Album reviews

Fraser Smith Quartet – ‘Tip Top!’

Fraser Smith QuartetTip Top!

(Ubuntu music. Album Review by Len Weinreich.)

In a far-off time when giants strode the earth, tenor saxophonists had to choose which gods to follow: Coleman Hawkins (rich, solid and confident) versus Lester Young (airy, floating and lyrical) until Charlie ‘Yardbird’ Parker, an alto player, synthesised their best ideas and helped invent a new cult called ‘bebop’.

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Bebop produced a fresh generation of tenor masters like Dexter Gordon, Illinois Jacquet, Stanley Turrentine, Al Cohen and Wardell Gray. And they, in turn, influenced tenor saxophonist Fraser Smith. In short, the leader on this album had his style, sound and attitude sculpted by a world that preceded St John Coltrane.

His new album, Tip Top! displays his talent for ideas (he composed all the tracks except for the Columbo, Gaskill and Robin standard, ‘Prisoner Of Love’) and got my toes tapping.

‘Might Not’ is a spirited starter, medium fast and so crammed with roadhouse blues slurs and inflections, you could almost swear there was a Hammond B3 lurking nearby (there ain’t). Smith circulates lively observations supported by a totally committed rhythm section. At the keyboard, Rob Barron comps and solos like the star he is. Simon Read’s bass intonation is spot on. Together with drummer Steve Brown, their pulse provides drive and energy on every track.

‘Iroquois’’ is a newly-minted melody line perched on the harmonic framework of Ray Noble’s ‘Cherokee’ (scarily impossible until Bird first showed the way with ‘KoKo’ in 1945). The structure might be tricky, but Smith accomplishes all with a laidback swagger. Pay special attention to Rob Barron who has fresh things to say. Nice unison finish.

‘Tip Top!’, the title track (why the screamer?) sits atop ‘I Got Rhythm’s chords with an injection of ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ in the bridge (Parker’s ‘Scrapple From The Apple’ is the precise opposite). Barron, on form, throws in a witty quote from Wardell Gray’s ‘Twisted’, yet another variation on ‘I Got Rhythm’ changes. Read’s bass could provide the foundation for a skyscraper.

Ratcheting up the tempo over a Latin beat, ‘Whaddya Know’ borrows its harmonies from Dizzy Gillespie’s 1942 ‘Woody’n You’, written for Woody Herman’s band. The group dynamic is excellent, four musicians sounding as if they’d been a tight unit forever.

‘Prisoner Of Love’ a song constructed of descending phrases, could be Smith’s passionate hommage to Coleman Hawkins, father of the jazz tenor saxophone. Taken at stately pace, it allows ample space for Simon Read and Rob Barron to expand their ideas.

While I struggle to connect ‘Pip’ (from Dickens’ Great Expectations) with a funky boogaloo beat, the quartet returns to the boozy roadhouse gig with breathy tenor, piano, bass and drums in a late night groove with possible erotic overtones.

‘Wardell’, is a lilting 12-bar blues tribute to the late Wardell Gray, who tragically met a dreadful (and mysterious) end in Las Vegas, where his body was dumped in a car park. When Gray and Dexter Gordon were sidemen in Billy Eckstine’s band, they fought heroic tenor battles that ignited the second balcony. Gray is one of this reviewer’s favourite tenor players (listen to ‘Twisted’ and ‘Little Pony’ with Count Basie). Never a carbon copy (or, in Lester’s phrase: “a repeater pencil”), he refashioned Lester Young’s levitational approach into bebop mode. ‘Wardell’ is full of fine blues statements from Smith and Barron.

‘Out Into The Daylight’ (try humming Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields’ ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ along with Smith’s contrafact melody) is an up-tempo romp with the odd Monkian dissonance. Smith moves around his tenor at an impressive lick and, towards the end, offers drummer Steve Brown some cracking breaks.

‘Bluey’ is, as you might have guessed, a medium tempo 12-bar earthy riff hinting perhaps at lost love or disappointment. And, while it’s arguable that every blues played by a jazz musician is a further autobiographical chapter, Smith sounds nothing but optimistic. Barron digs into the keyboard accompanied by animated rimshots and sturdy bass work.

Finally, ‘Snow Off Broadway’ is Smith’s sprightly impression recalling a moment sitting in a cosy Manhattan bar observing a blizzard in action. Having once observed the devastating fury of Manhattan blizzard myself, I’m at a loss to explain the samba rhythm, better suited to the sunburnt Brazilian seaside. Anyway, there’s plenty of muscular tenor.

Fittingly, the album was recorded in the antediluvian analogue manner on magnetic tape at Durham Sound Studios in Camden, London and the sound, mixed by Lewis Durham and Fraser Smith is crystalline. Excellent album. Tip top everyone.

Fraser Smith, tenor saxophone; Rob Barron, piano; Simon Read, bass; Steve Brown, drums. Recorded at Durham Sound Studios, Camden, London, 28 February, 2022.

LINK: Feature about “Tip Top” by John Fordham

Fraser Smith at Ubuntu Music

Categories: Album reviews, Reviews

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