The Jazz Defenders: King Phoenix

On its second album the Bristolian hard-bop inspired quintet moves to quality interpretations of soul and funk, still with good jazz aboard

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This is the Jazz Defenders’ second album. Their first release, Scheming, was inspired by late 50s hard bop and it seemed their enthusiasm for preserving such classic jazz, albeit with their own take, had been the reason for the band’s name. However, King Phoenix enters totally new ground with soul, funk and even rap on board. But don’t be put off – despite the “new” look, it’s all surprisingly good and there’s still a tasty serving of “real” jazz in there.

All 10 tracks are composed by bandleader and pianist George Cooper with co-writers for two of them. Two soul-jazz numbers open the album – first, Wagger Jaunt, with a solid bass intro from Will Harris and then Munch with a Jimmy Smith organ feel.

Next comes one of the disc’s highlights, The Oracle, with dramatic string arrangements from guest violinist, John Pearce. This track would do justice to any major spaghetti western. It’s followed by a straightahead composition, Twilight, with catchy piano and spritely solos from Nicholas Dover on sax and Nick Malcolm on trumpet. Then, it’s Love’s Vestige, with tight interplay from both horns and a smart bossa rhythm from Ian Mathews on drums.

The pace changes with Perfectly Imperfect, a slow but catchy hip-hop number with faintly hypnotic rap vocals. The highly melodic Queen Bee follows, with Cooper alone on piano. It’s the shortest track of the lot and so profound it really merits longer play. From The Ashes has dextrous improv soloing from sax, trumpet and piano.

Then, Pearce features strongly again on Saudade – the title coming from the Portuguese for wistful yearning. This is another highly impressive score that could easily be a major film theme with its swelling strings, sublime piano, splendid Latin bass and drums and superb flute from guest Atholl Ransome. The album closes with a second rap number, the soul-jazz inspired Live Slow.

These are varied and exhilarating songs with majestic arrangements expertly delivered by first-rate musicians. Smashing!

Discography
Wagger Jaunt; Munch; The Oracle; Twilight; Love’s Vestige; Perfectly Imperfect; Reprise: Queen Bee; From The Ashes; Saudade; Live Slow (37.32)
Nick Malcolm (t, flh); Nicholas Dover (ts); George Cooper (p, org, pc); Will Harris (b, elb); Ian Mathews (d). Guests: Doc Brown, Herbal T, Leigh Coleman (v); John Pearce (vn); Atholl Ransome (f). Bristol, 15 & 18 June 2021.
Haggis Records HR006