by Ian Mann
August 08, 2023
Another impressive offering from Wandering Monster with four distinctive & intelligent original compositions augmented by two well chosen covers that receive imaginative interpretations from the band.
(Ubuntu Music UBU0135)
Sam Quintana – double bass, Ben Powling – tenor saxophone, Calvin Travers – guitar, Richard Harrold – piano, Tom Higham – drums & percussion
Released at the end of July 2023 “Zenna” is the second full length album release from the Leeds based quintet Wandering Monster, led by bassist and composer Sam Quintana.
It follows the band’s eponymous début, which appeared on Ubuntu in early 2019 and is reviewed here;
I was so impressed by the “Wandering Monster” album that I subsequently checked the band out at Cardiff’s now sadly defunct Café Jazz when they visited the venue as part of a short UK tour in February 2019. This was an excellent performance, with Wandering Monster supported by the Cardiff based quintet Mouth of Words, a jazz and poetry project led by saxophonist Josh Heaton.
At that gig I acquired a review of “Be Here Now”, a vinyl only compilation of music featuring artists based in the Leeds postcode LS6. Partly co-ordinated by Wandering Monster’s saxophonist Ben Powling the album includes the Wandering Monster track “Green Room”, a Quintana composition that didn’t make it on to the group’s début album and is thus unavailable elsewhere. My review of the “Be Here Now” release can be found here;
“Green Room” featured a different Wandering Monster line up with Jamil Sheriff appearing on piano.
“Zenna” features a new edition of the band with Quintana, Powling, Travers and Higham remaining from the first album and Richard Harrold coming in on piano, replacing the début’s Aleks Podraza.
Again the album is centred around Quintana’s writing and the album features four of his original pieces alongside interpretations of the Jaco Pastorius / Don Alias composition “Okonkole Y Trompa” and the Randy Newman song “Cowboy”.
Quintana says of the new recording;
“The music on this album is the best the band has ever sounded and is certainly the most inspiring and accomplished project I have personally been a part of. With the release of our two singles “Metropolis” and “Division” in 2020 we hit upon a really exciting creative process which produced some amazing results. I was desperate to build on this momentum and work towards a full length second album, but the Covid 19 lockdowns interrupted this creative flow. We were unable to get together to play, but I managed to keep on writing with the band in mind. It was never my intention to write a ‘lockdown’ album but ultimately the music on this record is a product of the host of emotions I felt at that time. I wanted to challenge myself and the band with this new material , so some of the music sees us venturing into previously uncharted sonic territory. As well as what you may expect from Wandering Monster there is free improvisation, minimalism, arco bass playing and an interpretation of an Americana pop ballad. I’m glad we’re now through a challenging period and I am incredibly excited to begin a new chapter for the band with this release”.
The new album commences with Quintana’s composition “A Beautiful Blur”, which begins with Harrold’s unaccompanied piano introduction, joined in intimate dialogue by the composer’s melodic double bass. Travers’ guitar and Higham’s shimmering cymbals add to the reflective atmosphere, eventually joined by Powling’s tenor sax meditations. It’s piece that evolves slowly and organically with Powling’s sax bringing a contemplative, Coltrane-esque feel to the music, whilst skilfully avoiding the usual ‘spiritual jazz’ clichés. Ultimately it’s a more contemporary, European sound, a quality encouraged by the presence of Travers’ guitar. The guitarist dovetails with the wail of Powling’s sax as the music gathers power and momentum, before eventually subsiding.
Also written by Quintana “Push It All Away” is more assertive and upbeat from the beginning, with Harrold’s piano again taking the lead in the early stages. Powling states the main melodic theme on tenor and although his sax remains prominent it’s the overall ensemble sound that impresses most about Wandering Monster’s music, with the solos less clearly delineated than in more conventional forms of jazz. That said both Travers and Powling contribute powerful individual features here, whilst also combining successfully as part of the overall group dynamic. As on the band’s début Quintana’s writing is imaginative and multi-faceted with each piece embracing a variety of dynamics and numerous twists and turns.
Quintana’s title track commences with a gentle guitar intro, with Travers subsequently joined by piano, bass, drums and tenor. Sax, piano and guitar lines intertwine as Quintana and Travers establish a propulsive groove, before neatly side stepping into something more off kilter, then reverting to something more dynamic and straight ahead once more. It’s a pattern that repeats itself throughout a piece that is constantly evolving and changing direction. Harrold cuts loose with a dazzling piano solo, his contribution followed by a vigorous free jazz style stand off between Powling’s tenor and Higham’s drums, with the rest of the band eventually chipping in and steering the music back towards something that is more obviously composed. Not that there’s any let up in the energy levels as the piece builds to a dynamic conclusion.
There’s a change in direction with “Okonkole y Trompa”, a tune from Jaco Pastorius’ eponymous début solo album, originally released in 1976. Co-written by bassist Pastorius and percussionist Don Alias the original recording featured the complex electric bass and percussion rhythms laid down by the co-composers, topped by a haunting melody played by Peter Gordon on French horn.
Wandering Monster’s version finds pianist Harrold and drummer Higham combining to create a complex rhythmic backdrop while Powling and Quintana, the latter playing arco bass, provide the melodic component. It’s a highly effective interpretation of a bona fide jazz classic and Quintana’s own playing is both hauntingly evocative and highly virtuosic. The influence of minimalism informs both the Pastorius original and this re-imagination, and its arguable that it’s an influence on album opener “A Beautiful Blur” too.
The final Quintana original is “What We Talked About”, which is introduced by the unaccompanied sound of the leader’s bass, this time plucked rather than bowed. The glacial sounds of piano, guitar and cymbals are added, and finally Powling’s tenor, sounding a little Garbarek-like. However the Garbarek influence is not too overt and the music takes on its own direction, with the group again venturing into loosely structured free jazz waters. Bass, drums, piano and sax engage in a series of vigorous improvised debates, while Travers’ spacey, FX laden guitar is primarily deployed as a textural device. Eventually Powling’s sax takes up the main melodic theme once more, steering the music into something more atmospheric and anthemic.
The album concludes with the band’s interpretation of the Randy Newman song “Cowboy”, a track from Newman’s eponymous début album from 1968 that was later revived by the Toy Story film franchise. The band approach this “Americana pop ballad” with an obvious affection, as characterised by the warmth of Powling’s tenor sax sound on the opening duo passage alongside Harrold’s piano. When the rest of the band join in there’s a wistful quality about the music, allied to a touch of melancholy that mirrors the original’s “too late to fight now, too tired to try” refrain. Subsequently the music takes on more of an anthemic quality, reflecting Newman’s lyrical homage to the fading glories of the old American West.
“Zenna” represents another impressive offering from Wandering Monster with four of Quintana’s distinctive and intelligent original compositions complemented by two well chosen covers that receive imaginative interpretations from Quintana and the band. As on the début the standard of the playing is excellent throughout with the band displaying an admirable cohesiveness. The production, this time by Quintana and Travers, also serves the music well.
My only caveat is that at a little over thirty eight minutes in length “Zenna” is rather short by modern CD standards. It might have been nice for the tracks from the “Metropolis” / “Division” digital single to have been included, although I appreciate that these were recorded three years ago when Podraza was still in the band. Nevertheless Quintana suggests that these pieces provided the initial inspiration for the “Zenna” recording and it would have been good to hear them, perhaps
re-interpreted by the current line up.
Wandering Monster’s recordings are available via;
Wandering Monster will be touring the UK in September 2023 with dates as follows;
Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club
Jazz At The Lescar
Brudenell Community Room
The Bar Stage Band on the Wall
See also http://www.samquintana.co.uk
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