Tim Richards' current band, the nine-piece Great Spirit, continues to explore much the same territory as its predecessor Spirit Level, which Richards disbanded in 1999, after 20 years and seven albums, presumably feeling the need to "refresh the brand." Muscular hard bop laced with a touch of R&B (as in Joe Liggins & The Honeydrippers rather than Ashanti) is at the base of the mix, with added infusions of in your face big band rock-outs, a touch of electrified funk and the occasional ballad.
The other defining characteristics of Great Spirit, inherited from Spirit Level, are Richards' in-the-tradition but singular composing style, focused on melody and rhythm, and his talent for putting together bands featuring exciting young soloists. Particularly strong on emergent saxophone stars - previous line-ups have included Gilad Atzmon and Denys Baptiste - the new group includes three of the UK's most viscerally engaging saxmen in Jason Yarde, Ed Jones and Tony Kofi. And in a further coup, Great Spirit also includes Tom Herbert (basses) and Sebastian Rochford (drums), the twin anchors of London's two hottest zeitgeist bands, Polar Bear and Acoustic Ladyland. Roger Beaujolais (vibraphone) and Dick Pearce (trumpet) continue to bring plenty to the party.
Highlights of the album include US trumpeter Jack Walrath's "Kirsten Sunday Morning," previously heard on Spirit Level's '86 album Killer Bunnies, when the ex-Mingus sideman Walrath was a guest artist with the band, and which kicks things off in exuberant hard bop style, lifted well out of the ordinary by Rochford's impassioned drumming; Monk's "Epistrophy," in a satisfyingly extended, baritone-led 12-minute workout which bookends Richards' own inversion of the theme, "Apostrophe," and features appropriately crooked-line solos from Kofi and Herbert; "Fish Wish," a beautiful duet for Jones and Richards; and the closing "From The Deep," upbeat and hard-driving, with some great dialogue between Pearce and Yarde, and more remarkable drumming from Rochford.
It's good to have Spirit Level back, under whatever name, bigger and enjoyably brasher than before.
Personnel: Jason Yarde, alto & soprano saxophones; Ed Jones, tenor saxophone & bass clarinet; Tony Kofi, baritone saxophone; Dick Pearce, trumpet; Roger Beaujolais, vibraphone; Tim Richards, piano & keyboards; Leon Stenning, guitar; Tom Herbert, bass & electric bass; Sebastian Rochford, drums.