by Ian Mann
January 25, 2015
A stimulating three way discussion for piano, bass and drums, an encapsulation of all that's good about this exceptional trio.
Will Butterworth Trio
(Music Chamber Records)
Pianist and composer Will Butterworth has been a frequent presence on the Jazzmann web pages since 2008 when he played at the Assembly Rooms in nearby Presteigne leading a trio featuring drummer Dylan Howe and Get The Blessing saxophonist Jake McMurchie. That gig was organised by local promoter Tony Walton who continued bring Butterworth back to the Welsh Borders on a fairly regular basis for some time thereafter, always with a different line up and with each performance offering something substantially different to the last. Perhaps the most distinctive of these was by the Stravinsky Duo of Butterworth and Howe as the intrepid pair tackled Igor’s notoriously challenging “Rite Of Spring” plus his “Firebird Suite”.
Butterworth and Howe actually got to record their Stravinsky project and the resultant album is reviewed elsewhere on this site. However it’s probably fair to say that for a musician of his undoubted talents Butterworth has been under represented on disc overall. A solo piano album appeared on Music Chamber in 2007 and the Stravinsky Duo’s “Rite Of Spring Part 1” emerged in 2011. Typically Butterworth’s regular working unit has been the classic trio of piano, bass and drums but again it took until 2011 for this to be documented on album with the release on Music Chamber of the excellent “Hereafter”. Butterworth has also appeared on record with the “chamber jazz” ensemble Tournesol, featuring bassist Marcus Penrose and alto saxophonist Seb Pipe, their eponymous album being released on Kelsey Records in 2012.
In view of this comparative under exposure it’s good to see Butterworth’s regular trio being documented in live performance, the most typical situation in which most listeners will have heard his playing. This new album was actually recorded at London’s famous Pizza Express Jazz Club in May 2012 and although it’s taken a couple of years for it to finally see the light of day it’s still a very welcome addition to the pianist’s discography. However, that said, it’s already something of an historical document as Butterworth has now added Pipe to his regular group, making it a quartet.
This current line up have recently been performing a suite written by Butterworth, the composition inspired by the Oscar Wilde children’s story “The Selfish Giant”. I heard this music played live at the Wall2Wall Jazz Festival in Abergavenny in August 2014 and can confirm that it’s a project that is also thoroughly deserving of an album release.
Turning to this live trio album Butterworth is joined by his long term musical associate Pete Ibbetson at the drums and by Denmark born, London based Henrik Jensen on double bass (Nick Pini fills the bass role in the current quartet line up). The Butterworth trio has always focussed on the idea of the trio as a highly democratic, interactive unit striving to achieve an advanced level of musical empathy, almost a kind of telepathy. There’s the sense of a stimulating musical conversation taking place, a kind of journey which sees the audience members invited along for the ride.
The album consists of five lengthy musical explorations, three of them of original themes by Butterworth, the other two discursive voyages around well known jazz standards. By their own admission the trio were in a particularly experimental mood that night, focussing on the art of collective improvisation and seeing where the music took them The results are consistently fascinating - as Butterworth says; “I guess if we are going to try to play like this unexpected stuff will happen”.
The opening piece, simply titled “The One”, begins with the sound of solo piano with Butterworth later joined by the sound of melodically plucked bass and softly brushed drums. The pianist describes the piece as “a slow, spacey, harmonically driven straight tune and it grew into something else”. The trio approach it in a relaxed and unhurried fashion, this is a delicate yet rigorous exploration that unfolds slowly and deliberately, gradually adding layers of energy and complexity as the tune develops. One can sense the communication and chemistry between the players as the music evolves organically and with a sense of an innate inner logic. Butterworth grew up immersed in classical music, only turning to jazz much later, but his formative influences are apparent in his enviable lightness of touch and superior technique at the keyboard. On this piece his innate lyricism is always obvious no matter how deeply he probes. Jensen, who leads his own group Followed By Thirteen also features as a soloist, his playing deeply resonant yet effortlessly melodic. Meanwhile Ibbetson’s empathic and neatly detailed drum work displays an exquisite touch, particularly with regard to his cymbal choices. This is delightful, often downright beautiful, introduction to the trio’s sound.
But there’s more to the Butterworth trio than mere prettiness as the following “Blues” proves. This time it’s Jensen who begins the proceedings with an absorbing passage of solo bass before being joined by piano and drums. The overall approach is more robust but the high levels of group interaction are again clearly evident as evidenced by Butterworth’s lengthy dialogue with Ibbetson, their increasingly colourful exchanges underpinned by Jensen’s anchoring bass. Eventually piano and bass drop out but Ibbetson’s carefully measured solo stays true to the mood and structure of the piece rather than resorting to mere grandstanding. “We’ve never played a blues like that before” opines Butterworth, before adding humorously “or since actually…maybe there’s a reason for that!”
“I Fall In Love Too Easily”, composed by Jule Styne with lyrics by Sammy Cahn, is the first of the two standards. Opening with a passage of lyrical solo piano and with ultra sensitive bass and brushed drums it’s treated very much as a ballad but with the trio deploying unusual intervals and accents as they explore the tune in the subtlest of manners. Butterworth’s playing throughout is limpid and lovely, Jensen’s bass unfailingly melodic and Ibbetson’s drumming measured, sympathetic and impeccably controlled. It’s a chillingly beautiful performance and one that was received particularly warmly by the Pizza Express audience.
Of “The Syndicate” Butterworth says ” it grew out of a disjointed angular sketch into a very fast swinging tune”. He probably does himself a disservice with the use of the word “disjointed”, I find the tune’s early stages thoroughly absorbing, particularly Butterworth’s melodic exchanges with Jensen allied to Ibbetson’s drum commentary. Granted there is perhaps a Monkish angularity about some of Butterworth’s playing but this is a quality the trio is able to utilise as the tune develops, the three instruments eventually coalescing after a series of spiky exchanges to deliver the thrilling, fiercely swinging passages of which Butterworth speaks. A second solo from Ibbetson eventually leads us back to the opening angular, Monk like theme.
Finally we hear the second standard, a fourteen minute take on Willard Robison’s “Old Folks”. It begins as a ballad, with a tender, thoughtful passage of solo piano with the later addition of bass and brushed drums. Butterworth subsequently takes the opportunity to stretch out at length and the character of the music gradually changes as the pianist explains; “I was expecting ‘Old Folks’ to be a ballad, but I think there is an influence from the feel we got in the ‘Blues’ there”. And he’s right, the music is far more robust and discursive than it was on “I Fall In Love Too Easily”, which constituted a true ballad performance. “Old Folks” also features another solo excursion from the excellent Jensen with drums and piano providing cogent commentary. The piece plays out with more inventive variations on the theme, a stimulating three way discussion for piano, bass and drums, an encapsulation of all that’s good about this exceptional trio.
This live album by the Will Butterworth Trio is essential listening for all fans of contemporary piano jazz. It will be officially released on Monday 26th January 2015.
From Will Butterworth via email;
Just wanted to say how exited and pleased I was to read your review of my trio album. It was the first review that’s come through and I was both relieved and thrilled to see it. It really is great that your reviews are so involved!
All the best.
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