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Three very different sides of Alex Ward

John Eyles By

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Having released his first album back in 1991—recorded when he was fifteen—clarinetist, saxophonist, guitarist, composer, improviser and band leader Alex Ward has kept up a steady and eclectic stream of releases ever since, averaging five a year since 2018. Among other things, he plays guitar, sings and co-writes the material in the duo Dead Days Beyond Help with drummer Jem Doulton, leads the bands Forebrace, Items 4 & 10, the Alex Ward Quintet and Sextet. Despite such productivity, Ward manages to maintain the quality and variety of his music, while also adding further diversity to it. All of this is demonstrated by the three very different Ward albums below, which seem unlikely to be the only 2020 recordings from him...

Alex Ward
Frames
Relative Pitch
2020

Originally trained as a clarinetist and initially acclaimed for his work on that instrument, Ward has been playing guitar since the 90's, at first as a composition and performance tool in the context of rock bands, most notably the quintet Camp Blackfoot. Soon, though, his guitar-playing was attracting attention and praise on releases such as False Face Society (Incus, 2001) with bassist John Edwards and drummer Steve Noble—a trio that became known as N.E.W.—and the surf-influenced quartet Pocket (2:13 Music, 2002) alongside guitarist John Bisset. Steadily, guitar became more prominent in his work and, on some albums, he doubled on guitar and clarinet. Nevertheless, a quarter of a century since he started playing guitar, Frames is Ward's very first solo guitar album.

Studio-recorded in February 2019, the album features seven Ward compositions, one of which, "Staunch," also appears on Where We Were, below. The tracks range in length from four to seventeen minutes, fifty minutes altogether, and are as diverse as their durations; Ward has acknowledged the influence of all the guitarists he has played with—an impressively varied bunch, including Derek Bailey, Duck Baker, Bisset, Eugene Chadbourne, John Coxon, Thurston Moore, John Russell, James Sedwards. Despite that list, the opening track, "Tight Ship," could be taken for the work of a Captain Beefheart guitarist such as Zoot Horn Rollo, the Beefheart influence and that of Olivier Messiaen also being acknowledged by Ward. Ultimately, though, his style remains his own, bearing no obvious traces of anyone else. Solo—in particular, without a drummer—Ward is far less rock-influenced than in some of his groups. Throughout this album, he adopts the role of explorer, constantly experimenting, probing and going beyond previous boundaries, never seeming satisfied just to play his compositions. Altogether, it makes riveting, edge-of-the-seat listening.

Alex Ward Item 4
Where We Were
Relative Pitch
2020

The "Item" tag was first used by Ward on the Alex Ward Item 10 album Volition (Live at Café Oto) (Copepod Records, 2018.) Item is a pool of ten musicians from which ensembles of various sizes can be drawn for different musical ends. So, Item 4 is a quartet consisting of Ward on clarinet or electric guitar, Charlotte Keeffe on trumpet or flugelhorn, double bassist Otto Wilberg and, Ward's long-standing associate, drummer Andrew Lisle.

As on the Item 10 album, Ward's compositions combine themes and space for improvisation, with enough variety for the music to sound fresh throughout. Unlike Item 10, where everyone featured on the themes but not on the solos, with just four players everyone can play for the majority of the time without the soundscape becoming cluttered. This is particularly noteworthy when Ward and Keeffe solo together, bouncing ideas back and forth, with Wilberg and Lisle providing sympathetic, supportive backing. Already, these four sound as if they have been together for years, a credit not just to the players themselves but also to Ward's compositional skills, his ability to select band members and to get the best out of them. It is praise indeed to say that this Item 4 recording is easily the equal of the earlier Item 10 one. Where next for Item? Wherever, it is sure to be exciting...

Alex Ward / Sean Noonan
Noonward
Capepod
2020

Noonward is the first album release from the transatlantic duo of Ward—doubling on guitar and clarinet again— and American drummer & vocalist Sean Noonan; it emerged from a period when the two both wrote material for this duo to play live, having previously improvised informally. Studio-recorded in London in October 2019, the album's nine tracks clock in at under fifty-nine-minutes, the longest topping eight minutes; four were composed by Ward, five by Noonan.

The music bears the hallmarks of both; it is as different from the above two albums as they are from each other, and completes a very effective triptych of Ward's talents. Fittingly, its neat title rolls the names of Ward and Noonan together into a composite—justly so, as their music is equally dependent on the role of each of them. While the music draws on the pair's improv experience, it has the energy and syntax of rock music, with three of the tracks featuring vocals from Noonan, "Wrinkles of Time" (YouTube, below) being a fine example. That said, there are also solos here that have the filigree detail which typifies Ward's playing and would be right at home on either of the albums above, Ward's "Leaf Count" being just one.

Taken together, these three albums eloquently demonstrate that Ward's music is as varied and compelling as ever.

Tracks and Personnel

Frames

Tracks: Tight Ship; Frames; Alternate Flow; Staunch/At The End; Allegro Apprensivo; Humid Retreat.

Personnel: Alex Ward: electric guitar

Where We Were

Tracks: Write Protect; Staunch; Suffix; Where We Were.

Personnel: Alex Ward: clarinet (1-2, 4), electric guitar (2-4); Charlotte Keeffe: trumpet and flugelhorn; Otto Willberg: double bass; Andrew Lisle: drums

Noonward

Tracks: Packed; Wrinkles of Time; The Stated Aim; White Light; Circle of Willis; Leaf Count; Concrete Sleeper; Man No Longer Me; Funnel Weaver.

Personnel: Sean Noonan: drums, percussion, vocals; Alex Ward: clarinet, electric guitar.

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