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The first half of the twentieth century was something of a golden age for British classical music, and this was fuelled in part by a new interest in English folk music. Composers from Bax to Britten drew inspiration from folk tunes. The Avalon Trio have now spotted the scope for using the classical incarnations of some of these tunes as vehicles for improvisation.
The Trio’s first album, Forlana, includes six such pieces, together with two originals. In their hands, Vaughan Williams’s Linden Lea starts positively lush, but the pace is cranked up as the improvisation progresses. The title piece, based on a composition for piano and clarinet by Finzi, and Delius’s Brigg Fair are lyrically pastoral (Brigg Fair, incidentally, is the only piece directly based on a ‘real’ folk song). Finzi’s Dead in the Cold and Ecologue, a stand-out track, are elegiac and moving. And the opening track, based on Delius’s Summer Night on the Water, gives a clear indication of what the rest of the album offers. Pete Churchill’s two originals are longer and have more conventional contemporary jazz structures, but are not out of place in terms of melodies or harmony.
The Trio comprises pianist Pete Churchill, saxophonist/flautist Tony Woods and Rob Millett, who deploys percussion instruments ranging from tabla to full kit. All three have connections with the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and perform more than capably. To my ears, the sound world would have been enriched by being underpinned by an appropriately melodic and rounded double-bass, in the manner of Scott Lafaro, perhaps. The music is certainly reminiscent, at times, of that of Bill Evans, but also of earlier British jazz musicians, such as Graham Collier and Michael Garrick, who drew inspiration directly from folk traditions. The instrumental mix certainly produces some subtle and interesting timbres.
It takes some nerve to include a word as archetypical as Avalon in your name. but this Trio is definitely on to something and the name is fully justified.
(Carew Reynell, Sandy Brown Jazz, July 2011)
This album could hardly fail to attract me, since it contains works by two of my favourite "serious" composers: Delius and Vaughan Williams. They were both part of the early 20th-century movement by English composers who were interested in various kinds of folk music, and much of whos work reflected their love of landscape. Delius, in particular, created entirely new harmonies which widened the boundaries of classical music and also inspired several jazz musicians. In a recent interview on BBC Radio 3, Pete Churchill commented on these composers' "tough harmonic underpinning" and Tony Woods added that they had a great sense of melody. This CD richly elicits these qualites.
I have already applauded a previous album by the Tony Woods Project, whose line-up differed from this new trio, although the new group includes percussionist Rob Millett, who was featured on the vibraphone in earlier recordings. On this album, Rob mostly supplies reticent fluttering beats on the tabla, occasionally emphasising the beat so that the approach is closer to jazz. In fact the Avalon Trio does what jazz musicians have been doing for ages: improvising on existing tunes, although in this case the material is by Delius, Vaughan Williams and Gerald Finzi, with two original pieces by pianist Pete Churchill.
The album opens with Delius's Summer Night on the Water (which is actually the first of the two songs "To Be Sung of a Summer Night on the Water"), a typically beautiful Delian melody. Tony Woods shows how Delius's unusual chords supply a challenging but satisfying basis for jazz improvisation. His soprano sax brings an oriental feel to the music, while Pete Churchill's flowing solo captures the lyricism of the piece. The other Delius composition on the album is Brigg Fair, a series of variations on a folk-song originally recorded by Percy Grainger in Lincolnshire. Rob's tabla leads the piano into 4/4 time before Tony adds a passionate solo and Rob heats things up further with a percussion solo.
The title-track is by Gerald Finzi - one of his Five Bagatelles, based on an old Italian dance, with Tony Woods eloquently handling the theme on wood flute and bringing out its buoyant, pastoral quality. Finzi also wrote Dead in the Cold and Eclogue, both of which have the same pastoral feel as well as the sense of folk music.
The sole composition by Ralph Vaughan Williams is Linden Lea, which I remember singing in music classes at school. It is a beautiful song, with unexpected harmonic turns which add to its poignancy. Pete Churchill takes it for an adventurous ride and Tony Woods solos with fervour.
The two other pieces are by Pete Churchill and try to capture some of the mood of the rest of the album, as if the group is improvising on "serious" compositions. In A Dream of Thee, Tony Woods' sax swirls feelingly and Pete's solo develops gradually, with Rob's percussion hustling busily behind him. Last Love begins wistfully but Tony's sax then prances around as in a folk dance.
I hope this album will make more jazz musicians aware of the possibility of using "serious" works as the basis for jazz improvisation, without the artificiality of "Third Stream" experiments which try too hard to fuse different styles. I also hope that this CD exposes more listeners to the unique music of Delius and the whole English renaissance movement which produced so many works with a special Englishness about them.
