BACK IN 2013 Quercus, the folk-jazz trio of singer June Tabor, above, saxophonist Iain Ballamy, and pianist Huw Warren made quite a splash internationally by winning the Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik, the German Record Critics’ album of the year prize, a rare accolade indeed for an album that just happened to have been recorded in a Basingstoke concert hall. That beautifully weighted self titled record drew on sources that included Robert Burns, A. E. Housman and Shakespeare and spawned much touring by the trio. Returning to record stores in late-April with the release of Nightfall, again to be issued on ECM Records, there is a Robert Burns connection bubbling up fleetingly as an enduring motif, this time ‘Auld Lang Syne’ acting as highly unusual opener. Bob Dylan classic ‘Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright‘ covered in recent years by Brad Mehldau and Chris Thile is also among the highly eclectic selection shaped by this largely acoustic, atmospheric trio who create such a unique sound all of their own. Concerts coming up include Southampton (8 April: Turner Sims); Oxford (10 May: St John the Evangelist church); and London (11 May: Kings Place).
It is the serenity that struck me listening to this wholescale momentous re-envisaging of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Hint: this is not paraphrase or musical surgery, time travelling or wishful thinking, and is resolutely unswung. The music here is completely an original creation in the primary sense that it banishes the baroque entirely (in places it owes more to post second world war modernistic experimentation) and there is no sense of forced deconstructing. It also avoids falling between the two stools of jazz and classical music, usually a trap that many well intentioned players descend into, their fate sadly to be mauled like the most helpless lion baited by tormentors.
What star pianist Heinen and the strings have accomplished I imagine is a bit like their looking at a painting and then struck by inspiration managing to ignite something fertile in their imaginations and create something new drawn from their virtuosic skill to let their own creativity run free. The British jazz scene is blessed with many great young jazz pianists and I would place Heinen already up there with the very best of his and the generation a step above him, eg Gwilym Simcock, Liam Noble, Robert Mitchell, Zoe Rahman, Matthew Bourne, Alexander Hawkins and Ivo Neame, each very different improvisers but all at the top of the tree creatively as they follow a few decades on from the first emergence in the arboretum of the heavyweight champion still, Django Bates.
In Changing of the Seasons there is an economy in the writing, a simplifying of the complicated and a studio performance zen-like discipline, more repose, that captures the mood without smothering it. Again that sense of lightly chilled calm surrounds and cocoons. If this were a painting it would be a Monet perhaps in its differences every time, meditations on the same raw materials, the nuance of small differentials where the detail is everything, no exact match or matter how much it might on the surface be the same. (Water Lilies, above).
Heinen’s major statement is in the extended solo on ‘Summer’ that has a magnitude to it that in context dwarfs everything on the record, the plangent strings conjuring a dramatic apocalyptic sense in all its alarm like a dangerous breeze and yet wonderfully abstract simply open for interpretation when they respond. ‘Autumn’ and ‘Winter’ are also very dark and you get the sense that this is interior music, a journey into night that somehow banishes fear. Seeing the ensemble live last year not long after the studio session was a stimulating occasion and beyond the distraction of the concert hall with all its niceties there’s even more of a private wonderful depth here and yet a sense of occasion every time you hit replay to unspool that delicious moment that somehow crept in and curled up satisfied inside.
FOLLOWING HER signing to Naim Records earlier this year the trumpeter/flugelhorn player Yazz Ahmed’s first album for the label, the Rhodes and vibes-flavoured Arabic electrojazz modal La Saboteuse is set for a May release. As a composer her work ‘Polyhymnia’ has already been commissioned by Tomorrow’s Warriors and premiered by the all-female Nu Civilisation Orchestra performed at the Women of the World Festival inspired by such icons as the first Saudi female film director Haifaa al-Mansour; Ruby Bridges, the first African-American child to desegregate an all-white elementary school in the southern USA; and Nobel peace prize winner Malala Yousafzai, shot by the Taliban just for going to school.
Ahmed, a British-Bahrani who beyond jazz sessions appeared on Radiohead’s 2011 album The King of Limbs (she's on tracks that including ‘Bloom,’ see her on flugel in the Radiohead video for the track, top) on La Saboteuse is joined by vibist Lewis Wright of Empirical, Sons of Kemet’s Shabaka Hutchings on bass clarinet and Naadia Sherriff on Fender Rhodes.
Ahmed is quoted on her Bandcamp page describing the project: “I love the sounds of Arabic music. The traditional folk singing is so heartfelt, elemental and passionate. I absorbed it as a child, but only in the past few years has it come to the surface in my playing and writing. I want to embrace my culture and my British jazz heritage, the music my grandfather played to me.” Listen to album excerpts, above