sure that all are involved in numerous other projects and these are five names to be looked out for whatever musical context they might be found in.
As Wandering Monster they excel individually and collectively with Quintana taking the lion’s share of the praise for providing them with such excellent material to work with. Credit is also due to the production and engineering team of Barkley McKay, Tom Orrell and Tim Thomas for a pinpoint production that brings out all the colours and nuances of Quintana’s writing and ensures that each musician is heard at his best.
On the evidence of this album Wandering Monster will be well worth capturing in the live environment and the group can be caught at the remaining venues on their current tour as listed below;
Friday 25 January - The Be-Bop Club, Bristol
Monday 4 February - Kenilworth Jazz Club
Wednesday 6 February - The Gallimaufry, Bristol
Thursday 7 February - Café Jazz, Cardiff
Saturday 9 February - Refu-jazz festival, Leeds
Further information at;
Wandering Monster: https://www.samquintana.co.uk/wandering-monster