Tony Burkill ‘Work Money Death’ LP/CD (ATA) 4/5

Tony Burkill is a Leeds based saxophonist, composer and educator, who has been ever-present on the local jazz scene for the last few decades and now finally releases his debut album as bandleader together with drummer Sam Hobbs, bassist Neil Innes, pianist George Cooper, percussionist Pete Williams and a guest performance from pianist Matthew Bourne (not the choreographer) on ‘Beginning and End’. The band are all seasoned players, with co-writer Neil Innes also a member of The Sorcerers, who released the excellent self-titled Ethiopian jazz inspired long-player in 2015 – a firm UK Vibe preference, and George Cooper has worked with Abstract Orchestra, the group that issued ‘Dilla’ in summer 2017, the album of live reinterpretations of the legendary hip hop producer’s sample-heavy beats.

‘Work Money Death’ is a somewhat ode to the tenor saxophone players of the 1960s and ‘70s, especially those of a spiritual jazz persuasion, and this backdrop provides the group with a deep musical framework to excavate. And thus, all the appropriate frame of references are presented here. Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, Joe Henderson, Yusef Lateef et al., are acknowledged with respect as are the other players from this seminal era. The album begins with the melodically driven and waltz centred ‘Third Of All Numbers’, which starts quite conservatively but then becomes more dynamic and conversational with regards to the interplay between the band, offering 3/4 and 6/8 time signature. ‘At Odds With The World’ is a more funky jazz workout with added Farfisa organ (imagine a weaker Hammond B3) and an unyielding rhythm section providing Burkill with a sturdy platform to showcase his fluid but vigorous playing style. ‘Out Of A Shooting Star’ moves into a more spiritual jazz, contemplative residence, even including the customary sleigh bell percussion – almost a tradition in spiritual jazz. The title track, ‘Work Money Death’, continues this more introspective tangent, but is possibly too short at 5 minutes to fully explore its themes in-depth.

But it’s the final track, ’Beginning and End’, which is the album’s magnum opus. This 16-minute ethereal musical excursion is the most ‘cosmic’ piece of the set, but it also highlights the direction that the album should have wholly taken. The playing becomes free and loose, mesmerising and absorbing, especially with its uncommon time signature (10/8 maybe?), vocal choir harmonies and soulful hand claps. And it’s here where one can truly perceive Pharaoh and Coltrane, but not in playing style and sonics – but in temperament and ideology. The reason we idolise and love artists such as Pharaoh and Coltrane is not only because they were exceptional musicians and composers, but more importantly because they took risks. They didn’t have to do what they did, and they set the benchmarks by which jazz musicians still refer to today – but this was 50 or so years ago. I just feel that there is now more of an appetite for further explorations in jazz than is possibly being created (and this includes the free jazz movement). And thus, the final track could have set the tone for the entire album rather than being its finale. Nonetheless, this is great work but the earlier tracks were a touch safe for a post-Coltrane idiom. Really looking forward to hearing the vinyl edition in the flesh.

Damian Wilkes