London based trumpeter and composer Jack Davies clearly does not do things by halves. In the past two years, he’s graduated from the prestigious Royal Academy of Music, worked with some significant, pioneering musicians (Django Bates and Colin Towns among them), successfully co-helmed one of the young London jazz scene’s most exciting regular gigs (Jazz at the North London Tavern, sadly now defunct), won the Deutsche Bank award and started his own record label. To top it all off, he has now released three (very different) albums of original material simultaneously. At the very least, you have to admire his chutzpah.
Davies’ skill as an improvising instrumentalist and depth as a musician clearly cannot be contained within one project. He has a background in jazz and classical music, whilst his brilliant, thrillingly intimate Flea Circus project also demonstrates his love and understanding for Balkan and Eastern European folk music. Flea Circus is a wholly acoustic group with an unconventional line-up (Davies on trumpet, Rob Cope on bass clarinet, Aidan Shepherd on accordian and the much in-demand James Opstad on bass). This is a group every much as confident and exploratory with rhythm as a more conventional small jazz ensemble (particularly on the exciting Zapulshaka). There’s a refreshingly concise quality to much of this music, with the three miniatures proving particularly striking (So Let Us Melt offers evidence of Davies’ way with a haunting, memorable melody).
The Southbound quartet places Davies’ writing and playing in a wholly different context, this time veering into the bounds of more elastic structures, freer playing and abstraction. It’s the most contemporary sounding of his three releases and arguably also the most demanding. Again, the line-up eschews convention (piano but no bass) and the music draws from classical and contemporary sound worlds as much as from jazz. The music is deftly coloured with compelling dissonances and tensions and there’s a rhythmic propulsion that makes it feel vivid and alive. There’s a tenderness and control in Davies’ own playing here (particularly on Paragraphs) and the piano of Tom Taylor and drums of Jon Ormston offer fluid support and shifting textures. Throughout, the ensemble deploy space as much as sound, with satisfying results.
Perhaps the most impressive of Davies’ projects so far though is his big band. Whilst this disc does not feature Davies’ own playing (his role is as band director), it is perhaps the strongest example of his compositional invention and originality. It’s also a firm testament to his drive and determination. Organising a big band consisting of busy jazz musicians (most of whom play in multiple ensembles both through a need to experience different contexts and through financial necessity) is no easy task. To write for it at a consistently high level and to get big band legend Colin Towns to produce the album is all the more phenomenal.
It should come as no surprise that the results are frequently staggering. Davies’ writing for large ensemble resembles his small group style in that it tends not to conform to rigorous conventions on form and structure. This is certainly no nostalgic big band looking back to the days of Count Basie or Stan Kenton. It is rather a fearlessly contemporary group, using the wider palette to craft radical shifts in feel and mood. The line-up features some of the leading lights of contemporary British jazz – including saxophonists Martin Speake, Mike Chillingworth, Josh Arcoleo and Rob Cope, trumpeters Nick Smart and Percy Pursglove and guitarist Alex Munk.
Davies cites Kenny Wheeler and Loose Tubes as influences, although neither of these examples give much of a hint of how his own work sounds. The mischievousness of Loose Tubes doesn’t feel like a major presence (although there is certainly some of their intense energy), neither does Wheeler’s distinctive, melancholy sensation drawn from rich harmony.
Davies’ writing seems determinedly personal, often unfolding slowly into something powerful and turbulent. Opener Entropy seems like a great case in point – beginning with mesmeric drones (perhaps harbingers of something dangerous), before opening out into an unusual, restless groove with melodic lines echoing and zig-zagging across the ensemble. Josh Arcoleo’s tenor solo builds from a laconic opening statement to a more violent approach.
Producer Colin Towns’ influence is perhaps most clearly felt on the sprightly (I Had A) Bad Dream, characterised by a nimble, dancing rhythm section and some piercing, abrasive horn lines and stabs. By way of contrast, the balanced integration of melody and harmony on Some New Infection displays some of the intimacy that characterises the Flea Circys project and shows Davies’ capacity for reflection.
The focal point of the album is surely the extended 1984 Suite, inspired by George Orwell, and veering from apparent chaos to meticulous control. Telescreen turns a traditional marching band rhythm into a threatening harbinger of doom, before erupting into stormy improvisation and angry attack from Alex Munk. The Dance Of The Proles is mysterious and melancholy, whilst the closing Mr. Charrington’s Shop is subtle and sophisticated, typical of Davies’ compositional approach throughout this excellent album.