CD Review: Justin Swadling – Modus

Justin Swadling, Liam Waugh, Emily Francis

CD Review: Justin Swadling – Modus
(ASIN: B00725EV9W – CD Review by Alison Bentley)

Soulful sax, infectious grooves, good clean funk. Tenor-player Justin Swadling writes the tunes and leads the trio. The strength of their debut album lies in the tight band sound and in the tunes themselves. They’re written like songs, with verses and choruses: the first hearing gives you the hook lines and irresistible rhythms. More careful listening reveals sophisticated compositions, thoughtful arrangements, attention to detail and fine playing.

Swadling calls his compositions ‘singable melodies’, and at times they recall Grover Washington’s soulfulness. But Swadling’s tone is tougher than Washington’s – on the funky Chance his solo sounds more like Kenny Garrett – playing mostly within the harmonic structure, with some fast atonal phrases.

Nightlights is perhaps a nod to Donald Fagen’s Nightfly, less lush but with a similar beat. There’s a hint of 90s acid jazz, calling to mind Roger Beaujolais’ Vibraphonic, but with a sparser sound. Maceo Parker’s influence can be heard in Swadling’s gravelly tone in Rush– a funky, dancey tune, with a melody so strong that the complex chord modulations slip by almost unnoticed. In the gentle hiphop ballad Visions and the meditative Adoration, his sweet, high sound conjures up Kirk Whalum.

Several pieces recall Steps Ahead (the line-up with Bendik on sax.) Matter is a good example, with its strong melodic riffs, and sections with different rhythms and moods. Emily Francis plays the Rachel Z role- in fact, a double role on both keyboards and synth bass. She has a remarkable, versatile sense of rhythm. She plays everything from Steely Dan/Supertramp-like Fender Rhodes chords on Chance and Rush, to spacey sounds on Fix. She even sounds like a moody rock guitar on Visions. It’s so groovy you almost expect an Erykah Badu vocal to come in. Her solos on Fix and Underground are gutsy and bluesy, with a little Headhunters Herbie Hancock, or 60s Joe Zawinul. I’d love to hear her solo more.

Drummer Liam Waugh has a superb range of grooves in his repertoire, from understated hiphop to hard-hitting funk- there could be some influences from James Brown’s Funky Drummer. Underground shows his gentler side, starting with Jack deJohnette-esque drum rolls, moving into jazzy 6/8, then rock. He solos creatively over perfectly-orchestrated stops.

Swadling calls the album ‘smooth jazz’, but the trio’s individual musical personalities are too strong to sound truly ‘smooth’- this is music that demands you really listen to it. Although the trio were still at the London College of Music until fairly recently, they’ve already played at festivals on the Isle of Wight, in Oxford and Ealing (with Mike Outram on guitar) and others- we’ll look forward to hearing a lot more of them.

CD available here

Categories: miscellaneous

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