Is it a ‘Perfect Circle’ from Tom Stephenson?

I was recently senta copy of Tom Stephenson’s Perfect Circle for review and with it came the following bio:

With the release of his debut album, Perfect Circle, on Friday April 2, guitarist Tom Stephenson becomes the latest student from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s acclaimed jazz course to share his music with the wider jazz audience. In common with recent successes, fellow graduate, pianist Fergus McCreadie and saxophonist Matt Carmichael, Stephenson is showing the benefit of being in what he describes as “an intense and inspiring environment with so many like-minded and equally dedicated people.”

Born in Darlington, Stephenson took up guitar at the age of fourteen after a friend introduced him to the instrument. Having been left disillusioned with school and academic expectations he immediately felt a new sense of purpose and dedicated himself to learning a broad range of musical styles. In 2015 he was awarded a scholarship to study jazz at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland under the direction of saxophonist Tommy Smith. While at the Conservatoire he established himself on the Glasgow jazz scene and has played with established names including trombonist Mark Nightingale, trumpeter John Faddis and guitarist Mike Stern.

The trio that features on Perfect Circle – Stephenson with bassist Mark Hendry and drummer Greg Irons – has gigged substantially, including appearances at Edinburgh and Glasgow jazz festivals, allowing Stephenson’s compositions to strengthen and develop.

“Each tune was written toward the end of my time at the Conservatoire,” says Stephenson. “This period signifies an important step in my development as an artist. The goals were to express myself in an uncontrived manner, get in touch with what excites me about music on a personal and subjective level and embrace my own idiosyncrasies both as a player and a composer.”

Simplicity is key for Stephenson, who is very keen to play live dates in support of Perfect Circle. “When composing, no matter how complex everything else gets, I want at least one element to remain simple so that the music can communicate directly with the audience.”

I looked at Tom’s Bandcamp page and made a note of the tags that run along the bottom of the page: jazz, jazz fusion, rock, ambient, crossover jazz, guitar improvisation, jam, jazz rock, Glasgow. This list describes how Tom views his musical style but how does this come across to a listener of Perfect Circle?

Debut album ‘Perfect Circle’
from Tom Stephenson

‘The Sun’s Hat’ opens the album with a simple catchy motif that “one element to remain simple” before moving into jazz fusion, which gives the listener the first opportunity to hear Tom’s guitar skills. The tune remains bright throughout with good support from drummer Greg Irons and added depth of tone from the bass of Mark Hendry. The second track, ‘Cornerstone’ is a more sedate affair with a strong country feel. Again, the playing is good throughout with a wonderful contribution from Mark Hendry on bass.

‘Groove’ picks up the tempo slightly and shows a lot of potential. My only problem with this track is that it is too short. I should have liked to have heard more, to hear the tune develop further – it felt like the musicians had established the groove but did not want to stay there. Track four, ‘Glider’, is a quite different style to what has gone before. This tune is in the ambient, soundscape style of contemporary jazz and one could easily imagine this music accompanying images of a glider in flight. Having had the opportunity to go up in a glider I found this number evocative of that experience and it was wonderful to have those memories brought back to life through Tom’s composition.

‘Riff’ is a self-descriptive tune in the rock idiom. The guitar playing on this track is impressive with the variations in pitch keeping my interest throughout – that where will he take the tune next feeling? The support from bass and drums is good but for me this is a case of too much rock and not enough jazz but that does not mean that I do not appreciate the talent on show here. The last two tracks of this album are linked in that one is the intro to the other: the title track. ‘Perfect Circle (Intro) is a simple, gentle, tune with what is not sounded being as important as that which is.

‘Perfect Circle’ picks up where its intro left off. This is the longest track on the album coming in at just under sixteen minutes. It begins in a reflective, ambient style with the use of a simple motif that holds the tune together – to a point. As with ‘Riff’ there is a good use of pitch variations that kept me engaged. The alteration in volume gives the number an added intensity and emphasises the softer moments to good effect. The tune comes to what at first appears to be a natural conclusion pausing for just a couple of beats before picking up again with the return of that simple motif. The track then becomes silent for just over a minute before re-emerging as a blues that would sound good in any late-night after-hours blues club.

Perfect Circle does, as an album, meet the descriptions elicited from the tag list referenced earlier. However, for me, this is too eclectic a collection of tunes and prevents the whole from hanging together as a perfect circle. The quality of the musicianship is good; the quality of the writing is good, but I think that Tom needs to decide a direction of travel and really explore where it takes him.

Album personnel: Tom Stephenson – guitar and compositions; Mark Hendry – bass; Greg Irons – drums.

Tracklist: 1. The Sun’s Hat; 2. Cornerstone; 3. Groove; 4. Glider; 5. Riff; 6. Perfect Circle (Intro); 7. Perfect Circle

Perfect Circle is available as a digital download from Bandcamp. Tom Stephenson’s website can be found at tomstephensonmusic.com

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