If he were not already a word-class vibes player, Lewis Wright would make a great commercial songwriter. Unlike most people who write jazz compositions, Wright seems to think first of all in terms of pure melody, and then how that melody can be given the most emotionally satisfying harmonic support. He has the knack of writing tunes that sound both fresh and familiar at the same time. In a previous generation, Benny Golson had the same gift.
Wright is probably best known as a member of Empirical, whose last album, Connection, contained a Wright-penned ballad called “Lethe” which carried distant echoes of Duke Pearson’s “Cristo Redentor” (as recorded by Donald Byrd) and Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage”. Its lovely gentle swell was used to set up and counterpoint Nat Facey’s urgent alto saxophone solo. The tune sounded like a potential jazz classic, although I’m not sure such a thing still exists now that original material is practically compulsory. After two years of owning the album, and several live exposures to the piece, I still play it all the time and it never fails to improve the prevailing mood.
Now Wright, who is 29, makes his leadership debut on record with an album of his own compositions called Duets for Vibraphone and Piano, on which he is joined by Kit Downes. They launched it last night at the Pizza Express in Soho with a set which showed very clearly how much they enjoy playing together, as they’ve done since they were schoolboys living in adjacent villages in Norfolk (Downes is the elder by two years).
It also confirmed Wright’s compositional talent. The ballads “Sati” and “An Absence of Heart” are winning enough — romantic without being drippy — to remind me of Michel Legrand, a comparison which prompted the thought about commercial songwriting. “Sati”, indeed, sounds as if it’s just waiting for the right film to be made — and, like “Lethe”, it ends with a coda that shows he has imaginative ideas about structure. Up-tempo pieces such as “Tokyo ’81” and “Fortuna” are full of cunning surges and sideslips, rhythmically active enough to remind one that Wright has also made his living as a drummer with the likes of Melody Gardot and Joss Stone but still glinting with faceted melodies as they fly by.
His spectacular improvising is not exactly held in check or kept under wraps here (there’s a dazzling passage on the closing “Kintamani”, for instance), but the real point of the exercise is the integration of compositions, performers and instruments into a form of chamber jazz that is by turns serene, jaunty, athletic and pensive. I’d call it a complete success.
* Duets for Vibraphone and Piano is out now on the Signum Classics label.