Trumpeter and composer Reuben Fowler has earmarked his debut recording for the kind of project most musicians only undertake well into long careers. Having won the Kenny Wheeler Prize, awarded to the most outstanding graduating student from London’s Royal Academy of Music, Fowler earned a contract with the industrious Edition label (current home to Marius Neset and Phronesis, among other artists), a label with judicious tastes and European connections.
Although he’d been performing some of these compositions with a smaller ensemble for some time, Fowler also felt he needed an outlet for some of his more widescreen arrangements. Following in the footsteps of that other assured and entrepreneurial Royal Academy graduate Jack Davies, Fowler assembled a big band – an undertaking sure to have posed logistical and financial challenges.
That Fowler’s deft compositional touch and improvisational flair have impressed many can be quickly gleaned from this album’s extraordinary cast list. Fowler’s band draws together the great and the good of the current crop of young jazz musicians on the London scene including saxophonists George Crowley and Joe Wright, trumpeters Percy Pursglove and Freddie Gavita, fluent pianist Matt Robinson, groove architect drummer Dave Hamblett (here largely playing against type with some light touch swing) and the excellent, imaginative guitarist Alex Munk. It also goes well beyond this in brining in an impressive roster of special guests, including the acclaimed American trumpeter Tom Harrell (who performs a guest solo), British legends Stan Sulzmann and Guy Barker (the latter conducts), vocalist Brigitte Beraha and the outstanding vibraphone player Jim Hart (one of the country’s most assured and dazzling improvisers). It is pretty much a dream team.
All this is far from mere hubris – Fowler has supplied his extraordinary ensemble with some sumptuous, sophisticated charts. Perhaps wisely, he has not attempted to reinvent the wheel with Between Shadows. Whilst it’s full of distinctive touches and has a strong sense of personal authorship behind it, it doesn’t feel like a premature magnum opus. Instead, Fowler has drawn assiduously both from the rich tradition (the Between Shadows suite, which forms over half the album, even co-opts A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square) and from his more immediate sources of inspiration (including the much-missed Round Trip trumpeter and tireless supporter of the London scene Richard Turner, whose composition Too Minor opens proceedings). The resulting hybrid produces something vibrant, often gently swinging and deploying a range of affecting colours and arranging techniques.
Whilst Fowler delves deep into harmonic possibilities, he’s also careful not to avoid the hooks and melodies that provide this intriguing album with its poised balance of warmth and melancholy. The lovely Holness begins with a touching, almost pastoral introduction which teases at the theme, before evolving into a shimmering, memorable clarinet feature. Fowler is also adept at using the resources of the big band for moments of power and drama, not least on the superb Dundry, which though light and nimble on the surface, has some compelling tensions and exciting dynamic peaks. Dundry’s deft juxtaposition of infectious riff-based ideas with atmospheric sounds and colours recalls the work of the great George Russell.
The real heart of the album, however, is the Between Shadows suite, beginning with an exquisite, uplifting arrangement of A Nightingale Sang…,complete with ghosts of Gil Evans, Duke Ellington and even Stan Kenton, before veering into more personal territory. Lost features some of the album’s most free-flowing and inspired improvising, whilst there are exciting contributions from vocalists Brigitte Beraha and Guillermo Rozenthuler (Beraha’s handling of the melody on The Lost And Found is exquisitely controlled). What is most impressive about the suite as a whole is Fowler’s attention to detail. The music is arranged cleanly and directly, with effective counterpoint and plenty of poignant spaces and lingering chords. It’s an immediately entrancing listen, but also a statement that shows Fowler’s potential to explore even further. It will be interesting to hear him in a small group context too.