When big-hitting jazz agent Burkhard Hopper recently assembled a package of “Brit Jazz” groups for a European tour, the Julian Siegel Quartet was among the handful he chose. It’s not surprising. The combination of Siegel (reeds), Liam Noble (piano), Oli Hayhurst (bass) and Gene Calderazzo (drums) makes for a dream team of London jazz talent, and Urban Theme Park is a thing of charm and poise – in the best sense, a very English record.
The interaction between Siegel’s buoyant melodies and Noble’s ever-shifting backdrops is at the heart of this quartet (which has changed its rhythm section since the first album in 2002, featuring Jeremy Brown and Gary Husband). No British pianist is more versatile than Noble – you’ll find him playing free improvisations one night and Carole King ballads the next – and he brings this stylistic breadth to Siegel’s compositions. Although Siegel cites Joe Henderson and Cedar Walton as key influences on the album, his tunes fit right in with current, feted London groups like Phronesis: a mix of fiendish, time-twisting grooves, building riffs and brightly hummable melodies. Never mere blowing exercises, their through-composed nature gives them real drama and momentum.
Six Four opens the album with a multitracked Siegel playing soulful, feline tenor riffs, breaks down for a piano solo and then reintroduces more and more elements with the mathematical patience of classical minimalism. With the lattice of grooves at its densest, the tune abruptly ends, before launching into the no less intricate One For J.T. (dedicated to pianist John Taylor), which merrily tumbles through key signatures in Coltrane-ish fashion, and features an outstanding solo from Noble. This is very complex music that manages to be very appealing, thanks to its melodic vitality and the warmth of Siegel’s sound – as in Keys To The City, which lays a simple, relaxed tenor line over insistent, driving cross-rhythms.
The great Gene Calderazzo is also instrumental in guiding the listener through the rhythmic changes with explanatory little fills and accents. Calderazzo is the pounding heart of Siegel’s jazz-rock band Partisans, and a big musical personality in his own right: the sense that he is holding the big guns in reserve only makes his playing more exciting. His rhythmic partner Oli Hayhurst is rock-solid but unshowy, though he stretches out to great effect on Keys To The City.
Noble comes over all Mal Waldron for the theatrical introduction to Heart Song, which features Siegel on clarinet and all four players at their most lyrical. The aptly named Game of Cards sees them in playful mode, Siegel dancing and darting on soprano sax and Calderazzo breaking into breakbeat at its climax.
It is surprising to hear Noble squeezing R2-D2 bleeps out of a Fender Rhodes on Lifeline, the album’s shortest track and a tantalising glimpse of another side to the quartet. The electric fusion elements return to great effect on closing track Drone Job – a sinister, military march that bathes Siegel’s sax in delay after an album almost untouched by studio effects – but in such small quantities, they make for a slightly incongruous subplot overall.
First, though, comes the joyful Interlude, which begins as a free bass clarinet solo, bursts into an afro groove, and ends on Siegel walking up and down the major scale over exquisitely romantic chords. Penultimate track Fantasy In D is a Cedar Walton tune, the album’s only non-original, and its most straightforward swinger; nonetheless, the quartet pull a characteristic trick with syncopation that stamps it with their own personalities. With such a knack for drawing on jazz traditions while remaining fresh and forward-looking, the Julian Siegel Quartet are the perfect illustration of why British jazz is turning heads the world over.