Stewart McCallum ‘City’ (Naim Label) 3/5

stewart-mmccallumManchester guitarist/composer Stewart McCallum is perhaps best known for his work with The Cinematic Orchestra. The guitarist has been a key contributor with the band since 2004, performing on and assisting with the writing for their critically acclaimed albums “Ma Fleur” and “Live at The Royal Albert Hall”. In 2007 he was commissioned to write a suite of music with John Surman for Manchester Jazz Festival, followed by a second commission in 2010. He has also recorded with some of the most prominent jazz artists of today, including Kenny Wheeler, Mike Gibbs, Gwilym Simcock and Tim Garland. “City” is McCallum’s second release on the Naim Jazz label and it brings together many of the guitarist’s eclectic influences, creating an album infused with jazz, soul, electronica, folk and pop/rock. High production values add to the gorgeous sound that embodies a late night, chilled feel with its intelligent distillation of its many cross-genre influences.
Not strictly a jazz album perse, “City” sits comfortably with the lighter side of jazz, silky and warm throughout whilst offering some lovely laid back grooves, soundscapes, atmospheres and an intelligent use of guest singers each taking a turn. Smooth with a jazz vibe would sum things up nicely, with Fridolijn van Poll’s flamenco-hued vocal on “Effergy”, Sophie Barker of Zero7 fame breathing life into the off-kilter beats of “Said and Done”, Basement Jaxx’s Sharlene Hector shining brightly with vocal harmonies on the very satisfying “North Star” and JP Cooper featuring on the title track. McCallum obviously keeps good company, not just with the singers that feature. Violinist Emma Sweeney features on one track, with the main band comprising of Robin Mullarkey (ESKA) on bass, Sean Foran (Trichotomy) rhodes and Richard Spaven (Flying Lotus and Jose James) featuring heavily on drums, synths and electronics. It is though, as one would expect, largely about the guitarist and his writing. The thing I like most about McCallum is his refreshing and open attitude towards making music. To me, he seems to be just as comfortable taking a back seat, allowing other musicians to strut their stuff, as he is when taking the lead role. He’s a listener as well as a leader, and for the most part throughout this album he finds a good balance between subtlety and the obvious. Although the vocal tracks give some nice variety to the album, it is for me the instrumentals which allow the guitarist to show us where his true talent lies. “Inhale” enjoys a lush ambience, stylistically reminiscent of a Pat Metheny Group track. I love the Davey-Graham tinged acoustic guitar playing on “Trio Seven”, whilst the melodically engaging “Mk II” provides one of the strongest tracks on the album. Well crafted and sensitively put together, “City” might not catch fire in too many places, but it’s a welcome listen that grows on you the more you listen to it. It also clearly shows a musician prepared to be bold enough to pave his own path, one which enables McCallum to grow in stature with every album he makes.

Mike Gates