Album reviews

Olie Brice Trio/Octet – ‘Fire Hills’

Olie Brice Trio/Octet – Fire Hills 

(West Hill Records. Two CDs. Album review by Tony Dudley-Evans)

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Olie Brice is a double bass player well known as a key member of the free jazz community in the UK.  He has, however, always had an interest in composition, and in finding ways of integrating free improvisation with written material.

This double album on Olie Brice‘s own West Hills label presents (CD 1) a trio recording with saxophonist Tom Challenger and drummer, and (CD2) an octet recording with Alex Bonney and Kim Macari on trumpets, Jason Yarde on alto saxophone, George Crowley and Rachel Musson on tenor saxophones, Cath Roberts on baritone saxophone, and Johnny Hunter on drums.

In a recent interview in LJN (link below), Brice explained that he was keen to explore new harmonic language in a group without a chordal instrument.

The Trio CD

The trio played one or more streamed gigs downstairs at The Vortex in London in the period when lockdown restrictions were being relaxed, and the evidence of the five tracks on CD1 is that, in those sessions, the members of the trio gained an understanding of each other’s playing and of the compositions that transferred very successfully into this recording. The music moves seamlessly between the written material and the improvisation, and, although one initially assumes this to be an album of free improvisation, it is much more.  The integration between the three players, the pulse that is there throughout and the variety of the music come together to create a CD of first-class contemporary jazz.

Brice’s rich tone on the double bass is at the heart of the trio’s music;  Challenger contributes inventive solos in his characteristically idiosyncratic style, and Glaser provides the pulse referred to above.  It’s a fine trio.    

Three of the tracks are dedicated to departed jazz players; Something Seen, dedicated to Andrew Hill, has something of Hill’s melodic compositional style, while Extended Breath dedicated to Eric Dolphy captures Dolphy’s angular solo and compositional style.  Blues for Johnny Dyani has the gentle, rather melancholy feel of much South African jazz.

The Octet CD

The Octet CD takes a similar approach, moving constantly between written and improvised passages, but here Brice’s writing takes advantage of the greater sonic possibilities of an octet with six horns. Furthermore, the distinction between the written passages and the improvisation is much clearer.

There are three tracks.  Rotating mirrors, dedicated to Julius Hemphill, indicates the direction that Brice is taking with the Octet; there is quite a bit of space for solos which are punctuated by short passages of written material.  There is an excellent solo from Kim Macari, followed by a short punchy ensemble theme and then Rachel Musson takes a particularly strong solo, followed by an equally strong solo from Alex Bonney. Another punchy theme follows before Cath Roberts and George Crowley duet on their respective saxophones.  The track ends with a lively ensemble passage.

Tidal license is a nicely varied track; it begins with a duet between Brice and Yarde; they are joined gradually by the other saxophonists who move into a passage of collective improvisation.  This is followed by a theme led by the trumpets, which in turns leads into a solo feature for Johnny Hunter, initially on cymbals and then on drums.  Then Cath Roberts solos over a theme played by the other saxophones, and then by the ensemble led by the trumpets.  The piece finishes with a full ensemble passage.

The tune Fire Hills, which is also on the Trio CD, concludes the Octet CD.  It begins quietly with the two tenors, and their line is developed by the bass with gentle backing from the trumpets and alto saxophone. The piece then moves into a series of duos, Alex Bonney with Jason Yarde, then Kim Macari and Johnny Hunter, then Rachel Musson with Olie Brice  and, finally, Alex Bonney with Cath Roberts. George Crowley then takes over with an excellent solo before the ensemble comes in with the closing theme..

This double CD is an excellent example of an important direction that improvised music is taking, integrating written material with the improvised passages. As mentioned in the LJN interview, the two CDs are part of a three-ensemble project that also involves Brice writing for an improvising  string ensemble; this third album is yet to be released.

The trio and octet CDs will be launched in a concert at Cafe Oto on Tuesday 13 September (BOOKINGS)



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