Very easy to choose the number one. 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 that 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.
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 tribal drumming a factor, everyone bouncing off each other as the jam opens up after the deceptively folksy opening.
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
3 Logan Richardson, Shift, Blue Note
4 Michelson Morley, Strange Courage, Babel
5 Kandace Springs, Soul Eyes, Blue Note
6 Ches Smith/Craig Taborn/Mat Maneri, The Bell, ECM
7 Hannes Riepler, Wild Life, Jellymould
8 Empirical, Connection, Cuneiform
9 Yussef Kamaal Black Focus, Brownswood
10 Snowpoet, Snowpoet, Two Rivers