Aquarium – Places
(Preview of album launch: 12th January 2013 at Kings Place, first concert in the 2013 The Base series)
Matthew Wright writes:
The London Jazz scene has been strengthened by several distinguished graduates emerging from the Royal Academy of Music’s Jazz programme in recent years. Pianist Sam Leak – with his quartet Aquarium, whose first album was widely acclaimed on release in 2011 – is one of the best. Aquarium’s second album, Places, begins its launch on Saturday 12 January at Kings Place (with a second launch event at Pizza Express, Dean Street, on March 10).
Leak, with James Allsopp on tenor sax and bass clarinet, Calum Gourlay on double bass and Joshua Blackmore on drums, has written a mature, lyrical piece of chamber jazz. There’s an engaging balance of wintry melancholy and surging goodwill on display here. Aquarium’s music is beautifully textured, its collages of melody in Leak’s and Allsopp’s superb solo playing deftly supported by Blackmore’s dextrously inventive rhythm and Gourlay’s intimate, resonant bass.
As you would expect in an album called Places, the connection with location is strong. “Marrakech”, Leak explains, “Captures my experience of Marrakech as place,” which is “beautiful and exciting, but also pretty dangerous.” Evocation of place also features strongly in the track Catherine Grove (near Deptford Bridge, SE10), a name that seems to suggest something romantic – a tender meeting in leafy seclusion perhaps? – but whose musical tension swells, then dissipates ominously.
In fact, the experience which the track draws on couldn’t be less romantic: Leak was robbed at knifepoint in Catherine Grove in early 2012. “It was a frightening experience and it shook me up a lot at the time. For a few months after that I was still checking over my shoulder wherever I went. The tune captures a lot of the anger and fear that I felt after It.” Catherine Grove has a noticeable urgency and drive, which reflects a slightly different musical approach:
“The harmonic movement is less horizontally composed than some of the others – it’s more about the tension and release of the juxtaposition of dark blocks of sound of varying intensity. This was the last track we recorded, and I hadn’t managed to sleep at all the night beforehand. I was tense and well-coffee-d which adds a certain jitteriness to it that is pretty appropriate.”
Allsopp’s agile saxophone phrasing and plaintive tone in Catherine Grove brings out the track’s combination of melancholy and menace perfectly. In February he turns to the bass clarinet, whose wintry, woody timbre is the perfect expression of a piece which is more than just a seasonal portrait: “I had a fairly dark February in 2012, and this piece is really about that. The use of the bass clarinet helps to achieve that effect. It’s a pretty relentlessly sombre piece,” Leak says.
The other tracks are more mood than place, though again, Leak’s evocative skill comes into is own. Clutter, with its potently brooding, spooky atmosphere, relies on sophisticated control of rhythm and harmony: “Josh is holding down the pulse but the rest of us are rhythmically disconnected from him (Calum moves in and out of it). For me the feeling of unease comes mostly from the harmony. Though the improvisation probably sounds quite free, it’s actually fairly specific. There are numerous possible key centres available throughout for the music to slip and slide through, and the improvising moves in and out of them, and they often co-exist. As Western listeners we get very accustomed to hearing in relation to a single key centre at any given time, so when we hear music where there are a number of possibilities it can be quite unnerving.”
Emotional honesty and a determination to relate frankly to his feelings and environment are what come through strongly throughout this album. “Musically I’ve always been interested in writing and playing the things that I hear, and the things that mean something to me. When I listen to music the most important things to me are the emotional effect that it has upon me (this isn’t limited to overtly lyrical music) and how ‘honest’ the music feels. There are certainly musicians, such as John Coltrane and Lee Konitz for example, for whom this factor is unquestionable, and though it’s a hard thing to qualify, I think it’s one of aspects of music that speaks the most to me.”
For a player of only 26, with a second album just released, Leak’s leadership of Aquarium seems remarkably assured. He was at college with Blackmore and Gourlay and all four are friends. The working relationship is strikingly healthy and collaborative: “I’m often quite specific about what I’m looking for compositionally,” he says. “The others still make useful suggestions and these sometimes lead to changes… the whole band work-shopped Catherine Grove quite a bit when we were recording it.”
Leak has plans for another Aquarium album plus a solo suite yet to be recorded. The practicalities of building a performing career even for music as distinguished as this are formidable, however. “I would like to tour more with Aquarium,” he says, “although touring is expensive. I have managed to put together a tour later in the year for the current record, which includes some great venues such as Pizza Express Dean Street (London), Dempseys (Cardiff) and Seven Arts Centre (Leeds).”
Leak is wary of the time and energy drained by the paperwork involved in securing funding. “The main problem I have is finding time to practice and time to play and develop with other musicians. Add regular funding applications, tour booking etc into the mix and the time to work on your playing and music is severely eaten into.”
What are his priorities? “I think my number one priority has to be to feel that I am happy with my musical development. In this way I’m still trying to work out the right balance of being practical, and ensuring that I’m musically fulfilled.”
Aquarium’s Places, (Jellymould Jazz), is officially released on 11 March, but will be on sale at both Kings Place and Pizza Express launch events.