The Deportees: What Session

Cross-border Liverpool sextet emphasises improvisation while staying disciplined and accessible within recognisable forms


The Deportees are a Liverpool-based sextet formed in late 2016. As the title suggests, the album was recorded at the city’s What Studio, and was originally released in early 2020. It comprises seven original tunes, all bar one of which clock in at over seven minutes, allowing for lashings of high-quality improvisation.

Headed by Catalonian composer and Coliflowers bass player Pablo Sonnaillon, the band also features guitarist Alex McDowall (Clenstch, Tom Vamos, The Flycats), Martin Smith (Blasted Horns, The Muffin Men, Wizards Of Twiddly) on trumpet and flugelhorn, alto-sax player Eric Animan (Osmo, Gary Daly, China Crisis), drummer Tilo Pirnbaum (The Weave [co-founder with Smith], Jimmy Carl Black, Super Numeri) and Boston-born pianist Max O’Hara (Fox Nigon, and a longtime fixture of the Nepalese jazz scene).

The opening, nearly 10-minute, Brazilian Bonita comes in on mellow horn sounds, taking up an irresistibly Latin rhythm, as O’Hara’s careless piano and Sonnaillon’s moody double bass alternate in a musical dance. The brass continues, allowing room for great trumpet from Smith, McDowall’s buoyant guitar runs and boisterous sax moves from Animan, while Pirbaum scores with some chaotic action behind the skins. The Least Of Your Worries again starts slowly with a melancholy horn passage, then launches into a strutting, impertinent blues workout over McDowall’s lazy rhythm, taking a whimsical break on piano and discordant trumpet as the bass drives the piece along, signalling more pleasing saxophone sounds later on.

Rain Island follows in a similar vein, a slow, subdued start moving briskly into a restless bass-and-guitar part, again allowing the trumpet to dominate. The dust then settles for a few quiet, introspective guitar and piano lines from McDowall and O’Hara, who then up the ante with Pirnbaum’s aid, once more giving Animan free rein on saxophone. By contrast, The Descent keeps things funereally calm and quiet, while the less-than-two-minute Breathless breaks the extended-improv mould with a crazed, horn-heavy interlude that places the spotlight well and truly on the drums. The sedate, bluesy pace of the gentle closer Pictures On The Wall has more of a structure, at times setting an unmistakably romantic mood.

What Session is a professional, workmanlike set which focuses steadfastly on improvisation, yet keeps things disciplined and accessible within recognisable forms. The compositions and arrangements are of high quality, as is the level of craftsmanship from the musicians. A follow-up would be most agreeable.

Brazilian Bonita; The Least Of Your Worries; Rain Island; Seagulls; The Descent; Breathless; Pictures On The Wall (51.23)
Pablo Sonnaillon (dbl b); Alex McDowall (g); Martin Smith (t, flh); Eric Animan (s); Tilo Pirnbaum (d); Max O’Hara (kyb). Liverpool, England, 28 & 29 October, 2019.