CD review

Graham South Quartet – “By And By”

Graham South Quartet – By And By
(Efpi Records – FP032. CD review by Adrian Pallant) 

A debut album from trumpeter Graham South might sound like misinformation, given his prominence on Manchester’s thriving jazz scene over the last few years (including Beats & Pieces Big Band, Johnny Hunter Quartet, Article XI). But, sure enough, By And By is South’s first as leader – and what a well considered, sometimes appropriately understated realisation of his concept from this quartet with pianist Richard Jones, double bassist Seth Bennett and drummer Johnny Hunter.

The strains of five, familiar spirituals (notably employed by Sir Michael Tippett in his oratorio ‘A Child of Our Time’) are stated, skilfully explored and re-imagined across broad canvases; and fronted by the leader’s attractive, assured tone, the resulting group exploration is one of continuous interest, characterized by careful detailing and interaction. Although divided into six tracks, this is otherwise a continuous hour of music to engage with, rather than a ‘casual listen’ – and that immersion slowly reveals so many subtleties, its procession of dialogue between the four players even reminiscent of Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’.

Commissioned for Southwell Music Festival 2018, Graham South connected with the importance of the spirituals’ religious and liberative contexts – originally sung by African-American slaves, in America – as he explains: “The creative process… was based around the musical and lyrical content of the songs, trying to show deep respect to them whilst providing space for improvisation. Working with these spirituals has led me to seek more knowledge about their history, the systematic oppression of the Black Americans who created them, and the wisdom of the songs themselves”.

So these interpretations naturally oscillate between despair, uncertainty and steadfast hope; and while this is, by circumstance, ‘only’ creative music, the freedom and focus of these open environments can both thoughtfully provoke and entertain. Darkness does, indeed, pervade Nobody Knows through shadowy piano and deep arco bass as South maintains its resolute melody. It takes Hunter’s clambering, sparky rhythms (always a joy to encounter) to signpost a pathway towards the light, emphasized by glorious trumpet improv, and into its ensuing free-jazz Interlude.

Quiet, muted Steal Away, accompanied by starlit piano, searches through fragile optimism (‘I ain’t got long to stay here; my Lord calls me; the trumpet sounds within my soul’), discovering a more spirited, straight-ahead route towards Seth Bennett’s expressively pliant solo bass in By And By (‘I’m goin’ to lay down my heavy load’). This sunnier, swinging outlook is a delight to follow throughout its 12-minute span – a showcase of cohesive yet angular jazz, with Graham South’s lines sounding clear amidst its comprehensible turbulence.

Evidence of the subtlety mentioned above is prominent in Go Down, Moses, demonstrated by Hunter’s expert restraint then mobility with ‘skins and gongs’, coupled with high piano glimmers; and only towards its conclusion does the trumpet gruffly and bluesily sound its recognisable phrases. To close, Jones’ solo improv introduces the bustling journey of Deep River, with hints of McCoy Tyner/Freddie Hubbard and a fabulously full-on drum display. Indeed, it’s striking how Manchester’s players are establishing a creative output on a par with many classic early-1960s recordings.

South’s plaintive though hopeful closing statement to his album – looking towards ‘that promised land, where all is peace’ – reminds us of the reason, the struggle… which continues.

LINK: preview and purchase the album here

By And By is released today, 18 September 2020

Categories: CD review

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