Bass guitarist/bandleader Ben Crosland’s new album Solway Stories, recorded in the lockdown window in September 2020, is ‘a very personal record ‘, ‘an homage to a beautiful border landscape, and to pivotal relationships it evokes for the composer’. Feature by John Fordham
John Fordham writes: Across three fruitful decades playing his own laid-back mix of bebop, jazz-rock, pop hooks and swing, the Huddersfield composer, bass guitarist and bandleader Ben Crosland has been steadily rubbing home the message that you don’t have to be a Londoner to make an enduring mark on the UK jazz scene, or turn up the volume to flag up excitement, or follow fashionable notions of what cultural references are in or out.
Crosland is an affable maverick who began leading his own groups back in the day in 1990, after studying electric bass with the late great Jeff Clyne at the Wavendon Summer Jazz Courses, and gigging in his 20s and 30s in countless pub outfits, function bands and house rhythm sections for international guests including American swing stars Ken Peplowski and Harry Allen on the northern circuit. In the years since, his fine lineups have included such UK luminaries as saxophonist Alan Skidmore, trumpeter Steve Waterman and pianist Steve Lodder, and mixed his own repertoire between hip originals and classics from all over jazz, fusion, and pop.
Crosland’s canny arranger’s skills and palpable affection for one of his first teenage musical loves eventually propelled him to a late-career homage to the music of Ray Davies and The Kinks, with the 2016 album The Ray Davies Songbook, which even included a jazz-reggae version of ‘Sunny Afternoon’. The Observer’s Dave Gelly wrote of Crosland’s warmly quirky interpretations of those already quirky hits: ‘By recasting them in the jazz idiom and delicately elaborating their harmonies (Crosland) brings them out in a fresh glow.’ But if by his 60s this intuitively musical craftsman knew everything worth knowing about how an idiomatically open jazz band is supposed to work, and had a wide enough circle of acclaimed playing partners and long-time jazz friends to assemble very classy lineups, Ben Crosland was about to hit a new challenge – one that he had reluctantly grown used to expecting from an emotional perspective, but was surprised to discover could become a musical one too.
‘In 2019, when she was almost 102, my mum died’, Crosland explains, ‘but during the years leading to her death, after a fantastic life, she had started to change. It’s hard to see somebody you love starting to melt away. She’d been in hospital, then came home for end of life care, and I looked after her. A friend said to me “write some music – channel your feelings”.’
The popularity of the Ray Davies repertoire had made it Ben Crosland’s main agenda between 2015 and 2018, and in that period, as he candidly puts it, ‘I wasn’t doing much original music, so I didn’t know if I had any compositional skill left.’ But a special memory of his life with his mother returned to rekindle it. The pair had taken a road trip from Cumbria up to the Solway Firth on a holiday in July 1988 – Dorothy Crosland always liked calling these kind of trips ‘going for a spin in the motor’ – and Ben had noted down the fascinating names of the places they saw, intending to write music inspired by them one day.
‘Thirty years later, when I was caring for her, I happened to see Richard Thompson performing his song Beeswing on YouTube: Beeswing was one of those place names I had written down thirty years before’ Crosland recalls. ‘And that triggered the memory of that trip so I finally started writing the music – five new tunes in fortnight, unprecedented for me. I wrote seven more over the next 18 months, including a piece called Dulce Cor (Every Step Of The Way), Dulce Cor being Latin for Sweetheart – it was the nickname given in 1275 to the founder of New Abbey, Dervorguilla of Galloway, by its Cistercian monks as a term of affection. Mum and I visited Sweetheart Abbey on our road trip. Following her death, I recorded a version of it with the saxophonist Rod Mason, who’s a great friend and has been a significant figure on the northern jazz scene for years, and that recording was played at my mum’s funeral. And I later re-recorded it for the album, as a tribute to mum’.
