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Posts tagged ‘Lewis Wright’

Lewis Wright’s ‘Duets’

Lewis Wright

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.

Connecting with Empirical

Empirical 1

How many great modern jazz ballads are there? I’m not thinking of the kind of American Songbook standards, such as “Body and Soul” or “Lush Life”, that have offered their melodies and chord sequences to jazz improvisers over the decades. I’m thinking of strictly instrumental pieces written by jazz musicians: things like Monk’s “Round Midnight”, Benny Golson’s “I Remember Clifford”, Bill Evans’s “Blue in Green”, Elmo Hope’s “Mirror-Mind Rose”, Stan Tracey’s “Starless and Bible-Black”, or Dudu Pukwana’s “B My Dear”.

There’s one on Empirical’s new album. It’s called “Lethe”, written by the band’s vibraphone-player, Lewis Wright. It starts with soft chimes and Tom Farmer’s double bass in a rising four-note pattern, Shaney Forbes’s pattering mallets on his tom-toms introducing an exposed theme for Nathaniel Facey’s plaintive alto saxophone. Facey’s subsequent improvisation slips easily in and out of double and triple time, encouraging the others to get busier and thicken the textures, but the band never loses the enraptured mood of the theme, which turns the whole seven-minute piece into a complete and very elegant construction, rather than something that just happened.

I’ve heard them play it two or three times in various settings over the past year, along with some of the other new material, and one the things that strikes me about the album, which is titled Connection, is the way they’ve not only captured the spirit of their live performances in the studio but even taken the process a step further.

The band’s fifth release continues their 10-year exploration of the kind of jazz first measured out in those Blue Note albums of the mid-’60s — by Andrew Hill, Eric Dolphy, Bobby Hutcherson and others — that took bebop in a late-modernist direction, very harmonically and rhythmically demanding, avoiding the easier options offered by post-Kind of Blue modal jazz. The music is challenging, often superficially austere and angular, but never academic or unfriendly. The 10 compositions by Facey, Wright and Farmer come at the idiom from a variety of angles, offering plenty of light and shade and exploiting the basic tonal palette and their internal relationships to the full.

They can do many things extremely well, and one of them is swing. Forbes’s drumming on two of Farmer’s tunes, “Driving Force” and “Card Clash”, creates classic triplet-based propulsion of the highest quality, establishing a really inspiring platform for the soloists. By contrast, Farmer’s “The Maze” explores a favourite trick of Miles Davis’s second great quartet by having the lead voices — Facey and Wright — stick to a measured written theme while the rhythm instruments are allowed complete freedom to invent. Wright’s closing “It’s Out of Our Hands” brings their innate lyricism back to the surface, with passages utilising a great asymmetrical Latin groove.

Exceptionally well recorded by Richard Woodcraft at RAK Studios in London, and mixed by Alex Bonney, this is a staggeringly good album that stands comparison with the very best of jazz in the 21st century. And from the way “Lethe” has lodged itself in my head over the past 12 months, I’d say that one deserves to become a classic.

* The photograph of Empirical was taken at Foyle’s in London last year.