CD reviews

CD REVIEW: Roller Trio – New Devices

Roller Trio – New Devices
(Edition Records. CD review by Rob Mallows)

On the one hand, Roller Trio are a Mercury Prize nominated trio that is “gritty” and “pushes sonic boundaries”, critically lauded and part of the new wave of artists mixing “urban” and jazz music.

On the other hand they are tough to take, according to another reviewer contact who told me: “I just put it [their last album] in the CD player and then clutched my ears in pain, ranted and raved at an empty room, grew red, but thankfully managed to hit eject.”

So, they divide opinion. Why?

Leeds-based Roller Trio are Chris Sharkey on guitars, James Mainwaring on saxophone and electronica, and Luke Reddin-Williams on drums. The band – with its mish-mash of influences and sounds and its evident desire to appeal to cooler end of the jazz scene – are doing what many new young bands do: challenging the notion of what jazz is.

Is it jazz? Perhaps it doesn’t really matter. After all, we’ve had this debate in music ever since Bitches Brew came out.

The more pertinent question is, surely: Is it any good? And my answer is: well, kind of. This isn’t a bad album at all – indeed, there are a number of tracks on here which are very good and compositionally exciting, such as second track Milligrammer, which has an eerie, other-worldly vibe. But progressiveness is not in and of itself a prerequisite of quality. This album does have a couple of flaws too.

The album opens with Decline of Northern Civilisation a dystopian, almost Blade Runner-like electronic overture on which Mainwaring’s saxophone honks out a repetitive, catchy refrain and Reddin-Williams’ techno-infused drums kick up a storm. The track personifies in the first two minutes this overlapping of multiple genres – jazz, electronica, dance and trip-hop.

While innovative, it is a mash (up) that’s a little lumpy. It will go down fantastically well with the Shoreditch crowd who will gasp at its urban edginess, but as a track to simply listen to, it seems chaotic for the sake of being so.

Genre mashing when it comes off creates something fresh, exciting with a “best of both worlds” quality. Like peanut butter and jam sandwiches, a track like Mad Dryad shouldn’t work – think Depeche Mode crossed with Courtney Pine shot through with an Afro-beat feel – but it does, Mainwaring’s sax blowing up a storm that fits the fabric onto which its painted.

Get the mix slightly wrong – as on Enthusula, which sounds a bit like Andy Shephard duetting with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop – and you lose all sense of this being a jazz album; it’s all about soundscape and I think doesn’t really hit the mark, though it does have a certain improvised cutting edge.

Having said that, you can see what the band is trying to do. Why be conventional? Why not explore the outer edges of music and be brave, and one has to take one’s reviewer hat off to them for doing so. Far better an innovative album that’s flawed, than just resting on your laurels. Push those sonic boundaries hard, lads. But when innovative and genre-mashing trumps tune-smithing and, frankly, listenability too much, that’s when you risk pushing the music over the edge and off a cliff.

This is the very definition of a curate’s egg of an album. I like more tracks than I dislike. But I don’t love it, and I suspect that any jazz music fan over 30 might feel the same way. But then, perhaps that’s the point. It’s not for us!

Technology and electronica are inescapably going to be part of the future of jazz and Roller Trio are pioneers in bringing these elements to wider notice, and we need pioneers in music. I just have a feeling that others, in future, may well do it better.

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2 replies »

  1. I'm 67, well over 30, and I love it. Too many jazz aficionados keep in their comfort zone. I'm so tired of the Dave Brubeck niceness, if we don't evolve we'd still be listening to nothing but gregorian chants.

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