The Royal Academy of Music jazz course is now widely renowned for delivering musicians and composers of exceptional quality, not least an impressive lineage of pianists that includes Gwilym Simcock, Tom Cawley, Kit Downes and Ivo Neame. The latest name to add to this roster is Sam Leak, a young musician whose debut album with his ensemble Aquarium is an immensely mature and sophisticated work.
Aquarium is both a poised and finely balanced ensemble, utilising the talents of some of the London jazz scene’s most creative musicians, all of whom will be familiar to jazz aficianados through their work in other groups. Reeds player James Allsop has worked with Kit Downes in The Golden Age Of Steam and more recently as a guest on this year’s Kit Downes Trio album Quiet Tiger. Bassist Calum Gourlay is the bedrock of that outstanding trio, whilst frighteningly precise drummer Josh Blackmore has worked with Downes in Troyka and also plays for Tom Cawley’s superbly refined trio Curios.
These musicians are exceedingly versatile. Allsopp brings some of the liberated vigour he displays in The Golden Age Of Steam, but also brings a more melodic quality to the table for this venture. Blackmore’s trademark intricate grooves are very much in evidence too, but his lightness of touch is also used for some very expressive, musical phrasing on the drums too. There is a strong sense of mutual adventure throughout the album.
Leak’s compositions are wide-ranging – sometimes refreshingly direct, at others prone to unexpected and fascinating mutations. The minimalism and rhythmic playfulness of Strangers and the engaging vitality of Grasshopper are examples of the former. Grasshopper is immediately memorable, with a superbly constructed, very clear theme and some fluent, engaging improvising around it. The melodic heart of the album is the beautiful Shades of Grey (later reprised with a delicate, thoughtful vocal from Rhiannon Bradbury), on which the ensemble sound is wonderfully integrated. Blackmore’s hand drumming (later switching to brushes) creates the perfect backdrop for Leak’s rich, romantic sequence and Allsopp’s soft, controlled execution of the melody. Leak’s touch here is deft here – the dynamic possibilities of the piano explored with tremendous technical and musical skill.
These compositions, carefully orchestrated and never more complex than is absolutely necessary, speak clearly and confidently – and it would still have been a remarkable album had this style predominated. Yet there is also The Treasure Chest, a piece that tumbles energetically through a wide range of moods, from melancholy reflection to passionate outpourings. There is also the freer Evensong, on which the group experiment with timbre and attack. These pieces suggest that Leak is resistant to a particular style of writing, or to any kind of genre categorisation within the broad field of jazz improvisation. At the very least, they demonstrate that, whilst Leak is influenced by Keith Jarrett, it is as much by the more exploratory, less serene American quartet as by the more often referenced European group.
Leak is a committed musician, expertly constructing flowing, natural, singing lines and also unafraid of taking risks. His careful touch allows him to draw a distinctive, personal sound from the piano. Throughout Aquarium, it sounds as if he is simply incapable of doing anything else. It will be fascinating to see where he goes next.