released December 1, 2010
The Leeds pianist/composer Matthew Bourne might investigate anything from elliptical avant-funk to improvisation on a stageful of wrecked upright pianos, but his trio with bassist Dave Kane and drummer Steven Davis always show their affection for the jazz tradition – even if they do so in some strange ways. Though this album includes a merciless mockery of Keith Jarrett's fondness for scatting, and a cacophony of groaning after the breezy, Brubeck-like opening melody, it's predominantly an intelligent set, in which familiar trio materials are cherished, polished and pared down. The title track has a glistening, straight-jazz theme over Kane's prodding bass figures, and Bourne shows his respect for Jarrett in the shaping of his phrases. In a series of short, interlude-like tracks, brief trickles of treble notes are mirrored by drum bursts and then stop, or shuffle up and down over soft tom-toms, or against long, bowed-bass hums, or fidget against snickety snare patterns. These short tracks bookend busy melodies such as Hive Activity, with its cracked-bell tollings, jazzy wrigglings and banging chords; preoccupied probings such as Mandrake, with its piano and drum exchanges and random noises like someone yelling into a paper bag; or precisely struck, abstract-Latin journeys such as the darkly riffing Scuttler No 2. A beautiful ballad, The Lonely Man, could have been written by Jacques Brel. That's the kind of deep-rooted but free spirit Matthew Bourne is.
Given its status as serious music, jazz is not readily associated with humour. Yet many merry pranksters have dotted its history over time, the obvious candidate being John Birks ‘Dizzy’ Gillespie. The rub is that his clowning did not lead to any musical fool’s gold, quite the opposite in fact.
The Money Notes is also funny and counterfeit-free. Leeds pianist Matthew Bourne has form in this respect, having already produced imaginative solo work in which snippets of puckish Disney dialogue slotted deftly into well-crafted melodic and harmonic movements. In 2008 Bourne joined forces with double bassist Dave Kane and drummer Steve Davis and released Lost Something, an album that supplemented the structural trickery of both swing and avant-garde schools with a cunning use of ghostly samples.
This new set is a consolidation of the trio’s blend of artistry and antics, the most riotous of which is the hyper provocative Utter Contempt for All Those Who Scat Whilst Soloing, in which the frenzied yelps, wails and moans of all three members mercilessly lampoon improvisers whose muse compels them to sing what they play. Rib-tickling as it is, more skilful irreverence awaits elsewhere, above all in the concise smash and grab nature of several songs, none more so than the opening BDK Theme, which starts in a sunny, jaunty, Nina-Simone’s-baby-just-cares-for-Brubeck groove before abruptly grinding to a halt after which the players morph into growlers who then let fly a volley of faux diva falsetto. The quick-fire movement from one part to the next and the sheer boisterous nature of the delivery have a kind of Buster Keaton overtone, and the bite sized nature of the set of 22 pieces, many of which are under a minute long, fully reinforces that.
Yet there is real beauty in several compositions, often by way of graceful, slow-moving melodies in which the theme unfolds with the tantalising, slightly fraught majesty that suggests an icy, haunted take on Ramsey Lewis’ bluesy soul. In the middle of the slapstick there is thus highly accomplished performing, which ain’t no new thing in jazz.
The Jazz Mann
This is the same trio that backed Paul Dunmall on the excellent Slam release “Moment to Moment” in 2009. But whereas the Slam was a more-or-less typically gravid, heavyweight improv session, The Money Notes is much brighter; a piquant miso soup, if you will, to Moment to Moment’s hearty winter broth. It’s an album characterised by playful invention, as the chipper cartoon hens on the cover might suggest, but it’s played with a transformative sensitivity.
This is an album of instant appeal. Many of its tunes are playful, and some are little more than fragmentary sonic amuse-bouche. “Pedagogophillia”, for instance, shapes up not unlike an acid-jazz era Blue Note favourite such as Lee Morgan’s “Rumproller”, but stops abruptly before it’s become anything more than that notion. “Gunn” likewise has an instantly appealing start, but then it’s nothing more than a long decaying chord, all over in 53 seconds. Six of the album’s 22 tracks last less than one minute; a further six last less than two. All of these short pieces plus four others were fully improvised. Just six of the remaining pieces are compositions, one or two from each of the participants. There’s also a solitary cover, of which more later.
The two pieces composed by pianist Matthew Bourne bookend the album. “BDK Theme” is light and playful at the outset, gets a bit stuck in a rut with some strangulated scat singing, is rescued by a new nursery-rhyme-like theme from Bourne, and is finally restored to its original buoyancy by the reprise of its theme; and all this in a couple of minutes. “Peace for Ben Cundale” is a total contrast; a limpid, vaguely mournful ballad, sensitively served by drummer Steve Davis’ brushwork. These contrasting tracks serve as the album’s pole stars.
Steve Davis’s sole composition “Hive Activity” is well titled, a knotty and somewhat convoluted bed of percussives that Bourne initially weaves around, then takes a firm grip on and asserts a wonderful solo. At 20 seconds shy of seven minutes, bassist Dave Kane’s “Old Gregg” is the album’s epic, and a chance for the trio to develop a theme. It has something of the flavour of Count Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump”, and develops as a mostly restrained showcase for Bourne. Another Kane tune, and an album highlight, “Scuttler No. 2” has an abstracted Latin flavour. Beginning as a light-fingered exercise for Davis, its latter half features Bourne rippling through the piano’s upper register with dazzling rapidity.
Some of the shorter pieces are mood exercises, some of them nicely formed, such as the hesitant “Know”, while others are barely more than tentative first steps. There’s very little filler, however; in the scrapbook quality of the album lies a great deal of its charm. There’s much to enjoy even in the most tentative pieces. “Mandrake”, for instance, begins as a probing keyboard exercise, but the group switches mood neatly behind some raw scat singing (actually little more, here, than a strangulated scream); its peculiar conclusion makes something novel from what could have amounted to little or nothing. “Needles”, a brief interlude of piano-innard tickling, is very well named. There are many more such off-the-cuff originalities, with a few more outbreaks of scat singing among them. These moments will be the ones that stick in a first-time listener’s ears, but they shouldn’t obscure the more considered playing that they punctuate.
The longer joint compositions feature some of the trio’s best collective and individual work. Bourne is at his lyrical best on “The Money Notes”, while “More Money Notes” has a poignant, truly lovely, Satie-like delicacy. The cover version I mentioned earlier is a rendition of Joe Harnell’s”Lonely Man”. It is played straight, in a deeply moving rendition. The absence of any hint of irreverence is all the more remarkable when one considers the tune’s origin as a theme for the ‘70s television series The Incredible Hulk. Of course, the following “Utter Contempt For All Those Who Scat Whilst Soloing” breaks the spell, with the trio romping through a collective solo, scatting as they go. Next in this track sequence, “No Money Notes” somehow reconciles the two preceding moods. It’s an extraordinary, ambivalent piece, and one I find myself drawn back to again and again. The collection to which the track lends its name has something of everything, yet it’s fully coherent as an album. Its humour is tempered with experimentation; its irreverence with impeccable musicianship. I can’t imagine ever tiring of it.
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