Sultan Stevenson is a twenty-two year old is Londoner with roots in the Caribbean (his parents are of Barbadian and Vincentian descent). He is a product of both Tomorrow’s Warriors and the Julian Joseph Jazz Academy (JJJA). Sultan is the first to admit that he has absorbed the work of many of the greats of the jazz piano – there has clearly been time well spent living with the music of McCoy Tyner, Geri Allen, Herbie Hancock and Kenny Kirkland – but that is only a part of his story. His faith as a young Christian is ever-present, as is his deep appreciation of Black gospel music, bebop, swing, reggae, funk and hip-hop as well as the history of Africa and the African diaspora which are part of his identity.
Sultan introduces the Quintet aspect of this album with a ‘Foreword’ before moving on to his trio setting for ‘Guilty By Association’. The first thing I am struck by is how much Sultan makes use of space between the notes, how much he is prepared to allow the tune to develop, to unfold. His piano playing is nicely phrased with good tonal variation. ‘Prayer’ opens with a strong bass line from Jacob Gryn that is as spacious as the piano playing of the band’s leader. The way that the sax and trumpet are used give this tune the feel of a lamentation: haunting and heartfelt – emotive writing and delivery.
‘To Be Seen’ also starts with the bass of Jacob Gryn before Sultan Stevenson joins in at the piano. This is the longest track on the album and it takes its time to fully express itself but when it gets there the sound is wonderful and highlights Sultan’s compositional maturity – I have to say that I particularly enjoyed the way in which the drums and piano played off each other. Drummer Joel Waters has some great lines, and a terrific drum solo, on ‘Safe Passage’, as does bassist Jacob Gryn. Sultan Stevenson really stretches out on this up-tempo number with its roots firmly in some of the classic jazz piano numbers that must have influenced this young performer.
‘Thank You, Thank You God’ is a robust, driven piece of writing conjuring up images of an evangelical preacher in full-throated flow. This is not a flowing melodic, lyrical tune but rather something made up of ripples of sound from piano and drums that vary in volume and tone to create something quite powerful. ‘Summer Was Our Holy Place’ is, in many ways, everything the previous number was not. The melody is front and centre and wonderfully played by trumpet, sax, and piano. This is a very good uplifting tune that benefits from the addition of Josh Short and Denys Baptiste (see video at the end of this post).
‘He Has Made Me Whole’ is the first of the faith related compositions that, for me, sounds spiritually connected. This tune makes good use of the idea of light and shade, the lilting piano lines are grounded by Jacob Gryn’s bass while Joel Waters adds delicate swirling brush strokes. The dynamics change when Sultan introduces percussive chordal sounds alongside the tune’s central theme: most effective! The album then moves on to the title track and its more contemporary sound. Denys Baptiste plays with energy and bite, which Josh Short softens out with the accompaniment of Sultan at the piano. This is a great multi-layered quintet tune reprised for track ten where the energy of the number is displayed to the full. Faithful One finishes with ‘Afterword’, which I guess brings the album full circle.
This is a very good debut album from a young pianist and composer who would definitely sit comfortably in the “one to listen out for” category. There is an unmistakable maturity about his playing, and whilst he most certainly has good technique he does not overplay it and neither do the musicians around him. Sultan sounds comfortable in trio and quintet settings both as a player and as a composer, and the fact that he has chosen to release a debut album of his own work shows a confidence in the strength of his own writing.
Faithful One is on the Whirlwind Records label and available from Bandcamp from March 24th.
Tracklist: 1. Foreword. 2. Guilty by Association. 3. Prayer. 4. To Be Seen. 5. Safe Passage. 6. Thank you, Thank you God. 7. Summer Was Our Holy Place. 8. He Has Made Me Whole. 9. Faithful One. 10. Faithful One (Reprise). 11. Afterword.
Musicians: Sultan Stevenson – piano; Jacob Gryn – bass; Joel Waters – drums; Josh Short – trumpets (1, 3, 7, 9, 10); Denys Baptiste – tenor saxophone (1, 3, 7, 9, 10).