In normal times, I’d be keenly anticipating a live launch of Misha Mullov-Abbado’s Dream Circus, the third album by the London-based composer and bassist who won the Kenny Wheeler Prize in 2014, his final year as a student at the Royal Academy of Music. Instead I’ll have to stay at home and enjoy the music on record, which is no hardship at all.
His first album, New Ansonia (2015), was by a quintet. His second, Cross-Platform Interchange (2017), was by a septet. Dream Circus is by a sextet: James Davison (trumpet and flugelhorn), Matthew Herd (alto), Sam Rapley (tenor), Liam Dunachie (piano), and Scott Chapman (drums). It gives evidence of an increasing maturity: the writing, the playing and the recording are of such high quality that once you’ve put the record on, you need a very good reason to take it off.
This is modern jazz with a powerful imagination and a sense of variety that never compromises its integrity. It’s a music with roots in hard bop but a strong commitment to melody. If I had to identify Mullov-Abbado’s spiritual predecessor as a composer, it would probably be Benny Golson. Some of the things I was reminded of while listening to it were Oliver Nelson’s original “Stolen Moments”, Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage, and Manu Katché’s ECM albums. It stands quite distinct from the new London jazz movement associated with Trinity Laban and Tomorrow’s Warriors. There are no attempts to incorporate influences from outside the mainstream jazz tradition, but it still sounds contemporary. It’s not particularly on-trend, but it really doesn’t need to be.
Individually, the musicians are remarkable. The leader’s introduction to the opening track, “Some Things Are Just So Simple”, establishes the presence and flexibility of his playing. Davison is one of the finest young trumpeters around, with the bright, broad sound and confident projection of Freddie Hubbard, and Herd and Rapley are ideal foils, each with a tone full of human warmth. The passages in which they work together, either as separate contrapuntal voices in the poised “Equinox” or in the full-on free blowing of the exhilarating “The Infamous Grouse”, are outstanding. The subtle dovetailing of the three horns on the opening of “Stillness”, a luminous ballad, is very beautiful, opening out into a tenor solo of which Wayne Shorter would be proud.
The album’s moment of humour is the playful Fats Wallerish theme of “Little Astronaut”, which precedes the absolute highlight: a composition called “The Bear” in which, over a loose but sombre ostinato, the written horn lines are allowed to braid and fray and change weight, giving the feeling of improvisation. It’s interesting to think of these strategies as techniques absorbed (via Mingus and the Blue Notes) from black church music and metabolised into something quite different. The closing “Blue Deer” opens with a lovely pastoral theme that emphasises the gorgeous blend of the three horns before intensifying through an out-of-tempo passage in which the alto rises sweetly to become the lead voice in a moment of absolute radiance. Here is where the importance of Dunachie and Chapman is most evident as the rhythm section switches from time to no-time to complex written passages with a grace that makes everything sound completely natural.
It seems likely that the contribution of the producer, Jasper Høiby, best known as the bassist with Phronesis, has much to do with the project’s success. Captured over a week in Copenhagen’s Village studios last September, the musicians sound relaxed but completely alert, and the tone and balance of the recording are perfect for this music. You can’t play like this unless you’re at ease. And that quality communicates itself to the grateful listener.
* Dream Circus is released by Edition Records on June 12 and is available via Bandcamp: https://mishamullov-abbado.bandcamp.com/. The photograph of the sextet is by Aga Tomaszek.