Reviewed by: Ian Mann www.thejazzmann.com
★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2
‘ARQ have come up with another impeccable album featuring warm, colourful, intelligent writing and some exceptional playing. It’s a recording that is likely to appeal a broad listening constituency’.
The rise and rise of the Alison Rayner Quintet, or ARQ, has been one of the most heart-warming stories of British jazz in recent years.
Bassist and composer Alison Rayner has been a stalwart of the UK jazz scene for many years and is probably best known for her membership of the Guest Stars, the all-female group who emerged at the time of the 80s jazz boom along with Loose Tubes, Jazz Warriors and others. I’ve seen her perform live on a couple of occasions with trumpeter Chris Hodgkins’ quartet and Rayner’s other regular engagements include the Deirdre Cartwright Group and Terryazoome, the Greek flavoured jazz group led by guitarist/bouzouki player Terry Hunt.
For more than twenty five years Rayner and guitarist Cartwright have run Blow The Fuse, an organisation dedicated to raising the profile of jazz in the UK with a particular emphasis on promoting the work of female jazz musicians. Besides organising the regular ‘Tomorrow the Moon’ club nights Blow The Fuse also runs its own record label.
An in demand sidewoman Rayner has played acoustic and electric bass across a variety of musical genres including jazz, funk and soul plus various types of world music. She has appeared on over thirty albums and her credits include work with guitarists Tal Farlowe and John Etheridge, vocalists Zoe Lewis and Ian Shaw, saxophonist Jean Toussaint and jazz poet Jayne Cortez. Rayner is also an acclaimed educator who has taught at a wide array of colleges and summer schools.
Rayner became a band leader at a comparatively late stage in her career, assembling the above line up and making her leadership début with the 2014 live set ‘August’, recorded at BTF’s spiritual home, the Vortex Jazz Club in Dalston, north London. The album highlighted Rayner’s abilities as a composer and was greeted by a compelling amount of critical acclaim.
This was followed in 2016 by the studio set ‘A Magic Life’, which consolidated and built upon the success of “August” and also featured compositions by other members of the quintet. Again the response from both the critical fraternity and the British jazz audience as a whole was overwhelmingly positive.
ARQ have also developed a reputation for the consistently excellent quality of their live performances and I have been lucky enough to witness and review club and festival appearances in London, Birmingham, Shrewsbury, Brecon and Abergavenny.
The combination of ARQ’s critically acclaimed albums and their exciting and accessible live shows has led to the band being honoured at the Parliamentary Jazz Awards (Ensemble Of The Year 2018) and the British Jazz Awards (Best Small Group also 2018).
Rayner’s compositions are multi-faceted, featuring memorable melodies and rich colours and textures. They are often informed by personal experiences and many have a strong pictorial or cinematic quality about them. The compositions by the other quintet members in this well balanced ensemble also fit neatly into this now well established band template.
Rayner says of her own compositions for this recording;
‘My music is allegorical and I write songs without words about experiences, places and feelings. ‘Short Stories’ was inspired by the sudden losses of three young people within close family and friends. Their stories were too short, but through my music I want to celebrate the joy they brought to our lives’.
‘Short Stories’ is also an apt title given the strong narrative quality of ARQ’s music. The album packaging also includes succinct liner notes from the individual composers offering valuable insights into the inspirations behind their pieces.
The album packaging doesn’t specify exactly when the album was recorded but a number of the featured tunes have been part of ARQ’s live sets for some time, so I would surmise that much of the music had been thoroughly ‘road tested’ before being committed to disc. The relaxed and assured nature of the performances certainly suggests that this was the case.
The album commences with Rayner’s ‘Croajingolong Bushwalk’, of which its composer says;
‘Inspired by a bushwalk in Croajingolong, Victoria, this song is about the Australian bush, with its extraordinary birdsong, crazy wildlife, vast blue skies, orange earth and ancient people’.
Like all of ARQ’s music there’s a strong narrative quality and a real sense of place within the music. Sampled bird song combines with tribal rhythms at the outset with Cartwright’s guitar simulating the sound of a jews harp. The insistent rhythmic pulse is combined with evocative melodies with solos coming from McLoughlin on tenor sax, Rayner on melodic double bass and Lodder at the piano. The latter’s dazzling solo seems to embody the sheer dizzying joyousness of Rayner’s experience, something that is also echoed by Birch’s closing drum feature.
Also from the pen of Rayner comes ‘Here And Now’, of which its composer says;
‘With age comes more past (and memories) than future. I try to focus on the present, because I know that life can change in an instant’.
This is a more reflective offering characterised by wistful melodies and more fine soloing from Lodder on piano, Cartwright on guitar and McLoughlin on tenor, their contributions all representing fluent statements on the power of the present.
