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Byron Wallen: Portrait

Chris May By

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An all too rare event, an album from Byron Wallen. The British trumpeter is part of that cohort of musicians who immediately preceded, and continue to inspire, the young London rebels who have been renewing British jazz since around 2015. So, too, is this album's drummer, Rod Youngs. Youngs was born and raised in the US, where during the 1990s he was Gil Scott-Heron's drummer of choice. But since moving to London, Youngs has been aligned with contemporaries such as Wallen, Denys Baptiste and Courtney Pine, and the bassist and educator Gary Crosby, whose Tomorrow's Warriors project has been the alma mater of so many ranking young players.

Wallen is actively engaged with the new London scene, notably with Binker Golding and Moses Boyd, who have featured him as a guest artist with their ferocious semi-free duo Binker and Moses. Wallen made important contributions to the group's Journey To The Mountain Of Forever (Gearbox, 2017) and Alive In The East? (Gearbox, 2018). He does not fit into any pigeonhole, however, and is also something of a renaissance man: he has long been involved in cognitive psychology and also travels widely, spending extended periods in South Africa, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Morocco, Indonesia and Belize (his parents' homeland).

Wallen's travels are one reason why he has released so few albums under his own name. Portrait, which is subtitled Reflections On Belonging, is his first in 13 years. The core group is Wallen's Four Corners quartet, which along with Youngs, who replaces Shabaka Hutchings' Sons of Kemet's drummer Tom Skinner, has since 2018 also included guitarist Rob Luft and bass guitarist Paul Michael . Luft is one of the most intriguing younger musicians on the British scene and his debut album, Riser (Edition, 2017), created a stir on release. His own-name follow-up has yet to land.

All of the above means that Portrait has a lot going for it. It delivers. Wallen has been working on the music since 2013, when his home turf, London's Woolwich district, was scarred by a particularly gruesome terrorist outrage. The community hung together, however, resisting attempts by jihadis and white-nationalists to divide it. The album is Wallen's personal response to the event.

Four of the eleven tracks are two minutes-ish electro-acoustic soundscapes (one of them an Olympian dressage exhibition by Youngs), and three others are similarly brief exercises featuring a children's choir from a primary school in Woolwich. The remaining four tracks clock in at around seven minutes apiece and feature the Four Corners band on mostly understated, steady in the groove, fusion-inflected material. Only the last of them, "Holler," a celebration of Woolwich's multi-cultural make-up, is upbeat and expansive.

There are treasures to be found here, including lovely, concise solos from Wallen and Luft, but close listening is required to appreciate what is going on. The music does not shout for attention: the album is, as its subtitle says, a reflection. Though it will be great to hear Wallen on a full-tilt outing with Youngs in the engine room, we will have to await that pleasure (though not, hopefully, for another 13 years).

Track Listing

Anthem (Epilogue); Each For All And All For Each; Alert; No Stars No Moon; Warren To Arsenal; Fundmental; Ferry Shell; Spirit Of The Ancestors; Banana Man; Holler; Voice Of The Ancestors; Anthem (Prologue).

Personnel

Byron Wallen: trumpet, flugelhorn, shells, piano, percussion; Rob Luft: guitar; Paul Michael: bass guitar; Rod Youngs: drums; Richard “Olatunde” Baker: congas and talking drums (2, 4, 10); Plumcroft Primary School Class 3G and 3H: vocals (8, 9, 11).

Album information

Title: Portrait | Year Released: 2020 | Record Label: Twilight Jaguar

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