Julian Siegel Quartet: Urban Theme Park

Chris May By

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Julian Siegel Quartet
Urban Theme Park
Basho Music

Now of an age which places him at the crossing point between Young Turk and seasoned older statesman, London reeds player Julian Siegel's progressive classicism is growing more compelling with every new album. Siegel's first Basho Music release, the helter-skelter Live At The Vortex, made with his "American trio," featuring bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Joey Baron, was a highlight of 2009. Urban Theme Park, made with pianist Liam Noble, bassist Oli Hayhurst and drummer Gene Calderazzo (an honorary Londoner, Calderazzo is the only American-born musician), finds him fronting another distinguished lineup on a magisterial studio set.

For his first quartet album since 2002's Close Up (SoundCD), which also featured Noble (along with bassist Jeremy Brown and drummer Gary Husband), Siegel has chosen his collaborators well. Like Siegel, Noble is a young radical going on seasoned statesman, as comfortable with free improv as he is with The Great American Songbook. He shines equally brightly with out-and-out experimentalists such as saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, in whose Sleepthief band he plays, or on elegantly mellifluous projects such as the duo with percussionist Paul Clarvis, which produced the gorgeous standards collection Starry Starry Night (Village Life, 2009). Siegel wrote much of the material for Urban Theme Park with Noble in mind, and his lyrical and surprise-laden playing is given plenty of room to roam.

Factor in the powerhouse drive of Calderazzo and the deep grooves of Hayhurst, and the music here sounds, at times, like an acoustic cousin of that played in Siegel's ongoing jazz-rock band Partisans, which he cofounded in the mid-1990s with guitarist Phil Robson, and which also includes Calderazzo on drums. With Partisans, Siegel was among the first of the currently cresting British jazz musicians to embrace electrics, white noise and volume; the band could be seen as a harbinger of skronk, were it not that Siegel's own playing style has eschewed skronk's fondness for broken notes, vocalizations and high harmonics, in favor of a classicist's virtuosity. He plays tenor and soprano saxophones, clarinet and bass clarinet with an ease which belies his blinding technique on all four instruments.

About half of the tunes on Urban Theme Park are burning, tenor-led workouts like those Siegel has developed with Partisans, their twisting structures—check the complex West African-derived cross rhythms on "Keys To The City"—worn lightly, yet demanding close engagement from the soloists. There are also two entrancing clarinet-led tracks: the delicate but sinewy "Heart Song"; and the bouncy, kwela-infused "Interlude," a dance outing, with Siegel on bass clarinet (which, despite its title, lasts over seven minutes, the average length of the tracks here). Noble moves to electric keyboards and circuit-bent, retro electronica (reminiscent of Brooklyn's Marco Benevento) on another two tracks, "Lifeline" and "Drone Job."

With Partisans and his acoustic lineups, there is a cerebral, compositional quotient to Siegel's music which lifts it above the ordinary. This album's three-part "Game Of Cards" suite, for instance—at almost 13 minutes the album's longest track—borrows its form from a Stravinsky ballet score, while "Drone Job" plays with 12-tone saxophone lines. But in Siegel's bands, intellect never overwhelms depth of feeling or the sense of being in the moment. It is a rare and beautiful conflation that gives Urban Theme Park, like all Siegel's recent work, magnetism and depth. Highly recommended.

Track Listing: Six Four; One For J.T.; Heart Song; Game Of Cards; Lifeline; Interlude; Fantasy In D; Drone Job.

Personnel: Julian Siegel: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet; Liam Noble: piano, keyboards; Oli Hayhurst: double-bass; Gene Calderazzo: drums.

Year Released: 2011 | Record Label: Basho Records | Style: Modern Jazz

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