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Bebop Spoken There

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Born This Day
Louis Armstrong and Steve Andrews.

Monday, December 02, 2019

CD Review: Calum Gourlay Quartet - New Ears

Calum Gourlay (bass); Helena Kay (tenor sax); Kieran McLeod (trombone); James Maddren (Drums).
(Review by James Henry).

As a sort of a Scot, and a card carrying Fifer, my own old ears picked up on receipt of this CD. With a name like Calum Gourlay, this chap had to be one of the brothers, and possibly even a fellow Fifer. A little bit of research established that Calum is originally from Glasgow (well, I might forgive him that) but was brought up in Fife, even playing in the Fife Youth Jazz Orchestra (total redemption). And, two of his quartet also come from the proper North: Helena Kay (tenor saxophone) hails from Perth, and Kieran McLeod (trombone) is from Aberdeen. Like me, these three live in exile in England, committed to missionary work and waiting for the call from the blessed Nicola*. I pity the poor drummer in this quartet: coming from Sussex, James Maddren may rely on translators.

New Ears is a joy to behold, even down to the kitten on the album sleeve, which hides its new ears behind the CD. New Ears is Calum Gourlay’s first album as a bandleader, and is the debut release for the Calum Gourlay quartet.  Calum Gourlay leads a resident big band in the Vortex Jazz Club in London, and all four members of the quartet play in the big band. All are relatively recent alumni of London jazz conservatoires and already have impressive CVs.

The quartet is unusual in composition, lacking traditional chordal instruments. Devoid of this conventional comfort, tenor saxophone, trombone and bass have to work together to create the chordal control and continuity cherished by our conventional ears. The playing is tight and one soon ceases to miss the comping control of piano or guitar. The ensemble work is so precise that the music begins to evoke the big band that begat this wee band. There are also extended improvised sections, where James Maddren holds the group together allowing the other three to weave skilfully together, and more often than not Calum Gourlay joins in with the improvisation as an equal to the two horns.

All seven tracks are original works, written by Gourlay especially for the Quartet. For me the stand-out track is Blue Fugates, an extended blues composition, inspired by the Blue Fugates of Kentucky. For the curious, Blue Fugates aren’t birds, trees or mountains. Rather, Blue Fugates are a clan of people in the backwoods of Kentucky who inherited the blood disorder methaemoglobinaemia, which gave their skin a curious blue hue (an unusual inspiration for a tune, but check it out on Wikipedia if you want to know more). Be Minor, the opening track, has a folky feel and the head becomes an ear-worm after a few listens. Solstice has a slow, brooding quality: one imagines the long days of mid-summer.    

Although generally melodic, and never straying far from conventional forms, New Ears isn’t always an easy listen. After a few tracks one develops new ears, and the going gets easier. After a few listens everything makes sense, and it gets better and better. Calum Gourlay has a rich deep bass sound, perfectly complimented by Helena Kay and Kieran McLeod on horns. James Maddren is the glue that holds the album together. New ears are the result.
James Henry.

*Sturgeon, of course.

Available on Ubuntu Music: UBU 0043.

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