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I think 2012 is shaping up to be a very good year for jazz on record. One or two people have sent me CDs to review, so it’s about time I got down to it.

I’ll start with two drummer-led sets which feature Tom Cawley on keyboards (but don’t have much in common other than that).

Tom Bancroft’s Trio Red: First Hello to Last Goodbye

(Interrupto Music)

First Hello to Last Goodbye album cover

  • Tom Bancroft drums
  • Tom Cawley piano
  • Per Zanussi bass

This lengthy CD – at over 70 minutes it would have been a double album in the old LP days – is made up of two different types of piece. Roughly half of it consists of compositions, mainly by Bancroft, some of them written specifically for this project, and others rearranged from earlier large ensemble versions. The opener, though, is an Ornette Coleman / Joan Armatrading mash-up, and the album ends with Jeff Buckley’s “Last Goodbye”. The remainder is made up of spontaneous improvisations performed shortly after the musicians had met for the first time, which are the “First Hellos” of the title. In some of them, one musician takes the lead and the others follow, in others they work as equal partners from the off. Despite these two very different approaches, it does hang together overall: both types of material give the band the chance to explore a mixture of lyricism, introverted introspection and percussive grooves.

I found this to be an album which took several listenings to fully appreciate, but one it was definitely worth persevering with. There’s plenty of thoughtful inventive playing there, with some of the highlights being the gorgeously melodic “Don’t Break your Heart (Like Rickie L. J.)”, the motoric drive of “Fukurik (Ooops)”, and the subversively dissonant chords Cawley plays below the pretty “Linda and Crawford’s Theme”. Once you get into it, this is very rewarding music, but it’s definitely a recording you need to sit down and listen to, rather than just having it play in the background while you do something else.

Chris Higginbottom: Where Land Ends

(F-Ire)

Where Land Ends cover

  • Chris Higginbottom drums
  • Tom Cawley keyboards
  • Mike Outram guitar
  • Robin Mullarkey bass

On an edition of the BBC’s Jazz Library a couple of years back, John Scofield claimed to have noticed a revival of interest in fusion. He could certainly use this album as evidence. Indeed, much of the music this brings to mind comes from the rock side of 70s jazz-rock fusion: Matching Mole, Frank Zappa, even hints of Meddle era Pink Floyd and Back into the Future period Man.

Of course, basing your style on seventies fusion is no less valid an approach than basing it on hard bop or John Coltrane. If this is revivalist music, it’s actually better than a lot of the music it’s reviving. This might partly be down to technical reasons: synthesizers today are much more sophisticated than they were 40 years ago (one of the reasons why prog-rock keyboard players surrounded themselves with banks of keyboards was that each instrument could only play one note at once). More importantly, I think it’s down to the musicians. The band members don’t come across as rock musicians struggling with the complexities of jazz, or jazz players flummoxed by the deceptive simplicity of rock, but as players who are totally familiar with both idioms and a lot else besides.

There’s a wide variety of moods and colours to be found in the music here, not just over the course of the album, but sometimes within one piece, for instance in the album-closing title track, which starts off lyrically but ends in a raucous frenzy.

Mike Outram (an outstanding guitarist) is the main soloist on the record and plays in a fusion style throughout, with lots of distorted single line soloing, while Cawley, playing electric keyboards, mainly provides interesting backdrops which although not flashy contribute a great deal to the album’s overall success.

Fusion isn’t a style of jazz I listen to much, and as a result I didn’t have any great expectations of the album, but “Where Land Ends” has turned out to be an unexpected gem.

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