Alexander Hawkins Ensemble: No Now Is So (2009)
Pianist Alexander Hawkins is one of the brightest rising young stars of British jazz and improvisation, amply demonstrated by his work in Barkingside, the Convergence Quartet, and the Evan Parker Quartet. Hawkins has technique in abundance and a brain quick enough to make creative use of it. With no obvious stylistic antecedents, he excels in a variety of styles, seeming to relish his eclectic approach to improvisation, an approach fully in evidence here.
This sextet represents a bold departure from Hawkins' other work. Formed in late 2007, all of its members are stalwarts of the London improvised music scene. Notwithstanding this, No Now Is So is not an improv album; it features three Hawkins compositions alongside Wadada Leo Smith's "Nuru Light: The Prince of Peace" and Sun Ra's "Love in Outer Space." In addition, four pieces credited to the band members do sound fully improvised, as does one Hawkins solo piece. Recorded at the end of a short tour, the album finds the players playing in and in touch with each other's moods and habits.
The sextet's soundscape is notable for its absence of reed or brass instruments. The combination of string and percussion instruments is easy on the ear and creates a relaxed ambience. They all readily coalesce into a rhythm section, with each able to take the lead when appropriate.
As a leader, Hawkins has a keen ear for effective combinations of instruments. Repeatedly throughout the album, unusual pairings of sounds produce striking results. The sound of steel pan is prevalent, adding an uncommon element to the sound, most notably on the Sun Ra piece which the partnership of Hawkins and Orphy Robinson transforms into a happy-go-lucky groove. Robinson pairs with Dominic Lash's bass for the lilting theme of "Nuru Light: Prince of Peace," creating an appropriately mellow mood. On "Baobabs" the pan and Hannah Marshall's cello produce a similar effect.
Hawkins and his frequent band mate Lash have been cited as examples of there being an "Oxford sound." Two titles here allude to the city, most notably "Cowley Street Strut," which is dedicated to Pat Thomas, another Oxford resident. The evidence remains inconclusive as to whether that "Oxford sound" exists. However, it is conclusive that this album is an unqualified success.
Track Listing: Prelude (unidentified Spanish bebop selection #1); Sarah Teaches Kirsty to Read; Baobabs; Nuru Light: The Prince of Peace; Whirligig; 120:4; toc/tic/kiss; Old Time Folk Music from Oxford; Love in Outer Space (aka Unknown Kohoutek"); Greenford Breakdown; Cowley Road Strut: Message from the East (for Pat Thomas).
Personnel: Alexander Hawkins: piano; Orphy Robinson: steel pan; Otto Fischer: electric guitar; Hannah Marshall: cello; Dominic Lash: double-bass; Javier Carmona: drums, percussion.