(Tony Augarde, Music Web International, July 2011)
The Avalon Trio is a chamber jazz trio that uses the music of twentieth century English classical composers as the cornerstone of their improvisations. The trio have a shared fascination for the harmonic connections between the music of their chosen composers (Frederick Delius, Gerald Finzi and Ralph Vaughan Williams) and contemporary jazz. As the album’s liner notes state “the short song forms of Delius and Finzi lend themselves particularly well to improvisation, just as the standards of the American song book that have been used by jazz musicians since the 1930’s”.
At first glance one might suspect “Forlana” of being some kind of tepid jazz/classical crossover but make no mistake this is emphatically a jazz album. Pete Churchill (piano), Tony Woods (reeds) and Rob Millett (percussion) are all heavy duty improvisers. Woods and Millett are both members of the saxophonist’s own Tony Woods Project, a group that draws considerable inspiration from folk and world music forms (reviews of the album “Wind Shadows” plus a live performance in Cardiff are reviewed elsewhere on this site). Similarly “Forlana” has a strong folk strand with the trio extemporising on Delius’ arrangement of the traditional folk song “Brigg Fair” and with Finzi and Vaughan Williams having also drawn inspiration from the English Folk Revival instigated by figures such as Cecil Sharp and Percy Grainger both of whom receive a mention in the album’s liner notes.
The programme commences with Delius’ “Summer Night On The Water”, the arrangement paced by Churchill’s thoughtful piano work as Woods’ saxophone pushes and probes, initially gently, later less so. Millett’s percussion alternates between the shimmeringly ethereal and the subtly propulsive.
Delius’ melody is beautiful and inescapably folk tinged but the skills of the trio turn the piece into an excellent jazz performance.
I alluded previously to the world music influences to be heard in the sound of the Tony Woods Project. These elements are directly referenced on the trio’s arrangement of Finzi’s “Forlana” from his “Five Bagatelles for clarinet and piano” as the music is beautifully transposed to incorporate Woods’ Indian Bansuri wood flute and Millett’s tabla drums. Woods deploys soprano saxophone too, soloing effectively above Millett’s rich tabla undertow. Churchill again acts as the fulcrum, holding things together unobtrusively from the piano and exchanging phrases with Woods.
Millett’s tablas also feature on the trio’s adaptation of Delius’ setting of the traditional English folk song “Brigg Fair”, a piece that features surprisingly full blooded solos from both Churchill and Woods plus a colourful percussion feature from Millett, the latter played largely with the hands I’d say.
Besides the re-workings of the classical pieces the album also includes a couple of pieces from the pen of pianist Pete Churchill. Clocking in at the nine and a half minute mark “A Dream Of Thee” is commendably ambitious and possesses a strong narrative arc. Woods’ keening saxophone tone is not a million miles away from Jan Garbarek and his ruminations are underpinned by Millett’s tablas and the composer’s piano. With no bass in the line up Churchill is called upon to perform an important rhythmic role and does so in assured but unobtrusive fashion.
Finzi’s “Dead in the Cold” is both stately and moving with a touch of the underlying sadness inherent in the title. Vaughan Williams’ “Linden Lea” begins in similarly courtly fashion but things subsequently take off with Churchill’s rousing piano solo which borrows from the “country blues” stylings of early Keith Jarrett. Woods maintains the momentum with his subsequent sax offering before the piece comes full circle to finish in the same pastoral vein that it began.
As other reviewers have remarked the trio’s version of Finzi’s “Eclogue” is one of the album’s stand out tracks. The composer’s simple but beautiful melody is well served both by the lyricism of Churchill’s solo piano introduction and also by Woods’ soaring saxophone interjections with Millett providing suitably sympathetic colour and punctuation.
The album closes with another Churchill original, “Last Love” that progresses through a number of distinct stages during it’s ten and a half minute duration. Although more conventionally “jazz” than the rest of the record it still fits in well with the rest of the album. Woods contributes some particularly fiery playing here above an insistent piano and percussion undertow and there is also a feature for Millett, who this time roams his percussive set up with the sticks. I would guess that this more dynamically focused number also closes the trio’s live shows.
“Forlana” is an impressive piece of chamber jazz that impresses with its arrangements, playing and production values. There’s plenty of improvisation here for jazz fans to get their teeth into.
(Ian Mann, The Jazz Mann, July 2011)
Avalon Trio consists of pianist Pete Churchill, saxophonist and flautist Tony Woods and percussionist Rob Millett. The group was formed years ago when Woods was a student at the Guildhall School of Music and Churchill was his tutor there. Forlana is their long-overdue debut album – and it was worth the wait.
Instead of opting for a repertoire of American jazz standards, Avalon Trio prefer to celebrate and reinterpret the music of early 20th century English composers Delius, Vaughan Williams and Gerald Finzi, using the melodies of their short song forms as the basis for improvisations. Six of their compositions are joined here by two compatible Churchill originals.
