ALEX HITCHCOCK: Dream Band: Live In London (Whirlwind). Alex Hitchcock is one of Britain’s best young saxophonists, an innovative tour de force who is never afraid of adventure or experimentation. In August 2022 he played London’s Vortex Club for three nights, each night with a different band. This triple album mixes up those sets to present the best of what was obviously an excellent residency. Lewis Wright adds some buoyant vibes to five tracks, while Kit Downes on piano, Rob Luft and Ant Law on guitar, and Mark Kavuma on trumpet, among others, excel throughout. All the pieces are by Hitchcock, and they all provide opportunities for extending soloing and detailed improvisation. This is a how a great band should sound live.
ENEMY: The Betrayal (We Jazz). Now on their third album, the dynamic Enemy trio of Kit Downes on piano, Petter Eldh on bass and James Maddren on drums have produced an album of “purposeful contradictions and a shedding of skin”, played by a band that “doesn’t really rehearse, playing a lot live, taking risks, always writing new music, always playing as fresh as possible.”
Throughout, there are sudden twists and turns and abrupt changes of tempo, keeping true to the band’s motto (if they actually had one) of “no risk, no fun”. The Betrayal is the sound a band having a ball in the studio, of creating big and swinging music in real time, of constant experimentation and exploration, with many directions suggested, tried out, perfected, thrown out, and taken up again, often within a single track. Just enjoy, especially if you get the pink-marbled vinyl LP!
BLANKFOR.MS/JASON MORAN/MARCUS GILMORE: Refract (Red Records). Tyler Gilmore, aka BlankFor.ms, is known for his richly textured music created from his large collection of degraded tapes, analogue synthesizers and an old spinet piano. Here he joined by two fine improvisors: pianist Jason Moran and drummer Marcus Gilmore in a digital-meets-analogue mash-up.
Tyler went through a significant pre-production period before recording, preparing composed pieces (with melodies and chords), musical sketches, and various tape loops that could serve as a jump-off point for improvisation, with spontaneity crucial in every take. Since a lot of the music was recorded in real time, that real sense of immediacy gives the album its energy, the combination of electronics, piano and drums in real time hugely impressive. This is a set that constantly surprises in its sheer inventiveness and excels in its delivery.
ALMANAQUE: Nada Para O Carnaval (Ubuntu). Here’s something summery to lift our winter spirits! Almanaque have been together for eight years now, presenting a fine blend of Brazilian rhythms and African influences. Their new album’s title says it all, for “Nada para o carnaval” – nothing stops the carnival – but this set is more than just an exuberant, colourful explosion of carnival on a CD. The compositions are all theirs, except for a perfect recreation of Milton Nascimento’s lilting Lilia, and what stands out is their variety.
Joyous carnival rhythms and driving percussion do indeed open the set, but other songs are more contemplative, notably Milagreiro, an enchanting, guitar- and bass-led slow lilt of a song. Notable is the consistently high quality of musicianship, especially from Quentin Collins on trumpet and Luc Boscagin on guitar. Vocalist Camille Bertault delivers some fine jazz singing, but this is a collective band happy in its skin and well immersed in the music they play.
JOHNNY GRIFFIN: Live At Ronnie Scott’s (Gearbox). In 1962 the Musicians’ Union ended its de facto ban on American musicians playing in Britain – unless a similarly prominent Brit got a gig in the US – and the door was now open for American jazz to be at last heard live. Club-owner Ronnie Scott was a tenor saxophonist, so regularly invited fellow tenors to play at his club in London’s Soho, among them the hard-bopper and so-called Little Giant, Johnny Griffin.
Supported by a fine British rhythm section, notably Stan Tracey in piano, Griffin took the stage in January 1964 and played a blistering set of three long songs and a brief coda. Powering through (Back Home Again In) Indiana – the theme song of the Indianapolis 500 motor race – and taking The Girl Next Door and Blues In Two at a more leisurely pace, Griffin reigned supreme. Hard bop can be relentless, but Griffin always had something interesting to say. Like they say, they don’t make ‘em like this anymore.
JOHN SCOFIELD: Uncle John’s Band (ECM). American guitarist John Scofield seems to be having a renaissance now that he had moved to ECM. Where once he was overblown and loud, now he is thoughtful and almost rustic in his playing. On this, his new double CD, he tackles a range of material, from Bob Dylan’s Mr Tambourine Man and Stephen Sondheim’s Somewhere to Neil Young’s Old Man and the title track – a Grateful Dead song – as well as seven originals.
Throughout, improvisation dominates, giving each song a freewheeling approach that is hugely infectious. Vicente Archer is impeccable on bass, Bill Stewart a stalwart on drums. I never really liked Scofield in the past but now I can’t get enough of him.
ESPEN ERIKSEN TRIO & ANDY SHEPPARD: As Good As It Gets (Rune Grammofon). Espen Eriksen is a Norwegian pianist, and a master of catchy, although often understated tunes. Andy Sheppard an English saxophonist renowned as a lyrical player. This is the trio’s seventh album, their second with Sheppard, and like the others, less is always more, for without striving for effect, the very simplicity of the music is always highly effective. None of the seven tunes shout their strengths out loud, but all more than make their mark. Effortless simplicity at its enjoyable best.