Alison Rayner Quintet (ARQ)(Pizza Express. 26 February 2020. Review by Alison Bentley)
Sometimes the mood of a gig lingers on long after it’s over. British bassist Alison Rayner’s Quintet were launching their latest album Short Stories, with a peppering of tunes from previous albums too. The gig had the relaxed feel of old friends playing intuitively together, with varied styles of writing from all the band that were both skillful and personal.
Older pieces Musicophilia and Half a World Away engaged the emotions from the start, with their minor Latin-funk grooves. Diane McLoughlin’s elegant tenor responded to Steve Lodder’s romantic piano and Deirdre Cartwright’s sweet-toned guitar. The intensity fell away for Rayner’s sinuous solo. The second piece became a double time samba to bring a smile to the face, as the guitar developed high-energy rock distortion over Lodder’s crashing ten-fingered chords.
Several of the new album’s tracks are in memoriam. Two pieces by Rayner remembered young relatives in Scotland. There Is a Crack in Everything (the Cohen quote continues, “…that’s how the light gets in,”) evoked the energy of Rayner’s late niece cycling round the Highlands. All the instruments fed into the skittish groove, underpinned by Rayner’s beautifully wavering notes. Lodder’s solo section had wheels within wheels, from Tristano-like left hand to spiky dissonance recalling Craig Taborn. McLoughlin’s plangent soprano piped with a Gaelic tone.
Later, A Braw Boy (for her nephew) drew on folk and jazz, with even a Scottish snap in the melody. As the chords grew more complex, the guitar notes grew exotically longer. Cartwright’s Life Lived Wide remembered pianist Esborn Svensson as well as Debbie Dickinson. Dickinson was manager and sound engineer for many women, including the Guest Stars- Rayner and Cartwright played with them in the 80s. There were vibrant Latin grooves in the style of that band, and melancholy guitar arpeggios, beautifully tracked by piano. These pieces told the stories of people’s lives, but Rayner’s Here and Now was, she told us, about the importance of “living in the present”. She had a rhythm section player’s sense of building textures, with gentle Latin cymbals from Buster Birch. The tenor solo seemed to emerge as part of the whole.
Two other pieces from the new album also felt written specially for the band. Lodder’s Seeing Around Corners was like a Chicago blues, filled with crunchy #9 chords, but with unexpected notes round every corner. Cartwright’s superb Hendrix-inflected solo caught the mood. The piece changed direction, as slow chords fell away to a still point, with a serene soprano solo. McLoughlin’s Buster Breaks a Beat showcased Birch’s skills. (He apparently even broke a stick practising it.) Its circling Glasper-esque chords, nervy sax phrases and crying blues guitar hooked you in. Birch’s strong funky beats were filled with feathery cymbal details.
Rayner’s other pieces had varied sources of inspiration. One had a didj drone on guitar, with Weather Report-ish funk and harmonies like Michael Brecker’s EWI. (Rayner: ”Hope it captures the spirit of Australia for you.”)The Trunk Call celebrated elephants in a Keralan procession, with slinky riffs and pleasantly lumbering rhythms. The history of May Day was there, from rural folkiness, to the struggling chaos of free jazz. Jaco Pastorius was a “huge inspiration” to Rayner, and the encore Portrait of Jaco had a chunky joyousness as each solo tumbled into funk. The audience whooped Birch’s solo.
There were many moments through the gig where details would suddenly lift your mood into something special. The fine music and warm atmosphere left the audience wanting more.
Feature/ Interview about Short StoriesAlbum review