‘Ugly Beauty, the only tune Thelonious Monk wrote in 3/4, pianist Sam Leak mused to the audience, after his quartet had played the rugged slice of bebop in all its lithe agility. Leak modestly and courteously called tunes as he went along and name checked his band a few times. Another Sam, tenor saxophonist Sam Crockatt, draws to mind the scrabbling intensity of Chris Potter a bit or even closer certainly for his bluesiness, Donny McCaslin. Crockatt has tremendous facility achieved by harnessing his lovely salt caramel expressive tone with plenty of old school Dexter-ity and even on the sumptuously slow Gordon Jenkins tearjerker ‘Goodbye’ pulled something out of his interpretative bag of tricks as Leak delivered the sensitivity required harmonically. There was a good turn out on a cold night, the jam kicking off in the second set and moving into the wee small hours of the morning. Gene Calderazzo of Partisans was the third member of the quartet and made his mark taking the tempo up in the extended version of Ornette’s ‘When Will the Blues Leave?’ the real moment to savour of what I heard of the first set.
Bassist Dave Whitford, who is on Christine Tobin’s fine new Muldoon album Pelt, and still, he told me during the break, enjoying the Riepler jam he regularly participates in on Sundays at the Vortex, loaned his bass to a player only referred to as Inga who began the jam portion of the evening. Leak has a poetic unslavishly Jarrettonian touch and his voicings show an arranger’s sensibility. He’s up there as a homegrown scene über talent whose fame ought to spread year in year out for all the right reasons. Surely we need that oblique sensibility that straddles bittersweet mastery of the ballad, terrier-like tenacity on thornier bebop and a quiet grip on the direction of the quartet sound in more abundance to offset trivial concerns however temporarily? And you know, proof be told, the audience listened however diverting their nightcaps and the endlessly fascinating Soho night proved to be. SG
Down Frith St way, above
The Impossible Gentlemen Tour Dates
Mike Walker, above left, and Gwilym Simcock of The Impossible Gentlemen. Also in the 2016 top 10, albums from the Muthspiel quintet, Logan Richardson, Michelson Morley, Kandace Springs, Ches Smith/Craig Taborn/Mat Maneri, Hannes Riepler, Empirical, Yussef Kamaal, and Snowpoet

Very easy this year to choose the number one. Remember, however, there is no science in any list only subjectivity. Of the only non 5-star albums that I came across swimming in the oceans of jazz only late-in-the-year arrival Rising Grace by Wolfgang Muthspiel came anywhere close to the Gents’ latest, so it was the runner-up. 

The Gentlemenly ones, led as ever by the Welsh pianist and composer Gwilym Simcock and by the English guitarist and composer Mike Walker, were captured in a wide angle musical lens for the first time. Their third album released during the same week as the Pat Metheny quartet, of which Simcock is a globe-trotting member, played Ronnie Scott’s, the new Impossible Gentlemen line-up this time around introduced reedist Iain Dixon to make the band a regular five piece (his bass clarinet riffing on ‘Speak To Me of Home,’ for instance, is a beaut). Ex-Pat Metheny Group player Steve Rodby makes a big contribution, co-producing the album and playing the role of bass everyman. His fellow American Adam Nussbaum is again a significant strong and brooding presence on drums. They returned to the banks of the Garavogue in spiritual Sligo as band in residence this year for an unprecedented second time at the annual summer school and festival nestling under Ben Bulben and Knocknarea.

Five years since the band debuted out of the Magrittian blue (Jimmy Giuffre legend Steve Swallow was in the original quartet) they returned, horseman pass by, refreshed, and even better on Internationally Recognised Aliens which followed in 2013. But the latest one is the best yet even after loads of listens. Speaking of what’s up this time around: “We really didn’t want this album to be all ‘bells and whistles’ just for the sake of it, so we worked extremely hard to craft the sound of each song, and chose the instrumental colours we felt worked best on a tune-by-tune basis,” Simcock told me from out there on the road with big Pat for an interview that appeared in Jazz Journal in the autumn. 

The Walker-Simcock writing is immaculate and has huge spirit and tenderness to it. Its scope includes a tribute to John Taylor (called ‘It Could Have Been A Simple Goodbye’) who died last year and who Simcock had studied with briefly when he was a student at the Royal Academy of Music. 

MARLBANK ALBUMS OF THE YEAR 2016

1 The Impossible Gentlemen, Let's Get Deluxe, Basho
2 Wolfgang Muthspiel/Ambrose Akinmusire/Brad Mehldau/Larry Grenadier/Brian Blade Rising Grace ECM
Logan Richardson, Shift, Blue Note
Michelson Morley, Strange Courage, Babel
Kandace Springs, Soul Eyes, Blue Note
Ches Smith/Craig Taborn/Mat Maneri, The Bell, ECM 
Hannes Riepler, Wild Life, Jellymould
Empirical, Connection, Cuneiform
Yussef Kamaal Black Focus, Brownswood
10 Snowpoet, Snowpoet, Two Rivers

There is also a lot of sophisticated but organic overdub production needed because Simcock plays a big range of instruments, including his long cherished French horn plus flugel, accordion, keyboards and synths, vibes and marimba even, as well as his main instrument the piano of which he is a master player.

The folksy goosebumps-inducing ‘Propane Jane’, an affectionate tip of the hat to Basho Records label chief Christine Allen, is one of the standout tunes, Nussbaum’s scuzzily visceral tribal drumming a factor, everyone bouncing off each other as the jam opens up after the deceptively folksy opening. 

While there are many layers to the studio production and a lot of width to the sound the Impossible Gentlemen operate like a small group still. A driving, compulsive, jazz-rock feel retains your interest throughout and there is no machismo anywhere to spoil or swamp the effect but none of these guys are wallflowers either.

Walker sounds much less John Scofield-like these days, long since completely his own man, and has so much coiled power at his disposal that it’s ridiculous and yet he is such a sensitive player when he needs to be as his quieter passages prove. Daring, imaginative stuff, then. Simply a thrill. A lightning strike of an album. 

Other ‘2016 faves’ which gave me a lot of pleasure, maybe they have you too: albums by Logan Richardson, Michelson Morley, Kandace Springs, Ches Smith/Craig Taborn/Mat Maneri, Hannes Riepler, Empirical, Yussef Kamaal and Snowpoet.

Disappointments were certainly too few to mention in a quiet jazz year. However, the new Norah Jones, and I do enjoy Norah sing jazz or actually anything at all even the phone book but if push were to come to shove singing The Band fangirl-like with Puss ’n’ Boots especially, was one. Months on since release Day Breaks is simply flying off the shelves, picked up good reviews and will probably be one of the biggest jazz sellers of the year globally when sales are all totted up.

Label count of the 10: Blue Note, 2 for Shift and Soul Eyes; ECM, 2, Rising Grace and The Bell; Babel, 1, Strange Courage; Basho, 1, Let’s Get Deluxe; Jellymould Jazz, 1, Wild Life; Cuneiform, 1 Connection; Brownswood, 1, Black Focus; and Two Rivers, 1, Snow Poet. Sub-genre rough breakdown of the 10: the Gents, eg jazz-rock (1); the Riepler, Richardson and Empirical, hard bop (3); the Michelsons, prog/electronica (1); vocals (chamber eg Snowpoet, classic eg Kandace) (2); chamber-jazz instrumental, the Muthspiel (1); Strata-East-stylee retro 1970s consciousness, the Kamaal (1); and free-jazz/improv, the Smith/Taborn/Maneri (1).