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Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Album review: Ben Crosland Quintet – Solway Stories

Ben Crosland (bass); Steve Waterman  (trumpet/flugel); Chris Allard (guitar); Steve Lodder (piano/keys); Dylan Howe (drums)

I’ve seen Ben Crosland perform in various groups over the years and would sum him up as ‘genial’ maybe human. He played with Waterman and Lodder in the trio Threeway, as the lynchpin of John Etheridge’s Trio North, leading an Octet for his Echoes in the Valley project from 2000 and many others. He fits this activity around the running of his Jazzcat record label and a career as a barrister in the courts of West Yorkshire. That’s barrister not barista - you’d want Crosland in your corner if you were trying to get off a life sentence.

Whilst the rest of the band may lack the wig and the gown they are, officially, no slouches. Waterman has played with most people of his generation on the UK scene; Lodder is best known in this house as an early, long-time associate of Andy Sheppard and Howe has led his own Blakey/Blue Note type jazz quartet and is a member of the Ian Dury-less Blockheads. Only guitarist Chris Allard is new to me.

As with Echoes in the Valley, the inspiration for Solway Stories comes from the scenery and the people of the North of England. This is a celebration of the wide open spaces, it is optimistic, warm, broad-brush stroke music of the freedom to be found away from the claustrophobia of the cities. It is cool music, but not the cool of nodding heads in smoky night clubs, rather, it is cool in a way that allows the tunes to develop. Not for Crosland the frantic intensity or showmanship of trying to squeeze in as many notes as possible into every tune. Much of it is music of memory and quiet contemplation but there are some nods to New Orleans in A Lil’ Sark Funk where Allard’s guitar hands over to a rolling piano solo from Lodder who then hands the baton onto Waterman for a trumpet solo, all in front of a high stepping back beat from Dylan Howe.

Powfoot takes us into Stevie Wonder playing with the Average White Band and Carsethorn could be a piece of 70s’ soul enhanced by psychedelic swirls from the organ.

The titles come from places that Crosland visited on a journey into South West Scotland with his mother, who died last year. The tunes are mainly named after villages in the Dumfries area (Powfoot; Beeswing; Islesteps; Carsethorn) or other places of local interest (Auchenreoch Loch).

I Do is a nod to the blacksmiths of Gretna Green. Despite the fact that the area may appear to be natural and unspoiled, the sleeve notes tell us that Powfoot was the site of a 9 mile long munitions factory during the First World War wherein they mixed gun cotton and nitro-glycerine to make cordite for shell propellant. Cordite was dubbed The Devil’s Porridge another of the song titles.  

My only reservation is to do with the production. There could be more separation, not least to help Crosland’s bass stand out more. He is a tremendous player, but his contribution is buried for much of the time. That gripe aside, it is a lovely album.

Solway Stories is released on May 28 and is available through the usual outlets. For more information about Ben Crosland visit Home (jazz-cat.com) Dave Sayer

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