Howl Quartet is a London-based four-piece group featuring the twin saxes of Dan Smith (alto) and Harry Brunt (tenor) with Pete Komor on double bass and drummer Matt Parkinson. ‘Life As We See It’ is their debut and they seek to “joyfully tie their passion for jazz with folk music, contemporary grooves and free improvisation”. The album also has a striking colourful sleeve design by Hannah-May Smith that the teenage me would definitely have blue-tacked to my bedroom wall!
“Woof” starts the proceedings and zips along at a very brisk pace. It has a late 1950s/early 60s free vibe and is propelled by breezy bustling double bass with great statement solo work all around. “Nobody. Nowhere” is slower and less immediate but much more satisfying listening after latching on to its fascinating fluid structure. Direct and hard-hitting bass riffing initiates “Dutch Courage” drives the bold motif and is the backdrop for the boisterous sax solos. “One for the Hedge” is a brief saxophone duet and has a playful, light feel. On “Benoit’s Reprise”, the snappy labyrinthine sax/bass leads into a fresh bouncy rhythm and joyful, exuberant playing.
The other side starts with another sax duet where Smith and Brunt skilfully negotiate through an impressive but maybe slightly purposeless version of Bach’s “Invention No. 13”. The graceful, melancholic bass line introduces the standout track, “Back to Basics” soon joined by the lush, low-key harmonising and tasteful bluesy soloing of the saxes. The melody lines of “Badger” throw angular shapes over relentlessly driving drums and slidey, agile bass. “Chew Bamboo” has a loose improvisational feel and provides, as with most of the tracks here, an opportunity to enjoy some quality solos. “Fairfield” combines full-on folk melodies with atmospheric ride cymbals and bowed bass drones adding a meditative, almost raga aesthetic.
“Life As We See It” is a collection of compact and direct tracks, usually two to three minutes long, but chock full of invention and ideas and including some top solos. The individual musicianship is excellent but more importantly, there appears to be a strong rapport and camaraderie between the players, which adds vibrancy and focus to the mix. As with many first albums, there are elements of experimentation and it will be interesting which of these paths the group will pursue in the future. This is an enjoyable and riveting introduction to a promising new group and well worth a listen for “Back to Basics” alone.