CD REVIEW: Dominic Howles Septet- Bristolian Thoroughfare

Dominic Howles Septet- Bristolian Thoroughfare
(Bopcentric Music. BCCD02. CD Review by Alison Bentley)

Busy London bassist Dominic Howles’ new Septet CD Bristolian Throughfare has strong swinging grooves and rich arrangements. It charts his move from the West Country to the metropolis. In the cover photo, a small boy cycles adventurously and precariously along Bristol’s Clifton Suspension Bridge. Turn over the CD case, and Howles is absorbed in a chess game- but his opponent is his double bass. This mix of childlike freedom and careful musical thought runs all through this fine album.

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Howles paid his dues in the 90s with drummer Tommy Chase’s band, and you can hear the hard bop influence. Most of the tracks are originals, but there are three unexpected covers. Heard it Through the Grapevine alternates modal Afro-Latin with robust swing. Allison Neale’s perfectly-phrased, blues-to-bop flute solo, and Matt Fishwick’s superb drum solo stand out over increasingly rich harmonies. Supergrass’ 90s hit Moving still has its bright hopeful sus chords, swinging in fast 6 and 4. Josephine Davis’ unhurried tenor solo recalls Hank Mobley in its tough-edged phrasing. Herbie Hancock’s 60s album Speak Like a Child has been a big influence- you can hear this in Howles’ assured four-horn arrangements of the melody. When Love Breaks Down (a Prefab Sprout 80s single) has exquisitely beautiful, uplifting harmonies. Howles was inspired by Hancock’s reworking of Norwegian Wood: ‘I wanted that thing where you keep a tune the same and do something to the harmony.’

In other projects, Howles has been working on others’ big band scores, reducing them to four or five horn parts. You can hear the influence of Ellington in his own minor blues Bristol Thoroughfare. Howles’ bass holds the groove behind Fishwick’s imaginative drumming. Variations on a Riff is a little like a slow Four Brothers, with its buoyant theme and taut harmonies. Jamie O’Donnell’s mercurial (Phil Woods-influenced) bop-edged alto solo is a delight. There’s something of Horace Silver (in Jazz Messenger days) in Nick Tomalin’s sparkling piano solo.

The Latin Sunset in Vancouver (an elegy for Howles’ father) has warm chords that keep moving restlessly into unexpected keys, but always seem to come back to a reassuring place. Howles’ other hero is Gil Evans (especially New Bottle, Old Wine, with its delicate flute-led arrangements) and Howles’ harmonised backing lines are gorgeous. The haunting ballad Billy’s Bridge (Howles wisely rejected the working title Clifton Suspension Bridge) draws on Billy Strayhorn’s harmonic ideas. It’s a good frame for Howles’ plaintive bass solo, as he pulls the phrases against Fishwick’s brushes.

The band members have worked together in various permutations for a number of years and sound at ease with each other, not least in the final tune Ease Up, with its infectious boogaloo feel. ‘I wanted an out-and-out groove tune,’ says Howles, and it’s a mood-lifting piece, Steve Fishwick’s trumpet solo careering brilliantly and boppily through the chords.

The ensemble-playing is immaculate, the arrangements opulent, the grooves powerful and the solos played by some of London’s finest jazz musicians- and they sound as if they’re having a great time.

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