Al Swainger & Biophosmos

Having spent a weekend away at the Marsden Jazz Festival in Yorkshire, it was a return to my monthly fix of live jazz at Southampton Jazz Club where Al Swainger took up a one night residency to highlight the music of Chick Corea.

The band, the album & the leader

Biophosmos is the album release from the Al Swainger Quartet featuring on bass and FX Al Swainger. Jon Clark is the band’s drummer alongside Tom Berge on keys. The remaining band member is Joe Northwood who plays tenor sax. During the evening we heard all the tracks from the album plus a couple of extras and an improvised work.

The evening started with the popping of a champagne cork as the quartet launched in to Armando’s Rhumba, a tune I have heard a number of times and very much enjoy. The Afro-Cuban vibe to this piece was infectious (but then I find that with most Afro-Cuban influenced tunes) and each member of the band got the opportunity to showcase their individual skills. This is the first track on the album and was a great opener to the evening.

The band moved on to Crystal Silence/No Mystery, which on the album is two distinct tracks but here were melded to wonderful effect. The tune(s) open with the plaintive sax of Joe Northwood supported by Tom Berge on keys playing some beautifully lyrical phrases. The tempo then picks up as the drums and bass kick in and the tune lifts as the group show once again just how well they come together as one unit.

Got a Match? Opened with drummer Jon Clark using mallets, which gave the kit a more resonant sound, which I found very effective. Jon then switched to sticks resulting in a much crisper sound that fitted, musically, so well with the blistering sax playing of Joe Northwood. The band then moved on to Spring Cleaning (I am not sure if this a Chick Corea number or not), which does not appear on the album. This was a very contemporary sounding tune and featured some terrific bass playing from Al Swainger – I found myself thinking of Weather Report during this tune: no bad comparison.

The last tune of the first set was Space. This is based on Corea’s mid ’90s works and made use of ambient sounds played through the bass via various electronic interfaces. As a concept this was very interesting but at times that age old question: is it jazz? kept popping in to my head (a question that will always be there when artists push at the boundaries of the jazz genre). Once the full quartet pulled together the jazz label became firmer but overall the piece worked, in my opinion, even though not everyone is comfortable in the jazz/rock/fusion playground.

Al Swainger

Set two began with Time Considered, which was a captivating duet between the sax of Joe Northwood and the keyboard playing of Tom Berge. As with the next two tunes, Time Considered is not on the album Biophosmos but I hope is or will be recorded somewhere.

The next part of the gig was improvised . As Al Swainger explained to me in the interval: as good as the tunes that make up the standards jazz repertoire are there is only so far a musician, arranger, composer can take them, after that you have to push the boundaries to see where the music can take you: we were about to find out.

The improvisation featured heavily the bass and its connection to a wide range of electronic bits and pieces. At the beginning the playing had an ethereal quality to it until the drums came to play and the the dynamics of the piece changed considerably. Then came the introduction of a sound loop and this is where I felt that what was being composed lost its direction and momentum. By the time that the keys and sax had joined in I considered that piece had tipped over and become a self-indulgent exercise. However, the addition of sax and keys did bring the tune back round before we drifted back to the electronica/drum duet but this time definitely in jazz-rock territory. Once again the sax and keys gave some respite before the whole thing ground to an inconclusive halt. As with anything fully improvised the response from the audience was mixed: a distinct Marmite moment.

And Now for something completely different. Windows, a Chick Corea jazz waltz is much more my style of jazz music but I acknowledge that I really do need to keep an open mind to the broad church that makes up this beautiful art form Jazz. I also need to recognize that players like Al Swainger need to be heard, and appreciated, for showing us the possibilities of the music – lets face it, if Coltrane, Monk, Gillespie et al hadn’t pushed the boundaries where would jazz be today?

Back to the jazz club. The Quartet finished with the final track from the album Spain/500 Miles High, an incredibly well played up-beat number on which to finish the evening. Biophosmos was, unsurprisingly, on sale and I did purchase a copy as I wished to have something to remind me of this very good group of musicians who played some excellent jazz music and made me think. Thanks guys!

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