CD review

Tom Taylor and Matthew Herd – “First Light”

Tom Taylor and Matthew Herd – First Light
(Bandcamp (LINK) . Album (download) review by Sam Norris)

It’s impossible that London-based pianist and composer Tom Taylor could have known about the unusual circumstances under which his debut album, First Light, would be released; no tours or parties, just a Bandcamp upload and an informative Tweet. Fortunately, the Trinity graduate is already well-known to the London jazz scene, not least for his collaborations with such young envelope-pushers as guitarist Rob Luft and tenor saxophonist Joe Wright, the latter as part of improvised music trio duck-rabbit. First Light, though, is slightly more intimate, consisting of eight highly personal originals recorded duo with up-and-coming altoist Matthew Herd.

The first tune, also the title track, very much sets the theme for the rest of the album. We are greeted by a shimmering piano introduction from Taylor, whose careful touch and emphasis on melodic development is complemented well by Herd’s luminous, airy tone. Indeed, timbral blend seems to be as important a consideration for Taylor as note choice or harmonic complexity, lending the duo’s performance a subtlety and sophistication beyond their years. A bright, hopeful ostinato soon takes hold which would be considered fair game for a shred-up by many sax players; Herd takes the route less travelled, however, using tonal inflections and folksy, fragmented melodies to serve the music rather than his ego.

The expressive capacity of the two musicians is pushed to its extreme in Arches, a funereal piece whose undulating pulse, dramatic climaxes and lyrical quiet passages give it a strong chamber music sensibility. The influence of classical music can be found throughout most of the tunes, in fact, whether in the fittingly Debussy-ish nostalgia of Photograph or the quasi-Bach chorale harmony of Clockwork. This, in combination with Herd’s folkish tendencies and the pastoral John Taylor-isms of Taylor, give the record a restrained ECM-ness which is a pleasant antidote to the traditional ‘burning’ debut one sees so often.

This is not to say that Taylor and Herd don’t demonstrate their respective technical abilities; they do, with Herd executing delicate flourishes at the end of the mysteriously droning Plains and Taylor exploring dense harmonic structures on Interlude, the only solo piece on the album. But more impressive is the ability of the duo to phrase together, to match each other tonally and dynamically, and ultimately to create moments of interplay that transcend the need for musical ‘pyrotechnics’. Seascape is a perfect example of this, its constant undulation between two keys – which could easily become a dirge in the hands of less capable improvisers – serving as the basis for a slow build and then a soaring climax, Herd’s sound reaching its most strident.

The final track, a moody folk tune called Home, brings us to just that place, ending as the album began with Herd’s breathy alto. The sense of coherence Taylor has managed to create between his eight compositions is admirable, and ensures that the album hangs together well as a whole, blurring the lines between the improvised and the written, favouring honesty and lyricism over fast tempos and hard changes. It is a brave debut, my only criticism of which might be a slight lack of contrast in terms of density between some of the tunes; hearing Taylor come out of his supportive role to play a few more exposed solos might have remedied this. In general, though, the sparseness works, and the whole album has an ethereal beauty which makes it a charming musical escape from the monotony of lockdown.

LINK: Tom Taylor on Bandcamp

Categories: CD review

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