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Night Time On The Middle Passage


by Ian Mann

July 24, 2009


Zed U deploy a surprisingly broad and distinctive sonic palette and cover an impressive variety of styles. "Night Time On The Middle Passage" is a mature and consistently engaging début

Zed-U are an exciting and distinctive young trio who have made a considerable impression on the London jazz scene and beyond. Formed around two years ago by bassist Neil Charles, reedsman Shabaka Hutchings and drummer and occasional keyboardist Tom Skinner the trio make music of a greater variety and colour than the somewhat restricted instrumentation might suggest. In part this is due to the expert utilisation of electronics by the group, these elements forming a key part of their compositions and arrangements. “Night Time On The Middle Passage” is a remarkably mature début but as other commentators have suggested there is still considerable potential for further development from this highly talented young ensemble.
Charles and Hutchings originally hail from Birmingham and it was in that city that I first encountered Zed-U in early 2008. The trio played a poorly attended date at The Drum as part of Soweto Kinch’s “Live Box” series. Despite the lack of atmosphere I was hugely impressed with the music and was not surprised to learn that Zed-U have subsequently acquired something of a following. 
All three players have established jazz credentials. Charles was formerly a member of Empirical and appeared on their début CD,  Hutchings is one the star soloists in the current edition of Courtney Pine’s Jazz Warriors and Skinner is an important figure in the F-ire Collective playing with Ingrid Laubrock, Finn Peters and Jade Fox among others.

Zed U’s music has sometimes been described as “jazz thrash” by commentators attempting to bracket them with other young bands on the scene-Acoustic Ladyland, Polar Bear, Led Bib, Fraud etc. In reality much of their output has a far more lyrical quality that defies that description. Much of this may come from the workshops the band attended attended with the great saxophonist John Surman, indeed Surman has been something of a touchstone for the band throughout the making of this album.

Much of this lyricism is displayed on the opening “The Forest” written by Hutchings. Mixing the organic qualities of the composers reeds with the ambient textures of Skinner’s keyboards and Charles’ treated bass the music is both haunting and effective. 
“Roki”, also by Hutchings, is more forceful but retains a lyrical and melodic core. Hutchings’ tenor takes the lead supported by Charles’ bass, simultaneously liquid and growling, as Skinner’s drums circle purposefully. The latter part of the tune builds considerable momentum but it would hardly be fair to refer to it as “thrash”. 

Huthings’ “Traveller”  features his brooding clarinet, it’s so good to hear the instrument being used in a thoroughly contemporary context. Charles’ low register bass growl and Skinners’ shimmering, electronically enhanced percussion add greatly to the atmosphere of this fascinating piece.
The Kraftwerk tune “Showroom Dummies” is an interesting choice for the album’s only cover version and Zed U stamp their authority on the tune in a thoroughly engaging manner. Hutchings’ dancing clarinet lines hint at a Middle Eastern influence along side the jazz,as elsewhere Skinner throws in elements of dub reggae and Charles lays down some big, fat bass grooves. Seasoned with Kraftwerk style electronica it all works surprisingly well. They didn’t do this when I saw them but I’m sure that it’s now become something of a live favourite.

“Surman Part 1” is freer and more impressionistic with Hutchings’ bleary tenor over Skinner’s free form brushwork and Charles’ churning bass. It’s brief and effective on record but wasn’t, perhaps the best choice of set opener at The Drum.
The Neil Charles composition “Breaking The News"is the lengthiest track on the album and covers a considerable amount of ground from ambient electronica to a kind of brooding funk. Hutchings even slips in a quote from the TV theme music of Lalo Schifrin. 

Hutchings’ “Chief”  is a foray into Acoustic Ladyland style skronk, full of belligerent tenor sax, growling bass and pounding drums-indeed Skinner has depped for Seb Rochford in Ladyland in the past. It’s a blast and is one the few tracks to really justify the “thrash” tag. However, even here there is a surprisingly lyrical coda. 

Skinner’s “Phone Tap”  sees the drummer re-introducing his dub reggae leanings in an entertaining manner with Hutchings’ clarinet taking the melody line above the compelling rhythms of Charles and Skinner.

I remember the joint composition"Tikya”  being one of the outstanding pieces at the Birmingham show but here it appears in tantalisingly truncated version as “Tikya USA”. Zed U have been described as a “band in flux” and given their commitment to improvisation it is perhaps no surprise that their tunes are always evolving and shifting shape. Indeed some of the Birmingham material such as “The Plough” has not actually made the album.
“Surman Part 2” is a brief and noisy free jazz squall credited to all three members of the group and probably born of group improvisation.

The almost funereal “Detrekoy’s Decoy” is a return to slightly more lyrical territory and the album concludes with the title track. “Night Time On The Middle Passage” derives it’s title from the stretch of water separating Africa from Europe and given the multi racial line up of the group and their pan cultural approach to music making it’s an apt title. It’s also highly descriptive. Hutchings’ reeds approximate the sounds of ship’s horns in the night as Skinner’s drums churn around him with Charles anchoring it all together offshore. 

Covering an impressive variety of styles with a surprisingly broad and distinctive sonic palette “Night Time On The Passage” is a mature and consistently engaging début with the promise of even better things to come.

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