Alexander Hawkins Ensemble: Alexander Hawkins: Step Wide, Step Deep

Phil Barnes By

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The effortless and precocious ability shown by British pianist Alexander Hawkins to step between the jazz tradition and music more associated with free improv makes for a heady brew on this thrilling collection. While it is arguable that the genres are far from mutually exclusive the ability to make accessible music from that which is often viewed as 'difficult' is rare and deserves to be better known outside of his homeland.

This album retains only guitarist Otto Fischer from the previous Ensemble release, 2012's All There, Ever Out, the changes apparently forced by the geographical relocation of drummer Javier Carmona and Dominic Lash. The change in personnel inevitably has some impact on the sound which Hawkins summarised, in a 2013 All About Jazz interview, like this "This group ... is more concerned with rhythmic devices... Whereas the previous one was more timbrally aware...." He developed this point elsewhere by explaining that the new Ensemble rhythm section, while technically excellent, were not especially associated with the free-er improvisational territory of the compositions, and crucially had no clear preconceptions of what the music was meant to sound like. This keeps the sense of the unexpected in the music and Hawkins has clearly invested some time in getting the pieces and the ensemble interactions right showcasing early versions of the material on this album in a BBC Radio 3 session as far back as the autumn of 2012, some 7 months before the actual April 2013 recording date.

From the off the collection is straight into gear—the slightly off kilter theme of "Step Wide, Step Deep" morphing into the exuberant bass pulse of "Space of Time Danced Thru," that forms the second part of track one, where guitarist Otto Fischer in particular shines . The first part of the title comes from an interview quote by Henry Threadgill—along the lines of the very wide and deep step needed to reach the next level of musicianship, that resonated for Hawkins in terms of the 'jumps and vaults' needed as a soloist performing this music. It really is an evocative and poetic phrase that works both on Hawkins literal level, but also as a statement of intent with resonances of 'Giant Steps' and perfectly sets the tone for the explorations to come. The references and allusions are also there on the linked piece, "Space of Time Danced Through," that points back to Cecil Taylor's liner notes for Unit Structures: ...."While life is becoming visible physical conversation between all body's limbs: Rhythm is life the space of time danced thru."

While the references are there, should you wish to follow them, it really isn't necessary to enjoy this great collection. The way, for example, that Hawkins takes the piano bass riff in the title track, toying with it as if examining the phrase from different angles or the circular, filmic, theme that ripples out through different members of the ensemble on "Listen/Glow" are more than enough evidence of a special collection. Some listeners might gain an additional level of enjoyment from knowing that the bracketed section of "MO (- Ittoqqortoormiit)" is not some high conceptual code, but refers only to the name of a fishing village in Greenland, others will sigh and move on. Be that as it may it would be wrong to overlook the piece for the intriguing way that the swaggering primal energy of Hawkins' initial solo emerges from the mix, dissipating as time continues fighting for space against the circular repetitive horn riff that takes over.

So it's fair to say that this is a collection that works on different levels and on its own creative terms. Listen for the totality of the sound, the blend of the group members as they negotiate some occasionally tricky compositional challenges and you will be enthralled by the power, momentum and thoughtfulness on display. But should you prefer to listen at a more analytical level, following the responses of individual musicians and instruments to the challenges posed by their fellow band members and it will repay that concentration and effort too. You can even decide that you want to try and research all the allusions and references dotted throughout the collection, but be prepared for a significant commitment of time. However you choose to look at it though, there can be no doubt that this collection is a triumph for Hawkins and a magnificent advert for modern, forward looking, British jazz.

Track Listing: Step Wide,Step Deep/Space of Time Danced Thru; Forgiven Only Words Once; MO (-Ittoqqortoormiit); Listen/Glow; Advice; Assemble/Melancholy; Baobab Constellation.

Personnel: Alexander Hawkins: piano/composer; Otto Fischer: guitar; Shabaka Hutchings: clarinet, saxophone; Neil Charles: bass; Dylan Bates: violin; Tom Skinner: drums

Title: Alexander Hawkins: Step Wide, Step Deep | Year Released: 2014 | Record Label: Babel Label


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