Largely because of his contrasting instruments, there have long been two sides to clarinetist and guitarist Alex Ward
. But it goes further than the differences between his chosen instruments, for Ward straddles other important divides including those between composition and improvisation, between electric and acoustic, and between rock music andfor want of a better wordjazz. As well as many fine duos, Ward has been a member of a diverse selection of bands including Camp Blackfoot, Pocket, SFQ, Limescale, the Duck Baker Trio, NEW and Predicate.
The quartet Forebrace is the latest addition to that list. Ward plays clarinet throughout, with the line-up completed by Roberto Sassi on guitar plus electric bassist Santiago Horro (who was in the Luke Barlow band with Ward) and drummer Jem Douton (the other half of Ward's duo Dead Days Beyond Help). Forebrace's debut album Bad Folds
is the result of two days of studio recording, in July and September 2013, before which the four had never all played together. Of the album's six tracks, three are Ward compositions and the others group improvisations.
Right from the first notes of the opening composition, "Presage," the group plays as an ensemble, clearly attuned to each other's thinking and working methods, already sounding like a long-established outfit. Together, they pack an awesome punch, with Douton's straightforward rock drumming and Horro's solid bass providing a foundation on which Ward and Sassi build impressively fluid solos, both individually and in tandem. It is to Ward's credit that his clarinet more than holds its own alongside the power of the other threea lesser player could easily have been overwhelmed!
Tellingly, there is practically a seamless transition from that composition into the group improvisation "Dolorimetry," with the roles of the rhythm section and the front two remaining essentially the same. Again, the clarinet is a dominant solo voice, with the drums driving the music along. It is only the catchy bass-driven riff at the start of "Outwall" that signals the move into another powerful composed piece. Overall, the group shows it is adept at blending composed and improvised music into a coherent whole.
In contrast, on the album's longest track, "Groundmass," the four are more into typical improv territory with none of the trappings of rock music. Douton is key to this as his drumming is used less to provide a beat, and far more for coloration, giving a freer, looser feel to the music. The players all take full advantage of this shift of mood, giving bravura performances that gel together perfectly. Another improvisation, "Wasps and Mosquitoes" re-establishes a rockier mood before the composition "Rejected Territory" brings the album to a barnstorming climax. Bad Folds
is a first-rate debut album which suggests that Forebrace will be an exciting group for some time to come. It reveals many fruitful avenues for the foursome to explore more deeply, and hints that theirs is going to be an intriguing story to follow.