Ben Crosland has a new album, Songs of Solace and Reflection, showing his essence as “an unaffectedly lyrical composer of direct and evocative melodies that draw in the uninitiated and the jazz cognoscenti alike.” Feature by John Fordham.
John Fordham writes: Plenty of turning points in the spellbinding story of jazz have come about as solutions to technical conundrums rather than intentions to paint new pictures in sound – challenges like trying to shoehorn a catchy tune into the whirlpool of five-four time for Dave Brubeck’s legendary ‘Take Five’, or improvising off dizzyingly fast-changing note-rammed chords to spark Charlie Parker’s bebop revolution; or seeing what would happen if modes and Indian raga forms replaced jazz’s familiar Broadway-song harmonies on Miles Davis’ ‘Kind of Blue’.
Ben Crosland – the Yorkshire musician now entering his fourth decade as an acclaimed composer/bandleader with a warmly accessible repertoire, and a go-to bass guitarist for innumerable northern rhythm sections – is as awestruck an admirer of such breakthroughs as any jazz artist. But he also knows what he does best, as an unaffectedly lyrical composer of direct and evocative melodies that draw in the uninitiated and the jazz cognoscenti alike.
‘I can’t write clever music’ is, as ever, this subtle craftsman’s amiable deflection when quizzed about his methods. ‘I write tunes, and that’s it, really – and if an idea can bring about a nice tune, that’s good enough for me’. But Crosland’s latest album – ‘Songs of Solace and Reflection’, on his own Jazz Cat label – illuminates exactly what’s deceptive about that characteristically unassuming observation. The composer has revisited his own extensive back-catalogue for this project, but from very different perspectives to the ones that guided the original interpretations – because this lineup features classical string players instead of a jazz rhythm section, and three superb improvising soloists in reeds virtuoso Alan Barnes (playing clarinet and bass clarinet throughout this set), Miles Davis-inspired flugelhornist Steve Waterman, and flautist Theo Travis.
The music embraces evocations of verdant Yorkshire valleys, wistful reveries ushered in by cello and woodwind, springy waltzes, a tender hymn for Waterman’s flugelhorn, understated funk, and in the closing moments a jaunty blues reminiscent of the late great Stan Tracey’s uptempo swingers. People with a special place in Crosland’s life and memories always drift in and out of focus too – the dreamy ‘Sarah’s Trees’ is dedicated to the late wife of Mike Lucas, founder of Marsden’s long-running jazz festival, ‘Cowgill Lament’ to the memory of a remarkable but short-lived schoolfriend, while ‘Song for Dorothy’ is a valediction for his mother that he has now recorded three times in different forms. The album’s cover is a delicate painting Crosland commissioned from a widely-exhibited landscape artist and friend, Judith Yarrow. Only one song, ‘Rockfield Lullaby’ is a new piece written for this recording, but it has an old theme – the name of the first house the composer lived in as a baby. ‘I’m a sentimental man,’ Ben Crosland will freely admit. ‘Some people are, some people aren’t. I want to say what I’ve got to say, and if people like it, great, and if they don’t, so be it.’
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Crosland is rightly proud of ‘Songs of Solace and Reflection’, and feels that it comes closest to the feelings that have preoccupied him in these recent turbulent years. When we talk on the phone for LJN, I remind him of the conversation we had 18 months earlier, on the release of his autobiographical album ‘Solway Stories’, inspired by car journeys in the north and Scotland with his beloved late mother. That was an album motivated by loss (Dorothy Crosland died in 2019, at 102), but perhaps so is the new release, in its way – but this time the loss of freedoms, working opportunities, and companionship occasioned by the pandemic’s lockdowns.
‘I think that’s true,’ Crosland agrees. ‘Doing ‘Solway Stories’ was part of a grieving process, which helped me remember my mum as she was when she was active and healthy, and I think this recent project is about grieving for loss of gigs and musical connections, because it was conceived and arranged in the lockdown when there was nothing else to do!’
But if the album is part of a grieving process, it’s far from a sombre one. The arrangements for violinist Clare Bhabra and cellist Deirdre Bencsik are animatedly vibrant, Crosland’s fluent basslines hum, and the improvisations of Barnes, Waterman and Travis span mellow long-tone tenderness, agile double-tempo bebop, and unpredictably unfolding narrative lines that fix your attention on what the next ingenious turn might be. So was this sophisticated ensemble sound something that the composer had imagined from the start?
‘Actually, the whole project came about completely unexpectedly,’ Crosland says. ‘Jeremy Platt, a fine musician who had been in my quartet, sent me an arrangement out of the blue, of a song of mine called ‘Dulce Cor’, from ‘Solway Stories’ – it’s Latin for ‘sweetheart’, and it was played at my mum’s funeral. But Jeremy had reworked it for woodwind and strings, albeit synthetically, and I thought, goodness, that sounds fantastic. It set me thinking about what woodwind, strings and a flugelhorn might sound like, so I wrote an arrangement of one of my pieces for that instrumentation and gave it to my great friend Rod Mason, an amazing musician who plays saxophone, flute and clarinet, and not only that taught himself to play brass during lockdown. Rod’s other lockdown distraction was recording in his home studio, so he played all the parts in my arrangement live, except for synthesised strings. After that he and I did about four or five more, and I started to think I might have an album.’
Crosland has written for drumless bands before – he had formed his fine Threeway trio in the 2000s with Waterman and pianist Steve Lodder – and was initially echoing that resourceful pianist’s accompanying approach in writing arrangements for the new venture’s strings. He had doubts about the transition at first, unsure if the classical musicians could furnish anything like Lodder’s mix of precision, flexibility, and swing – but he needn’t have worried. ‘In this project the piano part, so to speak, had to be adopted by the strings, in fixed arrangements,’ Crosland says. ‘So I had to have the right players to do that, because sometimes classically-trained string players don’t really swing. But Claire and Deirdre, who were recommended by Theo Travis, really did, which helped immensely. I also wanted to avoid recurring patterns in the arrangements that might tire a listener with repetition. And I deliberately only had one soloist on each piece, just to focus and highlight the sound of one improvising instrument – so there are three tracks featuring flute, three clarinet, and three flugel, and only one track – the blues Peter the Wolf – where we all improvise together. After all, I’ve got to have one track where I do a bass solo!’ Crosland is also at pains to mention the crucial role of an unobtrusive contributor to the sound of ‘Songs of Solace and Reflection’ – his recording engineer, Andrew Tulloch. ’That’s creative sound engineering at its best’, Crosland enthuses. ‘Andrew recorded, edited, mixed and mastered this album, and it was an extraordinary contribution to the way it works’.
Like performing musicians across the genres, Ben Crosland is concerned about the impact that the pandemic has had on audience figures, and fears for the prospects of some small and underfunded jazz clubs around the UK. His ‘Solway Stories’ music and popular ‘Ray Davies Songbook’ programme have brought him regular live work during 2022, but he’s disinclined to bet on what the gig prospects for the coming year might be. ‘Venues from small jazz clubs to English National Opera are having their funds removed or cut,’ Crosland observes, ‘so right now it’s a case of hunkering down and trying to get through it – and I’m one of the incredibly fortunate ones, in having a day-job too. But being a musician is a vocation. Every musician I know would say that it’s not just a question of wanting to do it, but that you need to do it, for your own well-being. Right now, musicians and promoters have to try and cooperate as best we can together – and hope that in a couple of years the scene will recover to where it used to be.’
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Ben Crosland’s ‘Songs of Solace and Reflection’ is out now on Jazz Cat Records (Jazz Cat JCCD 119) – Order from Proper Music
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