Ben Crosland Quintet ‘The Ray Davies Songbook, Volume II’ CD (Jazz Cat) 5/5

I was excited to receive this album for review, having previously enjoyed volume I greatly. I must confess that for me, Ben Crosland cannot put a foot wrong. Every recording that he has produced, and there are now many, has been a classy and accomplished product. He has garnered a strong and loyal following in the jazz world over the years and I understand that the earlier Ray Davies project has been the best received of all his albums, possibly bringing his music to a wider audience than hitherto. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Volume I played live in person and that was an even better experience than hearing the album.

Volume I contained many of the songs that would be familiar to the more general listener who had a passing acquaintance with Davies music. Volume II delves deeper into the large catalogue of wonderful songs written by Ray Davies. At first glance once might think Ray Davies and jazz to be strange bedfellows, however thanks to Crosland’s great talent as a musical arranger, each song is dramatically re-cast in jazzier clothing.

An initial glance at the personnel of the quintet will tell the listener almost all that he would need to know in terms of the musicianship on display. Alongside Ben Crosland on bass guitar we have Dave O’Higgins on tenor and soprano saxophone, John Etheridge on guitar, Steve Lodder on keyboards and Sebastiaan De Krom at the drums. Note that there is no vocalist. Together this ‘dream team’ treat the listener to thirteen golden nuggets from the Ray Davies songbook.

The album opens with ‘Sittin’ On My Sofa’ which was co-written by Ray and Dave Davies. This is an up-beat, funky opener with soprano saxophone and guitar to the fore and can’t fail to get your foot tapping. There’s a sinuous solo from O’Higgins, closely followed by Etheridge working his own particular brand of alchemy.

The familiar sound of ‘Days’ follows with O’Higgins on tenor saxophone and the guitarist taking the theme statement and this is sure to instantly bring a smile to any listener’s lips. Lodder on piano and O’Higgins are the soloists. ‘Till The End Of The Day’ opens with an infectious organ vamp before tenor and guitar trace out the tune. Towards the end of this one there is a fine contribution from Lodder. ‘Apeman’ is given a calypo-style make over to great effect with the unusual voicing of what I take to be guitar and keyboard evoking in my mind the sound of steel pans. O’Higgins provides a further inspired solo on tenor saxophone too.

This is happy, feel good music and as the musicians take us on their joyous journey we are treated to renditions of ‘Lola’, with the melody line shared between tenor and guitar with Etheridge later providing a witty statement with wah-wah effects and ‘Autumn Almanac’ with the melody again taken by soprano saxophone and guitar and featuring a lovely bass guitar solo from the leader. What makes this album truly stand out is the way in which Ben Crosland has expertly arranged these songs, making full use of the sound pallet made available to him by these fine musicians.

The CD booklet includes a print of a painting by Dave Newbould depicting the band in full flight. I suspect for Ben Crosland and his musicians this was a true labour of love. Although it is still just Spring, I think that this album will be a strong contender for the accolade of my album of the year.

Live dates:
Album launch at 606 Club, London – Tuesday 23rd April
Harwich Festival – 29th June
Fleece Jazz in Colchester – 16th August

Alan Musson