The understated monochrome cover of the Paul Baxter Quartet's debut album Monuments
is both honest and misleading. Honest, because the UK-based quartet is
understated: no gimmicks, nothing flash, no attempt to craft any sort of archly irrelevant image. Misleading, because its rather dull exterior fails to hint at the delights to be found inside, for this is an album filled
with musical delights as well as a few scary moments.
The characteristic bite and energy of the Quartet's music is obvious from the off as "Blams" hits its funky groove with confidence. Each of the band members impressesbassist Baxter, with his tough, rock-solid, rhythms; drummer Jon Ormston, with his busy, spidery approach; pianist Tom Taylor
, with strong left-hand patterns and melodic upper register playing; and alto saxophonist Tom Harrison
, with his tight, dry-toned, scattergun flurries. The standard stays high across the rest of Baxter's original compositions, which are replete with imaginative shifts in tempo, sudden stylistic changes and bursts of power.
"Darkish" really isn'tdarkish, that is. It's an upbeat tune, building and relieving tension in turn and featuring some deft unison playing from Harrison and Taylor. Harrisonwho leads the Dagda Quartetdelivers a fine solo, blowing strongly to give his sound an urgency and excitement that complements Ormston's muscular drumming and counters Baxter's more laidback groove; then, Taylor is left alone to deliver a more fragmented, skittering solo. "Monuments" has a stylish film noir
feel, introduced with an air of mystery by Taylor's a cappella
intro, Harrison's alto moves between softly romantic and frenetic, while Baxter's repetitive line speaks of dark, rain-soaked, streets.
"Para Lecouna" diverges from the band's more usual path, towards a slinky, Latin-influenced beat and the gentle melody of Harrison's flute. Harrison began to learn the instrument just three months before recording the track, yet he invests his playing with a mature sensibility as well as a warm, romantic, tone.
"AtoandaFro (Tales From The Lane)" starts, like "Blams," with a strong groove from the ensemble, and it sounds like a good time will continue to be had by all. Then, as with "Darkish," Taylor is left on his own. His slow, foreboding, piano is gradually joined by bass and drums to build up the album's most threatening atmosphere by far; by the time Harrison's shrieking alto joins in and Taylor plays piano like a man in fear of his life, the tension reaches fever pitch. There's a resolution of sorts in the closing bars, but whether the outcome is good or bad is hard to say.
The sonic frighteners applied by "AtoandaFro (Tales From The Lane)" are balanced out by the sweetly pretty "A Day In June" and the punchy post-bop style of "If Peggy Knew.... ," which bring Monuments
to a close. There's a real breadth of talent on display here, a strong sense of narrative in Baxter's writing and some fearsomely excellent musicianshipa terrific debut recording, with bags of promise.