Climbing In Circles (Ubuntu Music) is the “culmination of a slow-burning three-year project” by Nottinghamshire-born drummer Will Glaser in his trio with Matthew Herd and Liam Noble. He explained the background to John Fordham:
I liked Will Glaser from his website homepage before I ever knowingly heard him hit a drum. A visit to willglaserdrums.com opens on a shot of the Worksop-born percussionist in full cry at the kit, lumberjack facial hair resplendent, every inch the young percussion powerhouse he’s been since he graduated from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama’s jazz course six years ago. He could undoubtedly have decorated that image with some catchy quotes about his talents from the Great and Good – classy accomplices on his CV include Laura Jurd, Kit Downes, Henry Lowther, even Dame Cleo Laine. But it’s Wynton Marsalis’s commendation – ‘great beard!’ – that takes pride of place.
Will Glaser’s inclinations, you feel, lean more towards the sheer enjoyment of music-making with likeminded players who are often close friends than poring over his marketing strategy. This month sees the Ubuntu label’s release of Glaser’s fine trio album Climbing In Circles, an eclectic and unusual session joining him with saxophonist Matthew Herd (a long-time friend and playing partner from student days) and the peerless British pianist Liam Noble – the man whose audacious 2009 album tribute to Dave Brubeck prompted even the then octogenarian ‘Take Five’ legend to call the recording ‘an inspiration and a challenge for me to carry on in the avenues that you have opened’.
Climbing in Circles mixes traditional swing, abstract improv, an initially free-blown and then folksily lyrical but always time-shifting take on Don Cherry’s ‘Mopti’, a wistful Herd-led trip through the Tom Waits ballad ‘Lonely’, even a jauntily grooving ‘I’m an Old Cowhand’. Liam Noble’s variations ease from the coolly elliptical to the clangily Monkish on a patient unfolding of ‘Mood Indigo’ over Glaser’s discreet brushwork, and the pianist cranks up an exhilarating boogie-like groove under Herd’s sax after a fast-passing passage of call-and-response driven by a clatteringly emphatic Glaser on Paul Motian’s ‘Mumbo Jumbo’. It’s a session that constantly suggests an intimate and sometimes mischievous conversation between three singular characters who know each other’s quirks, and enjoy fostering them at some points and subverting them at others.
The album is the culmination of a slow-burning three-year project for Will Glaser, which emerged from a regular duo partnership with Matt Herd when the two were London conservatoire students. Glaser eventually released some of their dialogues in January 2019 as the digital album Climbing In Circles Pt 1, and in the following August came Climbing In Circles Pt 2 – with the same repertoire of improvisations, originals, tributes to favourite singer-songwriters, and classics including ‘A Flower is a Lovesome Thing’, ‘Jitterbug Waltz’ and ‘Cheek to Cheek’. But this time the drummer’s partner was Liam Noble, Glaser’s sometime teacher and a musician he had admired since he first heard him in duo with the unique jazz/contemporary-classical drummer Paul Clarvis (another Glaser hero) on the pair’s overlooked 2009 gem Starry Starry Night. Now comes the Climbing in Circles finale for all three partners together – exploring a different tracklist, even if the idiomatic mix has plenty in common with its two predecessors.
Will Glaser first came south to Guildhall after revelatory drum lessons from the age of nine with former Grimethorpe Colliery Band percussionist Steve Kohut, hours of rock and funk practice to his parents’ Led Zeppelin and Cream albums, and a lot of youth big band experience around Nottingham and Derby. As a teenager, he had pondered if jazz was becoming an obsolete art, but arrival in London soon put paid to that fear.
