Something else

ARQ are an award-winning quintet whose album A Magic Life gained outstanding reviews, who won ensemble of the year and were shortlisted in the small-group category at the 2018 British Jazz Awards. They’ve now released their third studio project, Short Stories via Blow the Fuse

“In the last three years, I experienced the loss of three young people to suicide – the son of friends, then two members of my own family,” ARQ’s bass-playing leader Alison Rayner says. “I found that writing music to commemorate them helped me deal with the shock and grief. And so the theme of the Short Stories album was born: We all have stories, but some stories are cut short.” 

It’s a poignant message to hear before listening to the music.

The opening track, “Croajingolong Bushwalk,” was inspired by a walk in the area of the same name in Victoria, Australia. It includes some beautiful birdsong, which is quickly occluded by a rhythmic, walking rhythm. The piano then announces Steve Lodder’s entry with two chords and develops a theme which is quirky, jumpy and changeable. That creates a sense of interest, never knowing what is coming – and also a sense of alertness. 

The sax and guitar work by Diane McLoughlin and Deirdre Cartwright, respectively, create a boinging sound akin to a didgeridoo. Then there is a lovely short sax solo, and a bass solo. Driving, never ceasing percussive notes are provided not just from Buster Birch’s drums but other instruments at times. There is a sense of change, of slipping from one style effortlessly into another and maybe a touch of dreamtime, when nature and man come close together, creating waves of color and intense interaction.

“Here and Now” is gentle, rolling and quietly states its intent from the start: to create a thoughtful and prescient tone, from the well-worked harmonics in the first phase to the development of a conversation between sax and piano. Lodder’s piano solo emerges out of the chordal harmonies at around 1:20, developing into a thing of delight. He flies across the supportive harmonics provided by the rest of ARQ, before the guitar and bass can be heard more decisively. The guitar and piano then soar together, creating a dialogue which switches back and forth. McLoughlin’s sax comes in to lead after a time and develop its own solo, which crescendos and diminishes before the track finishes in a sweep of harmonics and cohesion.

Nominated for an Ivors Academy award, “There Is a Crack In Everything” is dedicated to Alison Rayner’s niece Pippa who cycled round the hills and lochs of Scotland trying to find the crack which “lets the light in,” as Leonard Cohen said. It is a wonderful piece of offset rhythms, quirky tempos and definitive little riffs and phrases. It carries in it a sense of exploration, excitement and energy which captures not only the light but the heart of the listener. Steve Lodder’s piano solo gives a sense of a river of light falling and trickling along, the captured light dispersing and shining out. Then ARQ’s original rhythms pick up again and the adventure begins once more, hurtling towards a finish which is sudden and almost brutal.

“Buster Breaks a Beat” is a well-worked number featuring a dynamically diverse first section with percussive undertones. The title proves apt only in the final minutes: The number includes solos from sax, piano, guitar and bass, but really they provide the vehicle for the explorative drumming from Buster Birch, whose final rapid-fire and deftly delivered drum-led section works in conversation with Diane McLoughlin’s sax. “A Braw Boy” is in memory of 23-year-old Craig Handley, who left behind photographs of his working life at sea and the Scottish isles and coastal regions, capturing the big skies, dawns, sunsets and seascapes he saw. It is a moving number, which is thought provoking and interesting – especially the trills in triplets from Lodder’s piano, which add a quiet playfulness yet are so gently handed across, there is a reverence too. A track of beauty and color, just like the pictures and man it is in tribute to. 

“Life Lived Wide” was originally written for Esbjorn Svensson, the Swedish jazz pianist and founder of the Esbjorn Svensson Trio. Svensson was a very successful jazz musician before he died in a scuba diving accident. Cartwright has re-written the song to remember her friend Debbie Dickenson, a member of the Guest Stars. It is a piece packed with warmth, changes and plays with tempo and keys. There is a lot of motion, emotion and a wonderful section which swells and diminishes, creating a sense of ebb and flow and also a sense of fun which echoes the Guest Stars’ performances. It also features a great sax solo soaring across the top.

“Colloquy” was written by Alison Rayner to explore the “nuances and shifting sands of conversation.” (The word means a discussion, usually of theological issues.) It travels along several different progressions, creating distinct sections and motifs, expressive in turn and is long enough – just over 9 minutes in total – to allow each section to be developed, each instrument’s voice explored and even a few challenging areas of discord to be included. A creatively worked and developed piece with barrel loads of interest. 

“Seeing Around Corners” was written by Steve Lodder, who asks: “Is it good to know what is ahead? Sometimes it is agreeable as in this track, I hope. Other times, you could do with a forewarning device.” The piece is an up-beat waltz – or is it? The sax off-sets the rhythms created by the piano, and then the guitar rolls in with an almost laid back, country-esque steel-stringed solo which veers towards rock at times. The sax picks up and reflects the theme back, under which the rhythms continue in their 3/4 off-set tempo. Absolutely glorious, especially in the slow down when everything drops and the sax emerges, in gentler mood, sailing over the top. It’s gentle, peaceful, leading deftly into the bass solo which rises from the sound like a phoenix, spreads its deep resonance. McLoughlin’s sax rejoins to close out the piece and Short Stories

Each ARQ member brings to the band unique experiences from the international jazz scene. Co-producer Alison Rayner has collaborated with the Guest Stars, Chris Hodgkins, Tal Farlow, Zoe Lewis, Peter King and John Etheridge, to name just a few. She’s played festivals and venues across the globe, and co-runs Blow the Fuse, an artist-led partnership that manages jazz clubs, promotes tours and large scale events, and produces records like ARQ’s Short Stories. She has appeared on more than 30 albums, teaches on jazz summer schools, works for a music examination board and was runner up in the best double bass category in the 2018 British Jazz Awards. She is also a favorite among UK jazz enthusiasts for her stand-out bass delivery.

Buster Birch has played major venues in London and toured in over 30 countries. He has recorded more than 30 albums, and is an award-winning jazz educator. ARQ co-producer Deirdre Cartwright (Tal Farlow, Marjorie Whylie) has recorded five albums with her own group, and played many festivals. She founded Blow the Fuse with Rayner and has presented on BBC Radio 3 and BBC TV. She currently hosts her own program on Jazz London Radio. 

Diane McLoughlin (Casimir Connection) leads a 17-piece orchestra called Giant Steppes who have performed to critical acclaim throughout Britain, including appearances on BBC Radio 3. Steve Lodder has worked with Naná Vasconcelos, George Russell, Sarah Jane Morris, John Harle, Carla Bley and Andy Sheppard. Steve has also been musical associate with Paul McCartney on the Standing Stone and Ecce Cor Meum projects, and musical arranger for the Zappatistas. 

Together, they’ve created an interesting and beguiling work. ARQ’s Short Stories is marked by richly nuanced compositions, rhythmic interplay and folk-tinged melodies, and a good dose of improvisation. There is also a sense of narrative, of story-telling and engagement with the listeners. 

The result is a thing of beauty, an album that celebrates life rather than dwelling on losses that sparked three of its tracks. There is a tightness, a flow and a sense of ease here. The narrative is never lost and each piece tells a complete, yet connected tale. There is a sense of shared things, yet also a sharing with the listener, which makes it tangible and accessible.

Sammy Stein, Something Else Nov 2019