Kevin Figes Quartet – Changing Times
(Pig Records PIG10. CD review by Dick Hovenga*)
Saxophonist/flautist Kevin Figes is a distinctive figure in UK jazz. He is constantly setting himself new challenges as a musician, as he does here in his most recent album Changing Times.
Changing Times comes after a hiatus of four years. For personal reasons – Figes’ father died and his mother was admitted to a care home – he initially stepped away from music completely and didn’t touch an instrument for a considerable time. Then, gradually, because it is something that clearly runs deep within him, he began to get involved again. He started by dissecting some complex pieces of music by others, and then, as the inspiration flowed, began to write his own.
Changing Times comes essentially from that last phase, and from the real freedom to get on and compose that he experienced. There was real momentum: whereas Changing Times is only just going on sale now, he has also already finished a second full album of completely new music. That time which he spent away from music was also time to reflect upon his early lessons with saxophonist Elton Dean from Soft Machine, and also on his collaborations with the much-missed Keith Tippett.
This is an adventurous album which traverses many different musical worlds. There are times when the listener senses the pull towards the full-on experimentation and spiritualism of the ’70s, others where the music is completely of now. It is as if we are in free fall through jazz history – and that creates a fascinating sense of timelessness. Figes’ flute playing is exceptional, his saxophone sound is rock-solid and always feels acoustically right in the foreground. Just as important for the ambiance of the album is the great playing of keyboardist Jim Blomfield. Like Figes, he is from Bristol; they have been good musical friends for many years.
Blomfield opens the album with sequencer sounds. In compositions such as the furiously adventurous Radio Play, he and Figes set the atmosphere, and they get it just right. His playing and his great choices of different keyboards always manage to spring surprises: there is an astonishing range of timbres and textures throughout the album. The band sound also benefits from the strong playing of bassist Thad Kelly and drummer Mark Whitlam.
A major inspiration for this repertoire was Hermeto Pascoal. Figes heard a composition by the Brazilian in a live set by jazz colleagues Iain Ballamy and Huw Warren, and went back home and wrote Guiding Light. Also in the mix is the music of his first teacher Elton Dean’s band Soft Machine. Figes wrote the very appealing tune Toothpick as a musical sequel/reply to the song Teeth (from Soft Machine’s 1971 album Fourth, written by Mike Ratledge).
Changing Times is an album full of challenging compositions which allow all four instrumentalists to excel. There are also two songs with vocalist Emily Wright: Soft Escape Bed has a great sense of adventure, and Strange Place is a beautiful ode to the seventies horror film of the same name.
It is always good to hear musicians who keep themselves open to new influences – that enriches the music. Figes and his group open up new musical paths that run from jazz into prog just as easily into free improv. And with a composition such as Enid Dodd’s Ruler they plunge just as hard into the groove. This writer hopes that the album after Changing Times will come quickly: we want a lot more of this.
This is Sebastian’s English version of the review by Dick Hovenga which appeared in Dutch on the Written in Music website.