An adventurous offering with much worthy of praise, not least the contribution of guest trumpeter Guy Barker.
(Red Admiral Records REDAD CDA567)
The East Midlands band Zoo have attracted a considerable amount of critical acclaim for their intelligent brand of song based “nu jazz fusion”. Zoo began life as a trio centred around the song writing axis of husband and wife team Reg (guitar,bass) and Karen (keyboards,vocals) Clegg plus multi instrumentalist Paul Biggins (keyboards, guitar, bass).
2008’s “End Of The Telegraph Wires” (reviewed elsewhere on this site) featured significant guest appearances from saxophonist John Sanderson and drummer Ian Beestin. These two subsequently augmented the band on live dates (including a highly successful performance at the 2008 Lichfield Real Ale Jazz & Blues Festival where I first encountered the group) and have since progressed to full membership thus making the group a quintet.
2009 saw Zoo collaborating with the great Guy Barker, arguably the UK’s finest trumpeter, with Barker joining the band on stage for a highly successful concert at Nottingham’s Bonington Theatre. Barker subsequently joined the group in the studio for the recording of “Psychodrama” and appears on eight of the album’s twelve tracks. The music is a mix of instrumentals and songs, the latter featuring intelligent, sometimes enigmatic lyrics that scratch at the surface of human relationships.
Barker immediately makes his mark on the opening instrumental, Karen Clegg’s “Life In a Day”, his muted Miles-ian trumpet combining well with Sanderson’s tenor sax and Reg’s guitar. It’s a good example of Barker’s versatility, the sound he adopts on this chilled out piece of “nu jazz” is very different to the bright, burnished sound he adopts in his own hard bop derived small groups. Indeed there’s a film noirish quality about this piece that has more in common with Barker’s later “Soundtrack” album (2002). A good start.
The trumpeter sits out on Reg and Karen’s song “I Always Told Her”, the lyrics written from the point of view of a departed husband, leaving to find his own space but now seemingly regretting the decision. Sanderson’s tenor takes the instrumental honours here on a breezy tune that undermines the darkness of the lyrics.
Barker is back for Karen’s song “Breathing In” which alternates between the brooding and the wistful. Beestin drives the song along crisply and there are fine moments from both Barker on trumpet and Sanderson on tenor.
Essentially an instrumental “Dimanche” explores similar territory to the opener with good interplay between Barker’s trumpet, Sanderson’s tenor, Reg’s guitar and Karen’s melodica.
Sanderson switches to sinuous soprano for the beautifully lilting ballad “December” which also features some of Barker’s most lyrical playing of the set.
I’m less convinced by Biggins’ “Chilled”, the self consciously hip lyrics and Karen’s mannered vocal performance don’t really work for me and although there a good moments from Barker and Sanderson, the latter now on flute, it’s still the weakest item thus far.
The charming “Ordinary Things” written by the Cleggs plus Sanderson is primarily instrumental with solos from Sanderson on soprano, Karen on electric piano and Reg on guitar.
Another Biggins song, “Walking Not Running” is a far more convincing piece of work, grainy bass clarinet, eerie guitar and wispy muted trumpet reflecting the bitterness of the lyrics.
Reg and Karen’s “Adaggio” includes wordless vocals reminiscent of the Pat Metheny Group but is again essentially instrumental. Performed by the core quintet the piece features breezy soprano sax and gently rippling acoustic piano, the latter courtesy of Karen Clegg.
The Cleggs’ insistent “Could’ve” is a litany of regret, the repetitive nature of the lyrics and an insistent electric piano vamp neatly capturing the air of paranoia and self loathing suggested by the words. Relief and variation come courtesy of Sanderson’s drily snaking tenor saxophone solo.
This is followed by Biggins’ claustrophobic “Electric” which simmers with sexual tension and adds sinister electronica, spoken vocals and percussion to the mix. Barker’s brooding trumpet and Reg’s spookily distorted guitar add greatly to the already unsettling atmosphere.
Finally Biggins’ “Disguise” is reprised from the previous album, appearing here as “Disguyse” in honour of their distinguished guest. The arrangement here is substantially different and more obviously bluesy with solos from Barker on trumpet, Karen on organ and Sanderson on tenor. Something of a live favourite, I’d guess that this closed the Bonington Theatre show too.
“Psychodrama” is lovingly crafted with some excellent playing and singing from all involved. It’s always a pleasure to listen to Barker and he brings much to the record with some memorable solos. As the other principal jazz soloist Sanderson also gives a good account of himself on tenor, soprano and flute with Reg and Karen showing up well on guitar and keyboards respectively. Beestin’s neat and intelligent drumming is right on the money and the multi talented Biggins adds good colouration.
There’s more of a focus on the instrumental side of things this time round and despite a tendency towards the bland there are still some fine moments, particularly from the horn players. I didn’t find the songs and lyrics quite as convincing as before, some of the words verge on the clichéd and banal, something that didn’t seem to effect the previous record. But let’s not forget how high Zoo are aiming, perhaps the “Psychodrama” precept of the album led to the songwriters striving a little too hard for emotional “significance”.
For all this Zoo remain admirably ambitious and show clear signs of development- from the instrumental viewpoint at least- and Barker is simply splendid as usual. “Psychodrama” may have it’s flaws but it’s still an adventurous offering with much worthy of praise.blog comments powered by Disqus