Oh, here we go again. Almost as soon as the debut album from young Leeds jazz graduates Roller Trio had been nominated for the Mercury prize, the chorus of naysayers emerged. But is it jazz? Aside from the fact that the predilection of Mercury judges for including ‘token’ specialist genre nominations has never been set in stone (it’s been some time since they’re recognised classical performance or contemporary composition), does it really matter what it is?
To an extent, the band themselves have courted this kind of introverted debate, given their desire to want to break away from conventional jazz stereotypes. Sometimes a jazz group’s attempt to widen their audience seems to result in more introverted debate within the jazz community. That Roller Trio’s rise has been fast and furious perhaps further amplifies this climate. The effect is to make them appear much more radical and uncompromising than they actually are. Their website describes them, fairly accurately, as a rock-jazz group. They deal, often with thrilling results, in punchy grooves, crisp riffs and full throttle, high octane attack.
Whether this offers anything truly new is much more debatable. There are times on this debut album when the group appear to owe a debt to some of their near-contemporaries, not least Acoustic Ladyland, a band that made similar inroads in opening up instrumental music to rock audiences. Then there are fellow Leeds musicians trioVD who operate in similar terrain, albeit with arguably a more precision engineered approach. Over and above all that, saxophonist James Mainwaring’s preponderance for insistent riffs, cross-rhythmic trickery and an intervallic approach (all immediately on display in the bravura opening track Deep Heat) can all be traced back to the pioneering work of Steve Coleman.
Whilst Roller Trio do not yet convince as heavily hyped saviours of British jazz (does it need saving?), there is certainly much to enjoy on their debut album. These are musicians that execute their material with high levels of energy and vigour. Where they are perhaps most unconventional is in being a trio without a bass player. Sometimes this leaves the music sounding a little thin (sometimes this kind of hybrid music really demands some more low end), but at other times it enables some intriguing transitions in texture that keep the music challenging and stimulating. There’s also a great risk in leaving the guitar of Luke Wynter heavily exposed – but he seems more than able to meet the challenge, creating spacious harmonies as well as dexterous, folk-inspired lines.
For those that prefer their jazz to come with motivic development and well constructed themes, Roller Trio’s onslaught of clipped phrases and heady exhilaration could prove a little trying. Thankfully, balance is provided here by the surprisingly tender R.O.R. With its gently undulating brushed drums and rolling guitar picking, it subtly points the way to a deeper, more sophisticated future for the band. Roller Trio’s purpose, intent and quality all seem to coalesce brilliantly on A Dark Place To Think. Of all the compositions here, it’s the one that most feels like a journey, and where the band best balance aggressive insistence with meaning and empathy.