Oh wow! Even after a few hours’ listening to a random selection of the finest CDs of jazz music from the last 50 years or so, this disc still leaps out.
Why is that? I think it has something to do not only with the individual musicianship – which is exemplary not only from a technical point of view but is also full of an often impossible to explain depth – but it has to do with the equally impossible to explain energy that is created communally by these four musicians.
For a start it seems to me there is something of the Lennon and McCartney about saxophonist/clarinettist Julian Siegel and pianist Liam Noble. No, that’s not quite right, as they have both made superb music without the other, but what I mean is that something really special happens – certain especially bright sparks fly – when they are in the same room.
It is – can you believe? – nearly ten years since the first Julian Siegel Quartet album. That was Close-Up on ill-fated Sound label, which was struck by financial difficulties not long after. I loved that disc and still do. So it’s a real treat to have this one to sit beside it.
There are some changes – out go Jeremy Brown on bass and Gary Husband on drums, and in come Oli Hayhurst and Gene Calderazzo. Brilliant though the former pair were in the band, the current line-up sounds, I think, even better.
Right from the opening notes to Six Four – Hayhurst’s knotty bass line riff, joined by Noble and then by all four – and then on through the album, what is really striking is that the music can be so fearsomely complex in its melodies and often taken at a pretty brisk pace, and yet these musicians seem to have all the time in the world to fill the notes and beats with such nuanced expression, feeling and sheer sense of joy.
Yes, that’s it: it’s the sense of joy in the creation. It might be there in lots of other music, but this band really does send that joy pulsing down the sound waves in a very special way. And, damn! It’s funky. One For J.T., for example, swings like the blazes. I’ve nearly dislocated my neck a couple of times doing the jazzhead to this.
All the music is by Siegel, except for Cedar Walton’s Fantasy in D near the disc’s end, which Julian has rearranged. For the rest, the compositions cover a lot of ground, from 20th-century classical harmony and melodic influence (Heart Song, Game Of Cards), through a funky attitude and with rhythms that range from swing to plain impossible (Keys To The City) and dub reggae (Game Of Cards), to African jazz (Interlude).
That Game Of Cards suite at the centre of the album is something of a highpoint, but then again this disc storms and swirls with pleasures from beginning to end. Lifeline has a compelling clarinet and bowed bass developing melody, with Noble adding electronic keyboard squiggles around it, and Calderazzo adding a whole orchestral range of percussion comments. The tune has the simplicity of line, yet complexity of feeling of one of Django Bates’s.
All four players solo wonderfully and, equally importantly, support and interact with each other in a seamless flow. I’ve loved their playing for years, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard them play quite so well as here. And of course, vitally, all have that crucial quality that separates them as really profound artists from other more run-of-the-mill jazz players: they have character! And that doesn’t come from just playing the right notes – it comes from living the life, feeling the emotions, and developing the artistry to convey all of it to us, the listeners.
And what damned lucky listeners we are. It’s going to be hard to knock Urban Theme Park off the top of my “best” pile for 2011.