In 2011, trumpeter Henry Spencer won the Best Newcomer Award at the jazz festival in the Wiltshire town of Marlborough; he went on to win the Emerging Excellence Award from Help Musicians UK in 2014. Sometimes these awards add extra pressure or, as is the case here, propel the musician to new heights. He climbs very close to the summit here with The Defector. The nine compositions on the album were inspired by those who defect -soldiers, politicians or partners standing up against political, emotional or violent oppression. The music is a blend of jazz with classical influences, often written in a rock format. The result, in a word, is intense.
Spencer enlists the talents of guitarist Ant Law, pianist Matt Robinson, bassist Andrew Robb and drummer David Ingamells. The rhythm section are long-time partners coming from Spencer's band, Juncture. Individually and collectively, his collaborators are perfectly in harmony with the narrative and their creativity never falters. Scottish composer George Stevenson leads a four-piece string section; they are not there to add occasional backing but to make a significant impact to the album, moving the themes from section to section. Stevenson also arranged the strings on two tracks. Many of the tracks are written in a lyrical form, almost as though they were sing-able.
The dramatic title track opens the album. Trumpet drifts in over portentous piano as strings join to set up the first striking crescendo. This is powerful and cinematic, Bond meets Bourne, and moves to an epic finish. Less intense, "Perfect Hindrance," still builds power from the plaintive trumpet through a piano solo before Law's guitar breaks free. "Undone" gives Ingamells and Law room to solo, before Robinson and Robb skillfully underpin the play out. Robinson plays Rhodes on the bittersweet "Moment Gained," as once again Spencer and Law intertwine. Law's guitar playing is a major component in the mix, at ease with rock-style solos as he is with jazz.
Spencer's trumpet is continually inventive, from meditative tones to valve-slurs, especially in "Without a Voice" where it seems an outlet for sorrow and anger. The compositions are compelling, with the catchy "Here (for Chicca)" offering driving drums, bass and piano, moving through trumpet and guitar solos along with tight group interplay. The trumpet melds with the strings on "Overlap" before Law's guitar vamp ushers in the trumpet melody on "Not My Country." It closes the album with rock drumming and guitar before the tension is released.
Apart from Spencer's ability to play trumpet lead, he is also a capable accompanist, able to accent rhythms or support the melody of others. The arrangements are all engaging and involving, with a dramatic hybrid of jazz, classical and rock, always powerful, exciting and aurally emotive. This is an easy album to recommend.
The Defector; Perfect Hindrance; Undone; Moment Gained; Introduction to Without a Voice; Without a Voice; Here (for Chicca); Overlap; Not My Country.
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