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In the follow-up to their 2011 acclaimed self-titled debut album, Aquarium again lures us deep into a melodious grove with Places. Spacious and finely textured, with long single-note runs, delicious solos and rolling rhythms, Places showcases the ensemble sound and deft soloing of these dazzling players, each distinguished in other projects and together as Aquarium since 2008, in the 9 compositions by leader Sam Leak. Exhibiting a striking melodic sensibility which allows eloquent engagement by each of the musicians, Sam composed the pieces over the last two years around meetings with people, incidents and situations, from a London mugging in Catherine Grove, through Milan to the clamour and beauty of Marrakech. Leak cites a love of the music of Keith Jarrett, Paul Bley, Lee Konitz and the Liberation Music Orchestra for the clarity of its intent.
On its release in 2011, Aquarium’s eponymous debut signalled pianist Sam Leak’s full emergence onto the UK jazz scene as a versatile composer and instrumentalist.
There was a powerful sense of storytelling about his first collection, and this follow-up exhibits a similar narrative urge. Its originals seem to provide snapshots of people, places and conversations, like a volume of loosely connected short stories.
The title track sets the scene with a breezy, mid-tempo jaunt featuring James Allsopp’s louche tenor and Leak’s exuberant piano lines draped over Joshua Blackmore’s compact swing – a mood redolent of a 1960s Parisian boulevard.
In fact, the undeniable influence of 60s piano jazz can be felt throughout the album.
The onrushing Catherine Grove harks back to the meaty urgency of Chick Corea’s iconic trio with Roy Haynes and Miroslav Vitous circa Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, with Leak’s solo tracing out a long, looping right-handed storyline of the kind Herbie Hancock developed with Miles Davis.
Scribbles and Scrawls announces itself with a prancing, Paul Bley-like fanfare before diving into spirited free-bop full of fleet melodies and racing runs, pushed on by Blackmore’s cantering energy.
The musicianship is of the calibre you’d expect from these four highly trained and experienced mainstays of the London scene.
Double bassist Calum Gourlay shows a sensitivity and restraint throughout. Blackmore digs deep into propulsive swing but, on Clutter, also revels in the kind of goading, fractured grooves he brings to his trio with Corey Mwamba and Dave Kane.
Allsopp’s tenor reveals a smooth and full-bodied maturity quite distinct from his earlier histrionics with breakthrough band Fraud. Witness how, on Milan, his strident, clear blowing authoritatively guides the rumbling opening cadenza into a sighing ballad.
And Leak’s playing resounds with a highly melodic sensibility, tracing long, full lines crammed with ornamental flourishes that echo Bach as often as they do Keith Jarrett.
No one is going to suggest that this music is breaking new ground. But that’s clearly not its intention. This is assured and sophisticated acoustic jazz with deep roots in the tradition, that knows exactly what it’s trying to do – and succeeds.
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Top customer reviews
James Allsopp gives an assured lead on tenor, offering rich tone and beautifully fluent melodies, as well as wonderfully screeching episodes! When Allsopp introduces another angle - bass clarinet - it hints at English folksong (I'm thinking 'Finzi, Vaughan Williams') creating a mood sometimes mysterious, but always delightful. Calum Gourlay (bass) and Joshua Blackmore (drums), now both familiar names on the circuit, must be a dream to work with - close-knit yet adventurous, and evidently `in tune' with the many melodic and rhythmic twists and turns that are conjured by Leak and Allsopp. Some may call this `chamber' jazz, but that perhaps belies the fact that this is inspired and stimulating original music of the highest calibre.
The opening title track, `Places', initially suggests (as does `Marrakech') an old standard favourite, with Allsopp providing its lyrical melody, but soon growing into something more complex and pacey. `Milan' builds with a troubled undercurrent, eventually transforming into a second section of delicate, piano-led positivity. `Scribbles and Scrawls' barges in abruptly, with a terrific free and lively swagger (reminiscent of the superb `Evensong' on their debut album, with similar abandon over hymn-like piano sequences!). `February' steals in, bringing with it the most luxurious bass clarinet soloing (Maurice Jarre's `Lara's Theme' comes to mind in places!) against Blackmore's impressive, feathery and persistent brushwork. `Clutter' is infectious, Gourlay scampering all over it, before `Catherine Grove' agitatedly bursts through (Leak reveals an unpleasant back-story to this, when he was attacked at knife-point in this area of London). Nevertheless, it provides a piece characterised by a relentless momentum, with excellent piano improvisation from Leak, and the whole quartet providing an exciting urgency. This studio recording ends on an even keel with the bright and breezy `Daybreak'.
Concluding the album is a bonus track - a great live broadcast of `Milan' from London Jazz Festival, courtesy of BBC Radio 3's `Jazz Line-Up', prompting us (as if needed) to catch this quartet on their UK tour which accompanies this album release.
Very highly recommended.