(Bandcamp. Download review by Jane Mann)
The Wobbly Rail 5 is a group of eminent jazz musicians led by English virtuoso saxophonist/composer Chris Biscoe. I first saw him play in 1979 when he had just joined the Mike Westbrook Brass Band, and heard him many times over the years since then. He performs in variety of Westbrook combos, and with a myriad of his own ensembles. He also toured with the legendary George Russell’s Living Time Orchestra, Hermeto Pascoal, the Brotherhood of Breath, the New York Composers Ensemble and Didier Levallet’s Orchestre National de Jazz.
There is a reason Biscoe is so much in demand from other band leaders. My fellow LondonJazz News critic Chris Jackson, reviewing Biscoe’s 2011 album Profiles of Mingus, wrote: “Biscoe must be one of the most underrated figures in UK jazz, his unassuming, learned demeanour belying a soloist of passionate (and unfailingly inventive) intensity, whether he’s playing alto or alto clarinet.”
I totally agree. When all this is over, nip out and see Biscoe play, never mind which of his (currently at least nine) ensembles it is. In the meantime, thank heavens for recordings and downloads like this one.
The Wobbly Rail 5 features two musicians with whom Biscoe has long associations – saxophonist/composer Pete Hurt, with whom Biscoe first played in 1975, and pianist/composer Liam Noble – Biscoe played and recorded with The Liam Noble Group in 2001. Then there’s bass stalwart Steve Watts (Loose Tubes, The Printmakers) and star young drummer Jon Scott, last heard by me with the Kairos 4Tet, so this is something of a supergroup.
The album consists of four tunes by Biscoe, two by Hurt, one by Noble and one by Thelonious Monk, a significant influence on Biscoe’s work along with Charles Mingus and Eric Dolphy. It is a fine collection of pieces, which repays multiple listenings – not least because there’s so much going on.
Pete Hurt is another unsung jazz hero – his compositions here, This One and a lovely piece from 1985, Lost For Words, could be overlooked Mingus tunes, they are so stuffed with lovely melodies and harmonies. Liam Noble’s composition Ask Your Mother, is a fast, multi-layered piece, showcasing each member of the band’s musical dexterity, with a notable bass solo from Watts and some impressive drumming from Jon Scott.
The Biscoe compositions are also terrific: O Pioneers!, named after the novel by Willa Cather and dedicated to her and to “the musical pioneers who created and transformed more than a century of jazz improvisation”, has a jaunty melody, is neatly structured, and is crammed with inventive improvisation. The amusingly titled Eyore Chokes On His Thesaurus, dedicated to Will Self, moves from jagged intro (with hee-haw motif), into a samba-like middle section, solos all round and then finishes with one of those Biscoe trademark elegant resolutions.
Rollin’ Down The Rio is another corker. The tune is described as “part memento of walking in southern Spain, part dedication to Sonny Rollins”. It begins as a melodic duet for saxophone and alto clarinet, supported by a lilting rhythm section, then there’s an intricate piano interlude, the counterpoint underscored with delicate drum and bass, an ensemble section which to me suggests river waters tumbling over rocks, a lovely bass solo – and just while you’re wondering what will happen next, the piece swiftly resolves pleasingly, with the theme ascending and the rhythm section falling away below. Finally, Aggro Turismo is precise, fast paced, and somewhat unsettling.
What a pleasure it is listening to musicians who sound so completely at ease with each other and with their material.
The album is available as a download only. It was recorded and mixed by Andy Cleyndert and produced by Chris Topley.
The Wobbly Rail image is an original painting by Kate Westbrook, included as a free high-res download.
100% of receipts of Wobbly Rail 5 (and Biscoe’s splendid Profiles of Mingus, which has just been made available as a download too) will be donated to Refuge Against Domestic Violence.
Chris Biscoe – alto sax (1,2,3,7,8 ), soprano sax (4,5), alto clarinet (6)
Pete Hurt – tenor sax (1,2,3,4,6,7), soprano (5,8)
Liam Noble – piano
Steve Watts – bass
Jon Scott – drums
1. O Pioneers! (Chris Biscoe)
2. This One (Pete Hurt)
3. Ask Your Mother (Liam Noble)
4. Lost For Words (Pete Hurt)
5. Played Twice (Thelonious Monk)
6. Rollin’ Down The Rio (Chris Biscoe)
7. Eyore Chokes On His Thesaurus (Chris Biscoe)
8. Aggro Turismo (Chris Biscoe, arranged by Pete Hurt)