Ben Crosland had intended the music to be recorded in March 2020, and then taken on the road this year on a 70th birthday tour, before unprecedented events put paid to that. So this month, he finally releases all 12 of the pieces written in that poignant period in his life as Solway Stories, an homage to a beautiful border landscape, and to the pivotal relationships it evokes for the composer – not only with his late mother, but with the musical inspirations that have also guided his life. The brightly jazz-rockish Driving North, with its dancing bassline, Steve Lodder‘s gleaming Rhodes keyboard sound and Chris Allard‘s Methenyish guitar break, recalls the fusion transformations in jazz in the 1970s decade of Crosland’s emergence as a player. Beeswing is also joyously upbeat, not least for a sleek bebop trumpet improvisation from Steve Waterman, and the catchy Powfoot – nodding to UK jazz-rockers Nucleus and to Herbie Hancock’s iconic 1970s Headhunters sound in its wah-wah bass hook – reinforces the session’s reminders of indelible memories being celebrated. Crosland’s knack for pretty tunes is evident on the lilting Almorness Point, whilst Steve Waterman locks into early-Miles bebop fluency on A L’il Sark Funk. But Dulce Cor (Every Step of the Way), with its dreamy acoustic piano intro and tender Waterman trumpet melody, is a lyrical highlight of the set, showcasing Crosland’s care over the sound of the whole ensemble, as well as the delicate lyricism of the tune.
Ben Crosland describes Solway Stories as ‘a very personal record’, but the recording session itself, as well as the story that occasioned it, seems certain to remain a lifelong memory for him. When he and Lodder got together with Waterman, Allard, and drummer Dylan Howe at folk-rock guitarist Graeme Taylor‘s south London studio in the lockdown window of September 2020, the buzz of the occasion was heightened by what a rarity such a meeting had become in the pandemic year. Crosland believes it brought a sense of relief that lifted the music to a different level.
‘I did a folk-rock project there in 2019, and I thought Graeme’s studio had a very nice feel’ he recalls. ‘Even these guys, busy as they would normally have been, hadn’t done any playing with anybody for months, so there was a real feeling of catharsis. We set up and rehearsed on the afternoon of day one, then recorded the music straight through the following two days. Chris Allard was a wonderful fresh voice to me on guitar. You can write as much as you like, but musicians create this kind of music, that’s what’s wonderful about it. Chris’s soloing was so fluent, I was really taken by the way he never blags it, never just flaps his fingers around, always plays beautiful melodic lines. And he paired up so well in the front line with Steve Waterman who has such a prodigious technique and a glorious sound on trumpet and flugel. Dylan did a lot of prep for the session, creating all his own drum parts for it. And he grooves so beautifully on everything, always playing just what’s needed. Steve Lodder is quite simply my go-to piano player and he glues everything together so effortlessly. All of them had really done their homework on the charts ahead of the session, and it showed’
Ben Crosland’s bands have entertained plenty of satisfied customers in jazz haunts all over these islands down the years, but the UK jazz community has other reasons to be thankful for his energetic existence – for the variety of groups he’s led and the original repertoires he’s created for them, for the opportunities he’s opened up through his own Jazz Cat record label, and for his tireless support of musicians, venues and festivals in the north of England – sometimes an overlooked creative outpost of a British jazz scene so often focused on London.
For his part, Crosland looks back over what he considers a lucky existence with an offhand modesty (he even throws in the passing detail that he’s been a full-time lawyer all these years as if it wasn’t news of a surprising double life), and unsparing gratitude of his own for the gifts of the musicians he’s played with, and those he’s admired from afar. Whether considering the legacies of personal heroes like the late composers Kenny Wheeler and Don Grolnick, or bass guitarists Jack Bruce and Jaco Pastorius, or marvelling at the sophistication of a startling newcomer like the award-winning young British composer Tom Green, Crosland doesn’t disguise his awe at the work of such originals, and with a chuckle will say of his own ‘I’ve tried to write clever music – I wish I could’. The jazz world has moved on during his years in it, and mostly for the better, he feels.
'When I was doing house rhythm-section gigs in the north 40 years ago,' he recalls, 'some famous visiting soloists would behave as if they'd needed a passport to get beyond Doncaster. That's changed now, and the barriers are lower than they ever were. But I've been lucky, and I feel for young musicians today, particularly after the year we've just had. Talented kids like Tom Green should be out there, playing festivals, being seen. But hopefully, those possibilities are on the way back.'
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Ben Crosland’s Solway Stories is out now, on Jazz Cat