Manchester based drummer and composer Johnny Hunter formed his quartet in 2011, handpicking Ben Watte (tenor saxophone), Graham South (trumpet) and Stewart Wilson (bass) from Manchester’s burgeoning contemporary jazz scene. The quartet released the EP “Appropriations” (Epfi) in 2013, and now this, their full debut album, sees the band build on the initial concept of that recording, collectively exploring the possibilities and challenges afforded by the absence of a harmony instrument. In this particular setting, one would normally expect to hear piano as the harmony instrument, therein making it your tried and tested jazz quintet. To my mind, this approach can work incredibly well, but it is often dependent on two things; firstly, the listener needs to be prepared to engage with the music, listening carefully and being open to what the musicians are doing. Secondly, the success (or failure) of the music itself relies far more upon the quality, understanding, and intuitiveness of the musicians performing it. And when those two factors are in place, it can create a startlingly engrossing atmosphere, taking the listener on a quite wonderful journey. And this is exactly what we have on “While We Still Can”, with Hunter’s chosen line-up of musicians taking a richly sympathetic approach. The front-line tenor sax and trumpet combines to form harmonious melodies before breaking apart to solo as either a lone instrument, or together with drums or bass, to create layers of tension and intrigue. As well as standing out individually, the four players work incredibly well collectively, a consequence of countless gigs together as members of various groups over a number of years. Band-leader Hunter is comfortable in any number of settings, having worked with the likes of Nat Birchall, Adam Fairhall, Cath Roberts’ Sloth Racket, Mick Beck, Blind Monk Trio and Dub Jazz Soundsystem. He leads his own quartet with confidence and style, unafraid to explore challenging concepts and fresh ideas.
The session opens with the fiercely swinging “Overture”. This acts as an introduction to the themes of the recording and to the musicians involved. There’s a distinct Middle-Eastern flavour which runs through the whole album, as Hunter explains; “For a while I’ve been fascinated by the music of the Middle East and have found many similarities with contemporary jazz – with this album I wanted to explore some of the traits which draw me to it. I combined rhythms such as the Turkish Laz (7/8) or Karsilama (9/8) – odd time signatures split into groupings of twos and threes – and the idea of tetra chords/Arabic maqam which are groupings of four notes, taking the approach of ‘here’s the theme, now let it go’, with very little predetermined structure for the solos to follow.” This really is the album’s key signature as the quartet blend East-West musical influences to create a uniquely intriguing sound. Stewart Wilson provides a sumptuous and thoughtful bass intro, leading into “Ayca”, a tune named after the composer’s old friend from Turkey who happened to get in touch during the writing of the tune. “Misty’s Tail” is a homage to Hunter’s girlfriend’s 19-year-old family cat and explores the common Turkish Karsilama rhythm. “While You Still Can”, the title track, is based on a different mode of the harmonic major scale, and contains a hidden Billy Strayhorn reference in the second half of the piece. “Clockwork-Shy” is an obvious pun, whilst “Sum Dim” is a sister tune to “Five Stories High”, a track that appeared on the band’s “Appropriations” EP. The closing track “Reprise” is a haunting piece of music, featuring a textural bass solo over very minimal backing and is based on melodies heard throughout the course of the album. It also hints towards Hunter’s plans for the next phase of the quartet’s evolution; a very enticing prospect.
“While We Still Can” is adventurous and engrossing. The performances from all of the musicians are first-rate, with some incredible soloing from both Ben Watte and Graham South. At times it really is spellbinding. The thing that stands out most to me is how the band have successfully integrated Hunter’s themes and ideas, making for a collectively inspiring album. And the beauty is, it sounds like there’s more to come.
The band will be performing two album launch concerts to celebrate the release of the recording: 25th June 2016 at Kings Place, London (Epfi Festival), and 25th July 2016 as part of Manchester Jazz Festival. My advice would be to catch this quartet while you can, I would imagine they’ll be awesome in a live setting.