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A few words about the last five releases from Dave Stapleton’s imprint. British Jazz is alive and kicking.

DAVE STAPLETON – Catching Sunlight

Subtitled – with not excessive fantasy – Music For An Imaginary Film, the track titles derive from fragments of poems written by Julie Tippetts. Stapleton leads his comrades (trumpeter Neil Yates, bassist Paula Gardiner and drummer Elliott Bennett) through a beguilingly restrained sonic expedition typified by contemplative linearity and interesting developments that may find an origin in time-honoured modulations but end depicting a precise individuality, deft touches of refinement and classiness never, ever turning into overindulgence. Some pieces include the Lunar Saxophone Quartet, who are used to perform scores by composers such as Graham Fitkin and Michael Nyman; their intercessions – masterfully designed by the composer, who wrote and arranged the whole album – gift the music with a further layer of intense severity and impeccable impartiality. “Under The Canopy” recalls Lindsay Cooper’s best work (circa Rags) and a passage of the subsequent “Of Willow Fringe” made me think of Philip Glass’ Glassworks. The peg-legged rhythmic recurrence of the short “Stalking The Vison” is another noteworthy episode. The entire record is tinged by a proclivity to atmospheres rooted in a not-so-distant past – with particular reference to the 70s – which is a typical Stapleton trait, highlighted by Yates’s trumpet-shaded melancholic moods, a defining quality for the large part of this material. The leader is right: Catching Sunlight sounds more “absorbing soundtrack” than sheer jazz.

DAVE KANE’S RABBIT PROJECT – The Eye Of The Duck

Bassist Kane’s first release as the leader of a Leeds-based quintet consisting of himself plus Matthew Bourne (Fender Rhodes), Joost Hendrickx (drums), Simon Kaylor (tenor sax) and Simon Beddoe (trumpet). Classic case of “doing it all, and doing it (technically) well”: the Rabbits are skilful musicians able to respect a score down to the infinitesimal detail yet ready to improvise fiercely when the occasion arises. The Eye Of The Duck is an album influenced from – and inspired to – a quantity of genres, although completely infused with the genuine will of transcending them. Bourne soars and punches the solar plexus at the same time during a frantic solo in “Hum”, among the most schizoid selections on offer, ranging from nearly devastating autonomy to tightly executed dissonant contrapuntal sketches. The title track is another example of dynamically charged fragmentariness interspersed with a witty kind of unquiet linearity, Kane continuously shifting the weight of his plucking in the high register of the bass, Kaylor and Beddoe walking hand in hand over emaciated melodic hypotheses, the rhythm section now securely locked, now totally disjointed in a sort of ritual destruction of jazz rock’s icon. An unhidden desire of shattering formats characterizes practically any minute of the record in almost perverse fashion; a few more breathers every once in a while wouldn’t have harmed the music, which remains brilliantly conceived and implemented but is probably going to be exclusively appreciated by trained ears, still without any promise of assimilation. Translation: excellent performance, somewhat unenthusiastic psychophysical response.

GEOFF EALES TRIO – Master Of The Game

No discordances or deviations, only a timidly smiling heart and class to spare in this lovely piano trio that doesn’t swing in excess, privileging gracefully suggestive atmospheres to the smoke of downtown clubs. The leader is flanked by bassist Chris Laurence and drummer Martin France, three sensitive musicians able to make each decision count while lacking that kind of “look-ma-no-hands” juggling attitude which transforms potentially useful intuitions into plain circus. Even the tracks where harmonic dissolution seem to prevail at first – for example, “Awakening” – at last become emotionally charged explorations of melancholic moods, Eales’ mastery in evoking his influences and rendering them personal statements attributing a high artistic quality to the message that the group tries to communicate to the listener. A particular note of merit should be given to Laurence’s style: rarely we meet bassists whose approach to the instrument is informed by such a sober virtuosity, not to mention the splendid arco sections heard in “Magister Ludi”. In this evocative context France is the ideal percussive link, an unvoiced controller of every propulsive instance who seems to wear discreetness as a vocation, guaranteeing the perfect functioning of the rhythmic mechanisms almost without appearing. The press release cites names like Brad Mehldau, Esbjörn Svensson, Bill Evans and Bud Powell as references, but – from the bottom of my jazz ignorance – Geoff Eales is truly gifted with a distinctive instrumental voice – and seducing, too: just listen to the progressions of “Inner Child”, or certain elegiac passages of “Lachrymosa” – pertinently dedicated to Svensson – then let me know. This is a beautiful album that comes highly recommended, regardless of what your specializations are. Strikingly charming music, that’s all.

MARK LOCKHEART GROUP – In Deep

There are times in a release in which everything is set to work perfectly – every detail in place, all the connections active, the engines ready to roar – yet, somehow, the final outcome leaves me pretty cold. That seems to be the prevalent feel while appraising In Deep, first album by saxophonist Lockheart – of Loose Tubes renown – for Edition. Also comprising Dave Priseman (trumpet), Liam Noble (piano), Jasper Hoiby (bass) and Dave Smith (drums), this quintet is a solid entity whose technical command is incontestable; during certain parts of “Golden People”, or the piano interlude in “Not In My Name”, listening is actually a pleasure. What this writer misses, though, is extremely important in the emotional economy related to the process of enjoying a recording. Truly memorable pieces – meaning tracks that really stand out, alone able to push the whole forward through sheer incisiveness in the memory – can’t be found anywhere. Interesting sections do abound, the playing always perfect, the musicians absolutely reliable in terms of dexterity, but passion remains unperceived. One understands something about the elements of the sonic construction, admires the architectural side of things; still, no inner vibrations, alas. Waiting for a scintilla to put our heart on fire, we only receive lessons in how to respectfully execute a score, without concessions to excitement or curiosity. Even the few mildly sensual implications seem to be discarded in favour of more cerebral solutions, which is quite appalling.

TROYKA – Troyka

Chris Montague (guitar and loops), Joshua Blackmore (drums) and Kit Downes (organ) are Troyka, an emerging trio of the London scene whose press release-declared inspirations are – of all things and persons – Aphex Twin, Tim Berne and Wayne Krantz (hell, not even I managed to remember him working for Steely Dan and Billy Cobham, despite an ongoing Guitar Player subscription). Now, you might expect some strange potion – perhaps smelling of late 70s – containing neat rhythmic propulsions and cutting sharpness at once, right? Well, not exactly. Let’s start with saying that Montague’s loops constitute a fundamental colour in various portions of this music, an appreciated counter altar to a style that definitely owes something to the contemporary masters of jazz-rock but remains voluntarily (and cleverly) unrefined, at times rather autistic in its cyclical angularity, giving a welcome dose of paranoid freshness to the dissertations. More Chuck Vrtacek/O’Meara (Forever Einstein) than Mike Stern or John Scofield, if that helps. The slightly flummoxing suspensions generated by the union of these elements with the dissonant minimalism, so to speak, set in motion by Downes’ reiterative figurations are then broken into smaller fragments by the apparently disconnected drumming of Blackmore, who on the contrary seams odd metres like drinking fresh water, thus demonstrating a superior technical class. An involving funky feel – helpful in forgetting about certain not-overly-innovative instrumental phraseologies – characterizes pieces such as “Twelve” or the initial “Tax Return”; indeed intelligence and positive energy abound most everywhere, yet calling this CD a must would be a lie. It does contain several stimulating ideas, though, and – in essence – sounds legitimate, which is a major plus. Troyka aren’t a waste of time: for sure they have the means to further develop a strong individuality.

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