Sam Crowe Group – Journey to the Centre of Everything
(Whirlwind WR 4632 / 1st May Vortex. CD and launch review by Alison Bentley)
One of pianist Sam Crowe’s compositions is called Gaia, referring to the idea of the Earth as a living, self-regulating being. It’s a good way to describe a jazz group: musicians listening to each other and responding with subtle adjustments to Crowe’s beautiful writing. As Adam Waldmann’s soprano soared over Crowe’s brimming arpeggios, there were ghosts of British folk music haunting Robert Glasper-like repeated chord. There were strong (acoustic) Glasper influences throughout. When soloing, Crowe seemed to defer to the band’s whole sound, using chords and arpeggios rather than virtuosic flourishes. But in Gaia he extended, too, into some exquisite Herbie Hancock-style runs.
Several tunes referred to the idea of re-creation; what Crowe has called ‘micro-universes’- but introduced with disarming humour. In Journey to the Centre of Everything, he had a wonderful way of releasing tense modal chords with rock changes. You might think that such an organic approach to music would require acoustic instruments- but Will Davies’ electric guitar, with distortion in the sound, brought a distinctive and personal voice. He has his own style, not bluesy, but expressive, with hints of Kurt Rosenwinkel and Wolfgang Muthspiel.
Back to the Earth (Crowe: a ‘wholesome’ idea about death) has a deliciously uneasy sense of time, a deceptively simple cycle of 21 beats. The arrangements ebbed and flowed; the heartfelt sax solo was accompanied by just piano, followed by telepathy between bass and Dave Hamblett’s drums as they came back in. Danish bassist Jasper Høiby’s muscular sound was particularly mesmerising. Circles was perhaps the most compelling, setting up a piano groove with spine-tingling voicings before the drums resolutely played 4 across the piano’s 6, a kind of musical photomontage. Circles and several other pieces had gratifyingly funky riffs written for unison left hand piano and bass across the beat, perhaps like some of the trip hop Crowe was influenced by in his native Bristol.
The ballad Lydia had a warm Jarrett-like quality. Hamblett’s delicate brushwork seemed to have a sixth sense, responding to everything Crowe played almost before he played it. Høiby’s melodic bass solo revealed more of his luxuriant tone. I love those moments in gigs where musicians are no longer worried about their solos, and can just improvise freely and colloquially with each other. Crowe has actually written some these moments into the pieces, where musicians trade 4 and 8 bars instead of taking conventional solos. Waldmann’s sweet soprano phrases were particularly beautiful over Crowe’s two chords in Lydia, and there was a point in Bad Science where sax, piano and guitar were all improvising exquisitely together, emerging from the strong rock groove.
Crowe also writes film music, and is good at creating atmospheres. The Arrow of Time concluded the gig, shifting through many moods, beginning with a Michael Nyman-esque piano intro in 7, an exotic guitar theme, and some inspired drum n bass rhythms (a highlight), Hamblett filling in the patterns with extraordinary drum rolls, soloing against the piano’s groove. Crowe’s CD was recorded in NY, with Mark Guiliana on drums, Alan Hampton on bass and Will Vinson on alto (Crowe: ‘…they’re in America, where I left them…’) as well as Waldmann and Davies. There was no feeling on the gig that anyone was missing. Crowe’s influences are manifold- jazz, classical, folk, triphop, rock. His visionary writing and powerful melodies fused them into a new whole, an urban urgency mixed with the pastoral gentleness. It was standing room only at the Vortex, and a sense of something special happening.