A somewhat nomadic musician, British bassist and composer Phil Donkin has lived and worked successfully in New York City and more recently in Berlin. He has worked with a number of renowned musicians including Kurt Rosenwinkel, John Abercrombie and the much missed Kenny Wheeler.
His first album as leader for the Whirlwind label sees him assemble an impressive quartet of US and European talent, with Ben Wendel on tenor saxophone, Glenn Zaleski on piano and Jochen Ruckert on drums. At 72 minutes, it’s long even by jazz album standards but, whilst there is much to digest, there is also an impressive depth and range that keeps the music both challenging and engaging.
Donkin comes across as defiant and self confident in wanting to create music for a wide audience without necessarily condescending to that audience. For him, the route to this goal lies chiefly in risk taking musicianship – a combination of individual boldness and collective interaction and support. This is something that his ensemble achieve repeatedly on this magnificent set.
Macon Groove is a brilliant example of the breadth of Donkin’s concerns. Initially, he shares the dexterous, exciting opening melody with Glenn Zaleski’s right hand – encompassing how effective unison playing can be, especially when it subsequently bursts out into richer colours and a vibrant, infectious bass line. The piece veers between a very contemporary, kinetic feel and a classic post-bop swing feel, with the musicians seeming equally comfortable in both spaces. Donkin takes a compelling, darting solo and there is some trading of phrases between the Zaleski, Wendel and Ruckert that is poised, alert and conversational. It’s a fascinating, thrilling blend of the traditional and modern.
Rhythmic concerns are also addressed with flair on Donkin’s propulsive interpretation of Thelonious Monk’s Introspection (which seems to look outward more than the title might suggest) and on the crisp original opener La Jurona. Ruckert plays a distinctive, highly musical role here, with clever punctuations and commentaries during the solos on La Jurona and a graceful, balletic, melodic solo of his own on Introspection. Donkin too shows command and leadership from a position too often delineated as a supporting role – he makes the bass sing and glide.
Importantly on such a long album, Donkin is also keen to experiment with different textures. Butterfingers is the clearest example of this, with Zaleski taking a break for the remaining members of the group to explore the possibilities of a piano-less trio. Its theme is full of witty playful quotes that demonstrates the group’s attachment to the lineage of jazz but also their willingness to inject it with a healthy dose of humour. Textural variation is also achieved through the slowly unfolding, patient and majestic title track which brilliantly sustains its melancholy, poignant atmosphere. Submerged, by way of contrast, feels purposefully threatening. The Lost Shoe has a whimsical, fairytale quality to it, achieved in part through a masterful control of dynamics and sound, with a delicate touch from Zaleski. Ben Wendel plays with lyricism and control here too.
These are musicians adept at creating different environments, of responding to each other and of pushing the whole ensemble to higher levels. This makes The Gate a thoroughly absorbing listening experience and hopefully a big step towards Donkin becoming more well known as a composer and leader. It’s as good an example of small band jazz as will likely be heard in 2015.