For his second album, the young London-based saxophonist and composer George Crowley has assembled a new band that generates real heat and energy from a dual tenor saxophone frontline (Crowley and Tom Challenger). The dynamic rhythm of Dan Nicholls (piano), Sam Lasserson (bass) and Jon Scott (drums) are as adept during moments of freewheeling improvisation or abstraction as they are creating detailed, driving grooves (Lasserson and Scott seem impressively locked in).
Nicholls’ own music in Strobes or under his own name has explored polyrhythms and electronics, and he brings some of that approach to his piano playing here. It’s a prime example of how some of the best music often happens, if not quite accidentally, then at least spontaneously. Originally put together for one gig in 2013, it quickly became clear that this was a line-up that really clicked.
The Can Of Worms project is liberally laced with Crowley’s devil-may-care dry wit, not least in the tune titles, some of which seem to play with the perennial difficulties some musicians seem to have in naming their tunes. The first track is named, ahem, The Opener, whilst even better is Ubiquitous Up Tune In 3 (why ‘ubiquitous’? Is it everywhere? Who knows?). In another tune title, Crowley claims, despite the very fresh and contemporary sound of the band on much of this album that I’m Not Here To Reinvent The Wheel. There’s a self-deprecating charm to much of this, even if it perhaps risks being seen as being something of an in-joke for the London jazz scene (much of which is currently sustained by Crowley himself – he runs excellent gigs at The Oxford in Kentish Town and the Constitution Cellar in Camden).
There’s something challenging and satisfying in the way Crowley’s compositions unfold, rarely predictably, with written passages jostling with fully improvised sections for attention. This is music that clearly seeks to avoid being pigeon-holed, wanting to splice elements from a variety of musical worlds and for the most part succeeding. Perhaps the strongest tracks here are Whirl, where Dan Nicholls’ electric piano offers a warmer texture, and the dynamic gradually builds, as if the music is ascending and the gently bounding Terminal, which feels like a light-footed rooftops chase scene. Again, Nicholls’ electric piano is a major component of the music’s character, not least in his rhythmically and melodically imaginative solo.
For all the information and language in it, much of this music seems to have a strong sense of space even at its busiest. Even the free-flowing long lines of the solos in Terminal are accompanied thoughtfully, and therefore have a light and airy feeling. Rum Punch delightfully threads together odd, quirky phrasing (Crowley and Challenger sparring with each other) with a resonant, bluesy theme. It has something of Charles Mingus about it.
The album ends on a mysterious, slightly haunted note with T-Leaf, perhaps the most ruminative and expressive of these performances. Even at its most thoughtful though, this feels like restless and imaginative music that must be fun to play, alive to a wide variety of possibilities. In a gig setting, it seems likely that every piece here will be highly mutable. It would be pleasing if this turned out to be an ensemble with some longevity, as there are surely fascinating paths for development ahead.