Magpie Trio – Magpie Trio: Live
(Available from Sam Jesson’s Bandcamp. Review by Graham Spry)
The succinctly entitled Magpie Trio: Live is the debut album from Magpie Trio, led by Sam Jesson on drums with George Crowley on saxophone and Tom Farmer of Empirical on bass. They were one of the lucky few to have been able to tour at the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020 before the lights went down. Fortunately, it was possible to capture a snapshot of the tour at the Hermon, Oswestry, and this album is a recording of that date.
During the tour, Jesson was interviewed by John Fordham during the EFG London Jazz Festival (link below). He explained that much of the music in the band’s set are reworkings of popular songs as arranged by the great Ahmad Jamal. It is perhaps fitting that a drummer should be attracted to the pianist’s arrangements as demonstrated at the beginning of the first track, Stompin’ At The Savoy, which shares the solid rhythm of Ahmad Jamal’s signature tune, Poinciana. In many ways the album is reminiscent of the tribute album to Eric Dolphy that Tom Farmer recorded with Empirical, Out’n’In, where the intent is to capture the spirit of the original artist rather than to simply play his greatest hits. Furthermore, simply by virtue of being a live recording, the album has something of the rough and spontaneous feel of Ahmad Jamal’s most celebrated records.
There are four tracks that rework popular songs previously arranged by Ahmad Jamal. Stompin’ At the Savoy, was recorded several times by Ahmad Jamal, but the version that inspired Magpie Trio was recorded at the Spotlite Club in 1958 and similarly opens with a prominent bass-line. It’s Easy to Remember preserves the memorable melody of the original but like many Jamal arrangements it is the song’s rhythm that is most prominent. Autumn Leaves, retains the pace of Jamal’s arrangement although, with the bass and saxophone so much in the lead, it is difficult not to be reminded of Cannonball Adderley’s classic version. The Breeze And I has Crowley’s saxophone taking the part originally taken by the piano accompanied by Jesson’s scattering percussion and Farmer’s subdued bass. This may actually be the track that sounds the most authentically like Jamal.
The song Single Petal of a Rose is a wistful composition by Duke Ellington with an arrangement that opens with Farmer’s improvised arco on the double bass that develops organically until Crowley’s saxophone eventually provides the melody. The song Slow Hot Wind by Henry Mancini has been covered by many artists from Johnny Hartmann to Sarah Vaughan, but it is a sparse version by Lucia Cadotsch that has inspired Magpie Trio’s arrangement that gives plenty of space for Crowley to let rip before finishing on a slow dying refrain.
The album closes with the instantly recognisable The Christmas Song which is most significant because of the happy memories it almost certainly brought back to an audience of guests and residents when the trio played it on tour at Brookside House, Liverpool, in December.
This live album captures the intimate feel of Magpie Trio on stage (they play without charts) and gives an opportunity to hear three of the country’s best musicians playing fresh and enjoyable arrangements of mostly familiar tunes made famous by African-American jazz musicians. It can only be hoped that there will be further opportunities to see the trio perform on stage when live performances commence again.