Jay Riley ‘Light From Dawn’ (Private Press) 4/5

My last review focussed on an album by Tom Haines with The Birmingham Jazz Orchestra. That was a live recording from Stratford Jazz. The current guiding force behind that jazz club is Jay Riley. Jay also provided the sleeve photography for the album. Now it is Jay’s turn to take centre stage. Something I’m not entirely sure he would be completely comfortable with. Nonetheless, this is, indeed, Jay’s recording debut as leader and very fine it is too.

Jay may not yet be a household name, but it can’t be long before that will change. Jay is a saxophonist and pianist. He started his career in 2001 with The Dr Teeth Big Band which was signed to Jim Simpson’s Big Bear Records. Following extensive touring and session work with the likes of Billy Cobham, the Count Basie Orchestra, Kyle Eastwood, Robert Plant, Chaz and Dave and even McFly, Jay now leads his own quartet, whilst continuing to tour and record as a freelance session musician.

Jazz education is important to Jay and he works in many educational settings.

You will be able to catch Jay live with his quartet playing for Birmingham Jazz on 15th September. Until then you will be able to while away the lazy days of summer listening to Jay’s album.

Like the Tom Haines project, this was another Crowdfunder project – a means of raising funds to finance recording sessions which is becoming increasingly popular. As with Tom’s album, Jay raised an amount rather in excess of his target and so the enterprise can surely be considered a success.

Along with Jay on tenor saxophone (and piano on one track) we have Matt Ball on Wurlitzer/piano, Jason Page on bass and the ubiquitous Tom Haines behind the drum kit. All but two of the fifteen pieces comprising the album were written by Riley, the exceptions being Bjork’s ‘Hyperballad’ and ‘We Haven’t Turned Around’ from indie rock band Gomez.

The first thing to say is that this is an intensely personal statement on Riley’s behalf, documenting some of his own experiences and emotions during the 7 or so years preceding the making of the album.

Riley’s compositions had been thoroughly road tested by means of rehearsals and a gig at Stratford Jazz and so the musicians were comfortable with the material when it came to the recording session. Riley is keen to communicate experiences and relate stories which are important to him and he considers that his music does this and more. The whole process seems to have been cathartic.

Family is clearly important to Riley and several of the pieces are dedicated to his children and his wife, who he says make his world “colourful and full of love”.

The album opens with a very optimistic-sounding ‘Carelessly Happy’ with a strongly funky groove which moved into a more conventional swing sequence mid-way before returning to the infectious theme.

The funky theme continues with ‘Devon Express’ with Wurlitzer added to the mix.

‘We Haven’t Turned Around’ is much more contemplative and I’m sure that Jay had in mind the lyrics making for a very melodic performance. There’s a nice feature for Jason Page on this one too.

‘Hyperballad’ is broodingly intense and shows Jay’s magnificent sound on tenor saxophone to great effect. More tasteful keyboards from Matt Ball add to the overall sound.

For me, a highlight of the album was ‘Stand Again’ with its tenor and keyboard unison theme statement.

I imagine that it is Rowan, Jay’s son who is making his recording debut at the start of ‘Rowan’s Riff’, another highlight and clearly conveying the joy that fatherhood has brought to Jay. Tom Haines gets a chance to shine in the spotlight too.

‘Stronger than you think’ has all the hallmarks of a (soon to be) jazz standard and once more Jay’s tenor sound is exquisite. Indeed, it’s the ballads that are the most rewarding for me.

Somewhat unexpectedly, ‘Sorrows in the Morrow’ is a solo piano feature for Jay and it’s almost a perfect performance, full of pathos.

The final piece is ‘The Fall” (Joe Jordan Remix) and provides an interesting contrast with the alternative version which is to be found at the mid-point of the album and which I prefer. However, as the old saying goes “you pays your money and you takes your choice”.

This is a nicely produced album, the recorded sound is excellent and there is a fine portrait of Jay on the cover provided by the talented Garry Corbett.

There is certainly much to enjoy on this accomplished debut from Jay Riley.

Alan Musson