Oscar Lavën has some ‘Questions in Red’

Oscar Lavën has long been a source of innovation on the Wellington Jazz scene. The multi-instrumentalist is the lead tenor player for the Rodger Fox big band, and has also appeared with The Troubles, John Beasley’s MONK’estra, The Wellington Mingus Ensemble, and has performed throughout Australasia, Europe and the US. Equally adept on the trumpet, clarinet and bassoon, this release features Lavën on his primary instrument the tenor saxophone.

The Questions in Red is set for release on October 22nd at the Wellington Jazz Festival and features twelve unique compositions by Lavën, who is joined by award winning drummer John Rae, bassist Patrick Bleakley, trumpeter Mike Taylor and pianist Ayrton Foote. Each track on the album showcases Lavën’s eclectic and lyrical improvisational style, while drawing on the canon of great tenor saxophone players.

‘Marigold’ opens the album and is the longest track of the ten that make up Questions in Red. In a number of ways this is classic straight-ahead jazz territory but that really does not do this track justice. There is definitely an edgy undercurrent to the number that can, at times, throw the listener off balance. The piano, for example, can be beautifully lyrical or percussively punchy. The sax and trumpet can veer towards a free jazz sound but pull it back to a nicely balanced melody and all in the space of a few bars. The drumming and bass lines are fluid when required but also solid and driving. This is a wonderful opening tune with so much to take in but never feeling overloaded.

Track two is as fun and inventive as its title, ‘Jesus Saunters Across the Hudson Wielding a Plastic Saxophone’. The opening sax lines portray the sauntering aspect before the trumpet joins in to fill out the sound, the tune meanders for a bit, slows and quickens its pace before the most glorious note on the trumpet introduces Mike Taylor’s solo section this is a very enjoyable number! ‘Rasp’ is introduced by the piano of Ayrton Foote and has a delightful melody. The sax and trumpet pick up the melody and produce a very good classic jazz era sound. ‘Wind’ has a slow bluesy feel opening that plays around repeated phrases. There are moments energy, squally in nature, that come into the structure and disrupt the gentle ebb and flow but that repeating phrase soon returns.

The album’s title track carries on from the previous tune in that the tempo is slow, the playing exploratory in feel with no real central melodic line. This composition asks questions but I am not sure that it provides answers, which I like but some listeners might find it a touch disquieting. ‘Cold Old Mould’ picks up the tempo, has a strong melody and the blend between the piano and front line is very good. Oscar Lavën makes good use of the range of the sax and produces some wonderful sounding runs – as does Ayrton Foote at the piano. ‘ Île De Batz’ is a beautifully lyrical, mellow tune that you simply need to let wash over you and enjoy.

‘Over-caffination on a Tiny Scooter’ sounds like there has been a significant injection of caffeine. The energy level is up, the playing is vibrant but controlled. The sound textures are varied and enjoyable and it would be very easy to imagine this number closing out a live set. The interplay between piano and trumpet stands out for me but it is when the group come together as a unit that the sum of the parts really shines. ‘Night Forest Cat’ really does capture the movement of a cat very well. There is an air of aloofness about this number that gives the impression that, even though you are engaged as a listener, something is being held back. The tonal shape of the sax on this number is a real delight to hear. ‘Captain Kākāpo’ is the briefest track on the album but packs a lot into its running time – a strong finish.

This is the second album from New Zealand based artists that I have been asked to review this year, and I have to say that if they are indicative of the standard of jazz coming out of that area then jazz from the island is in very rude health. Oscar Lavën was an unknown entity before receiving Questions in Red but having listened to his playing and writing I have to ask why? This is a very good album with a strong line-up of musicians delivering a varied menu of excellent jazz music that is both innovative and reassuringly familiar at the same time.

The album is released by Thick Records NZ and available via Bandcamp.

Musicians: Oscar Lavën – sax; Mike Taylor – trumpet; John Rae – drums; Patrick Bleakley – bass; Ayrton Foote – piano.

Tracklist: 1. Marigold. 2. Jesus Saunters Across the Hudson Wielding a Plastic Saxophone. 3. Rasp. 4. Wind. 5. Questions in Red. 6. Cold Old Mould. 7. Île De Batz. 8. Over-caffination on a Tiny Scooter. 9. Night Forest Cat. 10. Captain Kākāpo.

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