One common feature of the pieces is that they all have strong melody lines with a pastoral feel to them, giving the entire album an underlying consistency across the works of the different composers. The improvisations subtly elaborate on the melodies and explore their harmonies, but do not stray too far away from the main melody lines, leaving them recognisable throughout.
Key to the album’s success is that the compositions have not been ‘jazzified’ in an insensitive, formulaic way. The trio has no bass, and careful consideration has clearly been given to the style of Millett’s percussion to keep it light and sympathetic. On Finzi’s title-track, which originates from his Five Bagatelles for Clarinet and Piano (but no drums, notice), Woods plays the haunting melody on Indian wooden flute accompanied by Churchill’s piano, while Millett adds the lightest of touches on tablas, making the track a model of taste and restraint.
The trio can also be more outgoing and exploratory. After a restrained opening, the traditional folk song Brigg Fair, as arranged by Delius, gradually becomes a more rhythmically insistent three-way improvisation dominated by a fine solo from Woods. The two Churchill compositions, the longest on the album, allow room for the trio to stretch out while retaining their sense of gentle lyricism.
The folk-based material, with occasional world music touches, is occasionally reminiscent of Jan Garbarek or Andy Sheppard, and Forlana seems most likely to appeal to fans of either.
(John Eyles, BBC Music Review, July 2011)
Sandy Brown Jazz
"lush...elegiac and moving."
Music Web International
"This album...captures the lyricism...passionate....and bouyant."
“an impressive piece of chamber jazz that impresses with its arrangements, playing and production values. There’s plenty of improvisation here for jazz fans to get their teeth into."
The Jazz Mann
BBC Music Review
"haunting...sense of gentle lyricsim."
If you recognise Forlana as the title of a work by the English composer Gerald Finzi, then you'll have a good idea of the focus of this debut recording from the Avalon Trio. There was a renaissance of interest in English folk music at the beginning of the twentieth century which fed directly into the work of that great cluster of classical composers who both borrowed traditional motifs (Delius' famous arrangement of Brigg Fair is featured here) and took a more general influence from them.
Pete Churchill, Tony Woods and Rob Millett are interested in this markedly "English"-sounding pastarolism for its own sake, but also for its impact on jazz and there's a good deal of thought and research behind the project. As well as a couple of Churchill originals (A Dream of Thee, Last Love), the tunes are all drawn from the works of Vaughan-Williams (the choral staple Linden Lea), Delius and Finzi, and the players strike a handsome balance between honouring the clean, memorable melodic lines of the originals and using them as the basis for some splendidly restrained improvisatory work, Finzi's Eclogue being a good example.
(Robert Shore, Jazzwise, August 2011)
"...the players strike a handsome balance between honouring the clean, memorable melodic lines of the originals and using them as the basis for some splendidly restrained improvisatory work."
Given that 20th-century English classical composers were often highly influenced by the folk tradition and thus wrote music with strong melodies and springy rhythms, it’s surprising that contemporary English jazz players have not looked their way more often for material. Before the arrival of this CD by Pete Churchill on piano, Tony Woods on saxophone and flute and Rob Millett on percussion interpreting music by Delius, Finzi and Vaughan Williams, the only other example that springs readily to mind is the version of Walton’s Touch Her Soft Lips And Part played by John Taylor with Peter Erskine and Palle Danielsson.
Mostly the Avalon Trio sticks to the mood of the original pieces: try the dreamy and pastoral mood of the title track, adapted from Finzi’s 5 Bagatelles for clarinet and piano, with Woods using the rich tone of an Indian Basuri wooden flute and the clarinet part as a springboard, or the country fairground cheerfulness of Brigg Fair, a traditional song adapted by Delius.
Sometimes the interpretations extend the original vibe somewhat – Tony Woods’ Summer Night On the Water strikes me as a whole lot funkier than the one that inspired Delius’s original sound picture. Maybe a strong wind whipped up, or a sudden thunderstorm pitted the water… Finzi’s Dead In The Cold has a contained, almost flamenco flair to its bittersweet, funereal air, which warms the body as well as the rising soul.
Woods is a wonderfully articulate player who always brings a lyrical quality to his solos, whether blowing cool or hot; Churchill has a composerly understanding of the rich harmonic material at his disposal, and his own two compositions fit in a treat, while his revoicing of the non-originals gives equal weight to the classical and jazz traditions; Millett brings a wide range of sounds to the party, and somehow make tabla sound thoroughly English.
The interaction of the three musicians suggests a strong mutual respect, a common vision and that this project is something close to their hearts.
(Peter Bacon, The Jazz Breakfast, 14th August 2011)
The Jazz Breakfast