Ross McHenry Trio ‘The Outsiders’ (First Word) 4/5

Australian composer, producer and bass player Ross McHenry has had a productive history including as bandleader of afro beat-influenced The Shaolin Afronauts, as well as having played alongside the likes of Robert Glasper, Roy Ayers, Mark de Clive-Lowe and others. This, McHenry’s debut trio album, follows on from his other previous releases for First Word Records, ‘Distant Oceans’ (2013) and ‘Child of Somebody’ (2016). This project features drummer Myele Manzanza from New Zealand (who also appears on McHenry’s two other albums) and Australian pianist Matthew Sheens who currently resides in New York.

This 8-track set (with 6 on the vinyl pressing – more later) centres around the theme of being an outsider, that is, referring to the fact that the band members do not belong to the standard US or UK jazz scene or cultures. This is an interesting point of view and something I had not previously considered, that is, exploring how Antipodean jazz musicians feel regarding their inclusion within the wider jazz communities and their uniqueness in this regard. Remarkably for a bandleader who is also a bass player, the bass parts were set relatively quiet within the mix for most the duration of album, possibly by 2-3 decibels. This was also evident within the arrangements, with pianist Matthew Sheens probably having the main focus here. Maybe this was intentional and displays an unselfish attitude by McHenry and having a more ensemble constitution was the objective.

‘It’s Not How I Remembered It’ starts quite languid and then the playing becomes more dynamic and the arrangement begins to loosen. ‘Us And Them’ is more melodically driven but with some excellent fluid playing by all three band members. ‘Those Lost Days’ begins with a two-minute piano intro prior to the emergence of a slightly funky rhythm track. ‘The Outsiders Part 1’ is the longest piece of the set clocking in at over 12 minutes. Its dense arrangement provides a solid background for the Trio to embellish upon without having the obvious ‘here’s the solo’ sections inserted. ‘The Outsiders Part 2’ has a more dramatic but steady introduction before the tempo increases and the playing becomes more vibrant and forceful. ‘The Outsiders Part 3’ – which is a continuation of ‘Part 2’, unlike ‘Part 1’, which seems to be a separate entity, again, builds to a climatic resolution where the peaceful final 30 seconds winds down at the end. ‘I Can Be Better (for Myuran Sukumaran)’ is a bold and intense piece, probably due to its ode to Sukumaran, an Australian who received the death penalty in 2015 for drug trafficking offenses in Indonesia. His case has been quite controversial, including the use of a firing squad for his execution. And finally ‘Fear Not’ rounds up the project, with again, an intensity and vitality that permeates throughout the LP.

Fans of contemporary trio works with hard bop leanings will enjoy ‘The Outsiders’. The playing is sublime as are the arrangements and compositional themes with Ross McHenry being an exceptional bass player, Matthew Sheens virtuosity helps to push the group forward and UK Vibe favourite Myele Manzanza brilliantly underpins the whole project. And even though you can hear influences from the past, such as Jaco Pastorius being an obvious reference point for McHenry, he is both a technical and a ‘feel’ player – so this is not just an album for the muso.

There is purity within trios that I’ve always appreciated. There’s nowhere to hide and trios can offer a unique sense of creativity of which this is an obvious example. The album has one foot in the past with regards the standard jazz piano, drums and bass frameworks, but it is also looks ahead and contains a progressiveness that is needed with contemporary jazz circles.

One point of concern is the planned vinyl edition as it will be a single vinyl pressing, so the final two tracks are being omitted. This is done to reduce the total running length, because when the running time on one side of a standard 12” vinyl exceeds around 20 minutes the audio quality is reduced. But double vinyl pressing are now commonplace, and with the project spread over 4 sides rather than 2 sides this would solve this issue. New vinyl albums are never cheap and record collectors would rather pay more and receive the entire project than have parts of it missing. It’s like going to the cinema to watch a film and then walking out with 20 minutes of the film left.

Damian Wilkes