Feature/Interview (PP)

Alex Merritt/Steve Fishwick Quintet (new album ‘Mind-Ear-Ladder’, and tour dates)

Mind-Ear-Ladder is the debut album from the quintet co-led by saxophonist Alex Merritt and trumpeter Steve Fishwick, (Fresh Sound New Talent). The album puts a new spin on a classic jazz sound – 1960s Blue Note.  Both musicians are also looking forward to tour dates in Bristol, Birmingham and Hove. Feature by John Bungey.

Alex Merritt and Steve Fishwick. Photo Credit Eleonora Zwierzchowska

“We met at a Ronnie Scott’s jam session a long time ago,” says trumpeter Steve Fishwick of his collaborator, the tenor saxophonist Alex Merritt, “and we liked each other’s playing. It was like, ‘You sound great … you sound great too. Let’s try and do some gigs together.’ After a while it’s ‘Well this is fun. This works.’ So if we’re going to do this more seriously, we’re going to have to write our own music.”

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And now, some nine years later, after a lockdown delay or two, this meeting of musical talents has borne fruit on record with the album Mind-Ear-Ladder. Cue a warm round of applause from the UK jazz media. With four tunes apiece by Merritt and Fishwick and one from pianist John Turville, the band takes the hard bop spirit of 1960s Blue Note and gives it a 21st-century twist. There are rhythmic and harmonic ideas and some classical hints that set this music apart from the days of Wayne Shorter and Freddie Hubbard. Among the highlights: Merritt’s soft, buttery tone on Ma Ballade, Turville’s elegant, imaginative piano on Pablo-ish, Fishwick’s reputation for soaring, blazing trumpet enhanced on the splendidly named Dr Wu What’s Wrong with You. Ensemble passages smoulder brightly too, propelled by Steve’s twin brother, Matt, on drums and bassist Mick Coady.

“We’re using a familiar-ish sound world for a straightahead audience with these slightly different reference points – pushing the boundaries a little bit,” says Merritt. The only puzzle for some has been the title, Mind-Ear-Ladder. Fishwick has a crack at explaining: “As a musician I think you’ve got to have the notes in your mind – in your imagination – before you play them. You should be able to play your instrument in your head. So Mind is having the idea. Ear is being able to hear it in real time. Ladder refers to where the artist is in that process – because you’re always trying to get better. You’re always trying to attain the next level.” Fishwick smiles. “So that in a nutshell is what it means.”

The group’s approach evolved through playing Kenny Dorham tunes “and things that we really loved from the tradition – Warne Marsh or Jerry Bergonzi”, says Merritt. “I guess we kept that in mind when we were writing.”

Fishwick adds: “What I’m interested in is playing within the tradition of jazz and still playing swing and stuff like that but you’re trying to create a modern language … There’s a lot of music – and it can be good music – but sometimes it’s trying to throw too much of that stuff out of the window.”

Both have been pleased to take their tunes on tour and discover that audiences have not lost a taste for live jazz. “I’m just glad to be able to do it,” says Fishwick, “because there was a point during the pandemic – and I think it went through all musicians’ minds – ‘Oh my word, maybe we’ll never be able to do this again. Maybe there’ll be no more gigs.’ But audiences are healthy. It seems that people want to come out.”

Mind-Ear-Ladder is released by Fresh Sound New Talent, originally a reissues label based in Barcelona that now puts out new recordings. To mark Fresh Sound’s 30th anniversary, Merritt is producing an album featuring UK-based musicians on the label to come out later this year. Fishwick, Tom Ollendorff, Alex Hitchcock, Sam Braysher, Ronan Perrett, Adele Sauros, Conor Chaplin and Jay Davis are all involved.

Merritt says the style is quite contemporary, building on musical ideas developed with the quintet, and written with the personalities of the musicians in mind. “Steve and I have been writing new material for that, which has been a lot of fun,” says Merritt. There are hopes too of another quintet recording; it looks as though this partnership has a long way to run yet.

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Mind-Ear-Ladder is released by Fresh Sound New Talent

TOUR DATES: The quintet play Bristol Fringe Jazz, April 27; Birmingham Jazz, April 29; St Andrew’s Church, Hove, June 24; alexmerritt.co.uk/gigs/

LINK: Alex Merritt talked to LJN about The Shed, a series of jazz seminars on Zoom by the saxophonist and guests in this INTERVIEW

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