Byron Wallen ‘Portrait’ CD (Twilight Jaguar) 4/5

‘Portrait’ is Byron Wallen’s third album on his own Twilight Jaguar records, but although this is his first in thirteen years, Byron has been a consistent fixture in UK jazz circles for around 30 years. A modern-day polymath playing trumpet, flugelhorn, piano and percussion plus other instruments, unfortunately for many music fans including at UK Vibe his presence is still relatively low-key for someone so revered and respected. For ‘Portrait’ Byron is joined by a new band including on bass guitar Paul Michael (Nick Walters and The Paradox Ensemble), on African percussion Richard Olatunde Baker, on drums Rodney Youngs – a one-time drummer for Gil Scott-Heron and on guitar Rob Luft, with the whole album composed by Byron.

The album begins with the enigmatic ‘Anthem (Epilogue)’, a brooding percussion-less piece that is as much absorbing as it is intriguing. The first full-length composition is ‘Each For All And All For Each’, an Afrobeat inspired number that sees Bryon in quite a subdued temperament which also possesses some excellent guitar voicings from Rob Luft. ‘Alert’ is another atmospheric piece, albeit short at 2’19”. This is then followed by the difficult to define ‘No Stars No Moon’ which contains influences from Africa, Asia and the Middle East as well as contemporary jazz. A snapshot of London no doubt.

‘Warren To Arsenal’ is a short drum and percussion-based track while ‘Fundamental’ begins with a contemplative disposition with again trumpet and guitar taking centre stage, while the final third moves into slightly more animated territory. Again, this is more than just a straight-ahead jazz album, with many nuances and inflections throughout ‘Portrait’ including here with ‘Fundamental’. ‘Ferry Shell’ is a very infectious percussive jam and would be welcomed in an extended form rather than its 2’03” duration. Another African inspired composition is ‘Holler’, a personal favourite on the album, which is difficult to fully outline in reference to its musical makeup due to its fascinating composition and arrangement. And the album closes with ‘Anthem (Prologue)’ a resolving continuation from the opening epilogue of which I could have listened to a full album of material in this vein.

Being critical and as mentioned, some of the pieces were rather short in length with only four tracks possessing a running time of over 4 minutes and with a total album length of 44 minutes, but maybe less is more? I suppose I ultimately wanted more. But Byron has skilfully utilised his extensive travelling as an inspiration for ‘Portrait’ which can be felt throughout the album. This adds a somewhat ambiguity to the musical complexion of certain pieces. It is also a reflection of Byron’s home town of London and the multi-layered and faceted milieu he’s experienced.

As per of many of his contemporaries, Byron has contributed to numerous projects outside of the jazz community, such as playing with Loose Ends, Mica Paris and Matthew Herbert, in addition to working with UK jazz faves Binker & Moses, South African musician Moses Taiwa Molelekwa and Ethio-jazz legend Mulatu Astatke. At UK Vibe HQ we would all love more full-length albums from Byron (13 years is a long time), as we’re big fans, but nonetheless, with his ongoing 2020 tour, we will be making the trip to experience one of the UK’s unsung heroes of jazz in a live setting.

Current ‘Portrait’ tour dates here

Damian Wilkes