Rayner dedicates her piece ‘There Is A Crack In Everything’ to the memory of her late niece Pippa Handley (1978-2018), the title a quote from the lyric of a Leonard Cohen song. Rayner’s notes speak of Handley ‘cycling all around the hills and lochs of Scotland, and the world, in an effort to find that crack of light’.
The music is less sombre than one might imagine as Rayner seeks to celebrate Handley’s short life. Introduced by Birch at the drums there’s a considerable rhythmic drive, plus a folkish tinge to the melody that also reflects Rayner’s own Scottish ancestry. Lodder again stars with an extended passage of unaccompanied piano mid tune that embraces a variety of emotions. McLoughlin is the other featured soloist, probing gently on softly keening soprano sax.
McLoughlin’s composition ‘Buster Breaks A Beat’ was written as a feature for Birch, with its composer commenting; ‘I wrote this piece to feature Buster, experimenting with broken beats, funk and retro dance music’.
Of course it isn’t just a drum solo, it’s a highly ingenious piece of writing that toys with melody and rhythm and embraces a variety of jazz styles. Lodder on piano, Cartwright on guitar and McLoughlin on tenor all weigh in with highly cogent solos before Birch’s dynamic feature at the close.
Rayner’s ‘A Braw Boy’ is another piece written in remembrance, this time for the life of Craig Handley (1994-2017). Rayner says of Handley;
‘Craig spent his working life around the Scottish coast and islands. He captured the big skies, dawns, sunsets and seascapes in the beautiful photographs that he left behind’.
This time the music does sound rather more like a lament, but there’s a quiet beauty in its wistful and gently melancholic melodies that also embodies the lonely beauty of the land that Handley photographed and called home. McLoughlin again features on softly piping soprano, sharing the solos with the cool elegance of Cartwright’s guitar and the gentle lyricism of Lodder at the piano.
Cartwright’s ‘Life Lived Wide’ is also a dedication, as its composer explains;
‘Originally a tribute to Esbjorn Svensson, I rewrote this tune for my dear friend Debbie Dickinson. Debbie was the seventh member of The Guest Stars and the second part of the song evokes some of the spirit of that group’.
As Cartwright implies this is very much a ‘tune of two halves’. It begins in gently wistful fashion with sound of the composer’s crystalline guitar, Rayner’s melodic double bass and Birch’s cymbal shimmers. McLoughlin adds shards of tenor sax melody as the piece gradually develops with Dickinson’s old band mates, Cartwright and Rayner, justifiably prominent in the arrangement. Later the piece gains greater momentum and a rock inspired heaviness as the music moves into ‘Guest Stars”’ mode with Lodder contributing a rollicking piano solo and McLoughlin stretching out on tenor.
Rayner describes her final composition, ‘Colloquy’, as; ‘three ideas rolled into one, this piece explores the nuances and shifting sands of conversation.’
Paced by Rayner’s bass motif and Birch’s mallet rumbles the piece begins in atmospheric fashion with Lodder’s piano melody subtly shadowed by Cartwright’s shimmering guitar FX. McLoughlin’s tenor subsequently takes over the theme, her phrases answered by Lodder at the piano before the thread passes to Cartwright on guitar. Her soloing elicits answering phrases from sax and piano in a musical conversation that evokes measured spoken discourse.
Birch later establishes a more muscular funk style groove that elicits livelier exchanges and prompts more extended solos from McLoughlin on tenor and Lodder on piano.
The final piece comes from the pen of Lodder, a jazz waltz titled ‘Seeing Around Corners’, of which its composer remarks rather enigmatically;
“’Is it good to know what’s ahead? Sometimes its agreeable – as in this track, I hope – other times you could do with a forewarning device…’
The music is suitably quirky with a blues tinged guitar solo from Cartwright and lightly dancing soprano sax from McLoughlin. A jaunty up-tempo opening passage is followed by a gentler, more reflective section, again featuring McLoughlin’s soprano and also incorporating a final melodic bass solo from Rayner.
Rayner thanks her band mates for their ‘amazing musicality’ and this is a quality that imbues this whole album. ARQ have come up with another impeccable album featuring warm, colourful, intelligent writing and some exceptional playing. Again, this is an album that is likely to appeal a broad listening constituency (Pat Metheny fans are likely to find much that appeals in ARQ’s music) and which will consolidate ARQ’s reputation as one of the best and most consistent working bands around. A worthy follow up to its two acclaimed predecessors ‘Short Stories’ exhibits no falling off in terms of quality control. The members of this particularly well integrated ensemble are perfectly in tune with Rayner’s artistic vision.
ARQ are supported by Arts Council England and by the PRS Foundation’s Women Make Music Fund. Besides the dedicatees of the individual tunes ‘Short Stories’ is also dedicated to the memories of Dave Wickins and Harry Lisle.