Neon Quartet: Stan Sulzmann’s Neon Quartet: A New Fluorescence

Chris May By

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Neon Quartet

Catch Me

Edition Records

2010 Among the albums released by British saxophonists in 2010, two at least are destined for the best-of-year lists. One is Nat Birchall's Guiding Spirit (Gondwana), the other is Catch Me by Stan Sulzmann's Neon Quartet. There are similarities. To varying degrees, each saxophonist takes John Coltrane's lyrical, mid-1960s recordings as a starting point, Birchall explicitly and to the exclusion of practically all else, Sulzmann through a more refracted, kaleidoscopic and evolved lens; each disc presents its leader fronting a lineup of younger players (Birchall was born in 1957, Sulzmann nine years earlier); and each values emotional engagement above anything else, though each disc, particularly Sulzmann's, also exudes plenty of technical virtuosity.

There are dissimilarities too. Birchall has spent most of his playing life off-radar in the northern English countryside, where he still lives, and immersed himself first in reggae, then in Coltrane, for close on two decades before releasing his debut, The Sixth Sense (Sixth Sense), in 1999. The "follow up," Akhenaten (Gondwana), the disc which excited national attention in Birchall, was ten more years in the coming. Birchall's devotion to Coltrane's aesthetic is so pronounced that it approaches the revivalist.

Sulzmann, on the other hand, is a seasoned veteran of second generation British modern jazz. A lot more water has flowed under his bridge, and he long ago developed into an individual and immediately recognizable player. In the 1970s, he was a first-call saxophonist for bands led by bassist Graham Collier, pianist John Taylor, keyboardist Gordon Beck and trumpeter and flugelhornist Kenny Wheeler. He's kept equally distinguished company, both British and American, in the decades that have followed, and recently formed fruitful partnerships with keyboardist Marc Copland, and with Wheeler and guitarist John Parricelli in the trio Ordesa.

Neon debuted, as a trio, in 2008, with Here To There (Basho), featuring Sulzmann on saxophones and flutes, rising star Gwilym Simcock on piano and French horn, and emergent star Jim Hart on vibraphone and marimba. Hart has been retained for Catch Me, Neon's second disc, on which Kit Downes, a 2010 Mercury prize nominee, replaces Simcock. The trio becomes a quartet with the inclusion of drummer Tim Giles, who is closely associated with two other young British labels, Babel and Loop. Composing credits are shared between Sulzmann (four tunes) and Downes and Hart (three tunes each).

Despite the collaborative nature of both Neon albums, the essence of the music is unchanged by the shifts in personnel. Catch Me is another uplifting trip through rhythmically charged melodicism, in which Sulzmann takes his own trajectory, most often on tenor, while referencing some of his predecessors in passing: his own "Leaving Day" and "Skookum" at times unmistakably evoke Coltrane circa 1964, while the headlong solo flight on Hart's "Passwords" brings Stan Getz's Focus (Verve, 1961) to mind. But the legacies of past giants are now so deeply absorbed into Sulzmann's own aesthetic that their resonances are peripheral to the main event. Downes, Hart and Giles shine just as brightly. As composers, Downes and Hart complement Sulzmann's lyricism with their own ebullient dream weavings; as soloists, both are breathtakingly inventive. Giles is a thrilling and wonderfully nuanced drummer, in constant conversation with his colleagues, who gets closest to stand alone soloing in tandem with the keyboards on Downes' hard driving "Bela Lugosi."

Neon's sheer concentration of talent, enhanced by its singularity of purpose, makes every moment of Catch Me spellbinding. Like Birchall's Guiding Spirit, the album is balm for the soul: serious music vibrating with energy and beauty. Don't miss it.

Tracks: Catch Me; Leaving Day; Cloak And Dagger; Villiers; Nepapanees; Passwords; Last Of The Leaves; Bela Lugosi; Skookum; Torino.

Personnel: Stan Sulzmann: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone; Jim Hart: vibraphone, marimba; Kit Downes: piano; Tim Giles: drums.


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