Even those who regard jazz as an essentially American artform must allow that world-class jazz is produced around the world. That surely includes London – but Newcastle-Upon-Tyne? If you had doubts on that score, hear this outstanding release by bassist John Pope, on Wesley Stephenson’s new label.
Stephenson directs the annual Newcastle Jazz and Improvised Music Festival, and Pope’s band features leading players from Newcastle (Pope, MacCalman, Hardy) and Manchester (Stockbridge, Hunter). The bassist is a highly versatile musician; his project Liber Musika explores the music of AACM, and he also works with Chris Biscoe and Roger Turner. He’s performed with Evan Parker, Joe McPhee and Alexander Hawkins.
The abrasiveness of Mixed With Glass is only positive, and the music enters my ears like honey not broken glass. The chordless line-up recalls freebop, “time no changes” and Ornette, and Pope explains by email that he wrote most of these pieces in 2018, after the band had performed his Ornette Coleman tribute.
It’s mostly grooves, with memorable themes and subtle, eventful ensemble arrangements that shift gears, always keeping the listener engaged. The explosive, gripping Plato opens the album; Misha, A Miner, a tribute to Misha Mengelberg and Graham Collier, has a boppish theme and swings powerfully, but with free passages. Ing, a tribute to Ingebright Håker Flaten, reverses that, opening as free jazz and then acquiring an infectious groove. The slow-moving, magisterial title track is a plangent anthem for peace. Horn-players Jamie Stockbridge (alto), Faye MacCalman (tenor, clarinet) and Graham Hardy (trumpet) are skilful and inspired improvisers.
“There’s a strong US influence in the writing and concept for the band,” Pope agrees, citing Mingus’s Antibes quintet, the Art Ensemble, Ornette and Old And New Dreams, and William Parker. A less directly sonic influence, he explains, is 80s American indie/underground bands Sonic Youth, Pixies and Minutemen: “They have a wild energy which could be consumed by feedback or noise, but the strength of the song keeps that in check. I want to do that but with free jazz instead of loud amplifiers.” That’s an excellent description of what Pope achieves – this is a British jazz of international quality.
Plato; Misha, a Miner; Mixed With Glass; Ing; The Right Hand Path; Beautiful Pink (Is Not Ugly; Country Bears, Come North (62.33)
John Pope (b); Jamie Stockbridge (as); Faye MacCalman (ts, cl); Graham Hardy (t); Johnny Hunter (d). Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, 3-4 October 2020.
New Jazz and Improvised Music Recordings NEWJAiM3