It was great to find a scene where it was all still happening – great, and terrifying,” Will Glaser recalls when we talk on the phone in a break between the lockdown-era’s Zoom-teaching sessions for the course he now runs at Guildhall. “I was in a year with some fantastic players, like Ralph Wyld and Will Barry, and I met Matt Herd then, who was at the Academy. After college in 2014, Matt and I played as a duo a lot – both on improvised music and compositions, just trying to fill up the time-void we both had then, when we didn’t have many gigs. Later on, I felt I wanted to do something of my own, and somehow everything that led to Climbing in Circles seemed to form in my head at once. In 2017, I sometimes played with Liam on my Guildhall friend Mark Lewandowski’s Fats Waller tour as a dep for Paul (Clarvis), and I realised from the way Mark used the Waller tunes that you don’t need a lot of predetermined material for interesting things to happen. I wanted to make my music looser than it had been, and for the personalities of the improvisers to create its identity as it goes. But at the same time I was interested in how as improvisers we all bring different things to interpretations of composed pieces too, which is why I always imagined Climbing in Circles as two records with Matt and Liam separately, and then a third as a trio.”
Glaser had originally envisaged all three sessions addressing the same repertoire, but he was moving toward changing it by the time he began to consider the recording of Part Three in early 2020. The arrival of the pandemic with its restricted opportunities for the trio to run in new material on gigs then made his own role in choosing a different programme more dominant. But he knew he could trust a long-cultivated dynamic he described in the new album’s liner note, one that ‘draws upon a wealth of deep learning that only happens between musicians who have played together a great deal; musicians who have taught each other by osmosis, rather than by creating a complex script or rigid structure to define the roles of the participants.’
“In terms of my thinking about all this,” Glaser begins, before changing tack with the engaging spontaneity that characterises both his music-making and his conversation. “Well, I try not to think when I’m playing, but the part that’s most fascinated me about this project is how the same tune sounds on a different day and with a different person. When we were preparing for the third album, we had some April gigs lined up to try out new ideas, but they all got cancelled of course. So in the end we just had two rehearsals when the first lockdown’s restrictions eased a bit in May, and then we did the recording.”
All the tunes on Climbing in Circles have personal connections for Glaser, whether they lie in his long relationships with Herd and Noble in the improvisations, or the backstories to his discoveries of the composers. Paul Motian’s ‘Mumbo Jumbo’ pays tribute to Motian’s influence on Glaser “as an artist with his own aesthetic, a hugely strong and independent voice, but it’s always jazz in the broadest and loosest sense.” Glaser also included Don Cherry’s ‘Mopti’ to ‘nod the hat’ to Cherry’s and Ornette Coleman’s legendary drummer Ed Blackwell. But he also hears continuities all over jazz’s century of life – between Duke Ellington’s vaulting imagination in transforming jazz melody and harmony in the 1930s and ’40s and Coleman’s envelope-stretching “harmolodic” ideas in the post-bebop era; between swing and modern playing on Ellington’s 1962 ‘Money Jungle’ album with Charles Mingus and Max Roach, and between drummers like Roach, Blackwell and Motian and their revolutionary forebears like Zutty Singleton and Baby Dodds.
Will Glaser makes light of the idea that in empathising with the work of pioneering players going all the way back to jazz’s earliest days, he’s an unusual kind of contemporary musician even in such a genre-fluid era as ours. We muse on what connects Paul Motian’s and Paul Clarvis’s “feel for syncopation, and sense of discovery and joy in giving” to Dodds’ and Singleton’s effortless hipness, to Glaser’s own recent duo recording New River Ramble with multi-instrumental innovator James Allsopp, or his next venture with Matt Herd – destined to be a set of longer-form improvised conversation pieces enriched by cutting-edge techniques of overdubbing and sonic layering.
It sounds like a roll-call of very disparate musical adventures, but to Will Glaser they all belong on the same continuum if they were ignited by jazz’s improvisational spark. “Jazz changes, but doesn’t change,” the drummer says. It sounds like there’s nothing but gratitude and continuing wonderment in the way he expresses that observation.
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Will Glaser, Matthew Herd and Liam Noble’s Climbing in Circles is out now on Ubuntu. (ARTIST PAGE)
Glaser’s duo with James Allsopp, New River Ramble, is available on Bandcamp.