Al Swainger’s Pointless Beauty – Hearts Full of Grace
(Other Compass Records – OCRPB010 review by Graham Spry)
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As memories of the COVID pandemic and the associated lockdown begin to recede, so comes the release of the music recorded in those strange times. Maybe the period will eventually come to be seen as a golden time for creativity, a period when many musicians and composers reassessed and re-calibrated their art in response to the restrictions they were forced to live with. This was certainly the case for prolific Bristol-based bass-player and composer Al Swainger.
Al Swainger may be best known fr his role as resident bassist of the Blue Vanguard Trio in Exeter, but he is also associated with many other projects encompassing an eclectic range of jazz styles. It is with Al Swainger’s Pointless Beauty—perhaps his most musically adventurous ensemble —that Swainger has chosen to express his personal reaction to the pandemic. Hearts Full of Grace was recorded during 2020 and 2021 at the Other Compass Studios in Bristol and in the impressive Crescent Records Studio in Wiltshire with the assistance of Damon Sawyer who is best known as sound engineer for German Blues and Blues-Rock label Ruf Records.
Eight of the album’s ten tracks, apart from the opening and closing tunes, represent Swainger’s response to the pandemic. For those who have heard other manifestations of Pointless Beauty, it is interesting that the ensemble for this record is a fairly conventional jazz quintet rather than, as it has been on other occasions, a vocal group or an ambient music ensemble.
Swainger’s choice of using a quintet for this project is most likely inspired by the impressive quality of the musicians he has assembled which includes the always excellent Ant Law on electric and acoustic guitar. Just as with his recent work with Matt Ridley, it is apparent that Law’s distinctive guitar sound has made an indelible stamp on the tunes he plays on. Law is the only non-Bristolian in a quintet that includes George Cooper on keyboards, Jon Clark on drums and Gary Alesbrook on flugelhorn and trumpet.
The opening track of the album, The Way Back, does indeed have a yearning feel fitting for its title with a beautiful interplay of flugelhorn, piano and synth. The final track Remember the Sky also has a nostalgic feel. This is based on the poem ‘Remember’ by Joy Harjo—the incumbent United States Poet Laureate—which celebrates the peace that comes from remembering all the many things that make a person and acknowledging their majesty.
The other tracks relate to the pandemic where Swainger believes, as Martin Luther King said in 1968, the best response to serve society is “a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.” This is also the quote that inspired the album’s title and, as the sleeve notes state, prompted in Swainger a cathartic reaction to isolation. Nevertheless, it results in generally restful music, at times reminiscent of Chick Corea’s latin jazz fusion as in Sunship Travelling and Relentless, later Miles Davis on Stir Crazy or of ambient jazz improvisation in Pause to Breath. Amongst the album’s highlights are the interplay between Alesbrook’s horn and Law’s electric guitar on The Shrug, the ethereal sounds of Hour of the Wolf and Swainger’s fuzzy bass solo on Existential Blues.
There is no doubt some additional significance to be found in the band’s name, Pointless Beauty, that proclaims a vision of the world where mathematics, meditation and modern jazz can exist in harmony, but it isn’t necessary to indulge in deep analysis to get pleasure from the music. There are no plans to take this music on a national tour, probably because the individual musicians have such hectic touring schedules, but there are opportunities to catch the quintet live at the Bristol Fringe (where it is called Pointless Beauty Communion) in July, September and November this year. And the chance to see such a quality band in Bristol should not be missed.
Categories: Album reviews