Friday, September 26, 2008

A Private Broadcast

Curios - Closer (Impure, 2008)

It’s probably testament to Tom Cawley’s talent and open-mindedness that his original writing and playing for Curios is so wildly at variance with his unbridled assault on his Nord Electro for Acoustic Ladyland. With ‘Skinny Grin’, I felt that group might have taken their punk-jazz schtik a little too far, removing much of the musicality in favour of cross-genre thrashing. By way of contrast, across just two albums, Cawley’s own group have demonstrated the extraordinary versatility of the Piano trio. Curios is a prime example of how considerable empathy between three players can result in music that more than defies its limitations.

For the most part, ‘Closer’ emphasises the group’s more measured, reflective and melancholy side. There are moments of playfulness and exuberance but most traces of fiery aggression have been tempered. It’s definitely steeped far more in the evolving European school than the American bebop tradition. The result is a thoughtful, wistful set filled with great warmth. The intimacy implied by the album’s title seems entirely apt. Cawley’s touch is as light as a feather, and these recordings capture the subtlety and nuance of his playing with elegance and precision. There’s a palpable and compassionate sense of the group playing in isolation but for the benefit of many. ‘Closer’ is like a series of private conversations revealed to the wider world.

A couple of features in Cawley’s writing strike me as particularly impressive. First, there’s the way he can take a simple phrase and extrapolate it into something bold and unpredictable. He builds a whole feature from a short series of notes on ‘Curious’, with 22-year old drummer Josh Blackmore contributing his own responses and a wealth of rhythmic intricacy. It veers seamlessly from a cool, spacey feel to an unexpectedly driving swing. Secondly, there’s the comfort with which he has absorbed such a wide range of influences. If anything, there’s as much Debussy as Keith Jarrett in his writing, and ‘The Tiling Song’ even resembles an East European classical dance. Perhaps the real hint is in ‘Bradford’, a piece recognising the pivotal influence of American pianist Brad Mehldau.

Equally significant is how the entire band put their technical abilities in the service of feeling and atmosphere rather than virtuosic showmanship. Whilst the combination of classical and jazz traditions can often seem studied and academic, Curios manage to be consistently engaging and stimulating. It’s not simply that the music is complex or polyrhythmic – it’s the way the band makes transitions that are so confident as to barely register an impact. Suddenly, the listener’s ear might awaken and realise the music has travelled to a completely new place. For example, the opening ‘Little Sharks and Baby Dolphins’ shifts effortlessly between a deceptively simple waltz theme and a more propulsive, but no less delicate exposition. It’s all guided calmly by Josh Blackmore’s varying cymbal patterns.

This is not, on the surface, accessible or populist music, but it appears to have found a reasonable audience by virtue of its sheer finesse alone. There is, it seems, as much excitement in Cawley’s expressive, lyrical themes as there is in the outlandish, more muscular improvisation emerging from the Loop Collective. That London-based jazz seems to be pulling in so many different directions at the moment is hugely exciting. This radical open-mindedness has revitalised the scene, and hopefully pointed out to those programmers who undermined Jazz broadcasting in this country how wrong-headed they have been. There is both the space and the appreciation for a great wealth of ideas to flourish.

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