Kairos 4tet’s third album (and first for the Naim Jazz label) is the kind of statement that might raise a few eyebrows within the UK contemporary jazz fraternity. Already adept at writing and performing high energy, interactive music with strong melodies and an accessible sound, saxophonist and composer Adam Waldmann has now gone one step forward by venturing into the world of song-based music.
That he has done this with full commitment rather than half-heartedly or tentatively is crucial – Everything We Hold could easily have been an insipid disaster but actually transpires to be a deft, clever and engaging piece of work. It certainly has the potential to further boost the band’s audience.
The album is structured thoughtfully and cleanly, with the vocal contributions from Marc O’Reilly, Emilia Martensen and Omar alternating with instrumental pieces that develop Waldmann’s by now familiar compositional style. The lyrics (penned by actor and filmmaker Rupert Friend) are threaded thoughtfully into the music, often in conversation with Waldmann’s distinctive, memorable saxophone lines. The lithe, expressive and poetic Song For The Open Road is a timely reminder of Omar’s talents as a singer and storyteller. Always working and always respected, he is one of the UK’s most soulful singers and his clarity and directness serve Waldmann’s melodic sensibility well. Of the three vocalists, Irish singer-songwriter Marc O’Reilly may be the least obvious choice; his slightly gravelly tones provide a rather different emphasis and tone from the other singers.
The best vocal pieces here though are those made with longstanding Kairos collaborator Emilia Martensen. In particular, Narrowboat Man is a surprising moment of exquisite beauty, seemingly channeling the spirits of Wayne Shorter, Nick Drake and Astor Piazolla into a compelling, haunting hybrid. Jules Buckley of The Heritage Orchestra provides carefully integrated, delicate string arrangements on this and the equally lovely Ell’s Bells, helping to create some vulnerable, touching laments.
The band’s previous album, Statement Of Intent, introduced Waldmann’s political beliefs, a strand of his thinking now much presented with clarity on this album. The four-part suite entitled The 99 refers to the 99% and the Occupy movement. Through this and the four dedications to his bandmates, Waldmann exudes a warmth, empathy and humour (see the brilliantly titled J-Hø From The Block in honour of currently ubiquitous bass player Jasper Høiby or Finding Neamo, in salute to pianist Ivo Neame) that renders both his concepts and the resulting music deeply satisfying.
Whilst the vocal moments inevitably require a subtlety and support from Waldmann’s experienced and adroit rhythm section, the instrumental pieces still afford them plenty of space and time for their characteristically sprightly and inquisitive playing. As always, Ivo Neame improvises sensitively and intuitively, as attuned to the importance of space as he is to the flow and evenness of his lines. Drummer Jon Scott, with an increasingly personal and distinctive sound, relates his own phrasing to the contours of Waldmann’s rhythmic and melodic features, sounding particularly strong on the opening first part of The 99 (appropriately enough as it is subtitled Great Scott). The second part of The 99 explores the contrast between a single-interval riff and a motivic melodic line to enjoyable effect, whilst J-Hø From The Block probably comes closest to recapturing the forward motion and delightful clatter of the first Kairos 4tet album.
There has been a notable trajectory over the course of three albums now for Waldmann and his group. In spite of its impassioned politics and firebrand title, Statement Of Intent for the most part pursued a more mature writing style with greater depth and subtlety. Everything We Hold continues this trend, whilst also offering strong, affecting songs that might increase this band’s commercial potential. It’s a rather special piece of tightrope walking from Waldmann.