by Phil Freeman
England as a whole has had a pretty shitty time of it since the Brexit vote, and that’s a condition that’s virtually guaranteed to get worse, but British jazz had a hell of a year in 2017. A parade of talented instrumentalists have emerged from the island, including trumpeter Yazz Ahmed, alto saxophonist Camilla George, tenor saxophonist Nubya Garcia, and the duo of saxophonist Binker Golding and drummer Moses Boyd. Many of these players appear on each other’s albums; Boyd is becoming an in-demand producer, having worked on vocalist Zara McFarlane‘s impressive new album, Arise. They also share a broad, inclusive vision of jazz that incorporates elements of reggae, funk, electronics, and African, Arabic and Middle Eastern musics, and which makes room for avant-gardism, too (Binker and Moses‘ double CD Journey to the Mountain of Forever brings Evan Parker into the party without a blink).
Tenor saxophonist Leo Richardson stands slightly off to the side of this new school; he’s more of a traditionalist than anyone listed above, but his music still has the vitality of youth. He’s joined on his debut album The Chase (get it from Amazon) by pianist Rick Simpson, bassist Mark Lewandowski, and drummer Ed Richardson. Trumpeter Quentin Collins, who produced the album, guests on three tracks, and veteran UK saxophonist Alan Skidmore appears on 10-minute final track, “Mr. Skid.”
The Chase is a hard-hitting, classicist hard bop album, in the tradition of 1960-66 Blue Note or modern releases on Posi-Tone. Richardson’s sax sound is big and bluesy, but he’s fast, too, and his interaction with Collins can get downright berserk. On the title piece, they’re sprinting down the track, the saxophonist deep into a Joe Henderson/Wayne Shorter zone. The trio tears after them at an almost out-of-control speed, and when Richardson erupts into a solo, it’s thunderous. Album opener “Blues for Joe” is nearly as fast, while “Demon E” is a strutting blues, “The Curve” is a grooving boogaloo number strongly reminiscent of Lee Morgan‘s “The Rumproller.” The token ballad, “Elisha’s Song,” lets Richardson pull out some Dexter Gordon-isms, as the drummer turns the kit into a white noise machine with brushes, a steady hiss substituting for rhythm.
The album’s final track, “Mr. Skid,” is not only a showcase for British jazz legend Alan Skidmore, it’s also a roundabout tribute to John Coltrane. Skidmore is strongly influenced by Coltrane, and recorded an orchestral album of his tunes, After the Rain, in 1998. He gets the first solo here, and it’s extremely Trane-esque, moving from deep bluesy cries to hoarse shrieks, as the band tears up the ground behind him. When it’s Richardson’s turn in the spotlight, he works hard to maintain the ecstatic mood, but winds up sounding like he’s imitating Skidmore’s Coltrane imitation, so it’s possible to be bemused by the whole exercise, though the energy level remains pleasingly high, mostly thanks to the drummer, who seems extremely angry at his cymbals.
Leo Richardson and his band play highly enjoyable music in a very familiar style, but they make it their own. An easy and apt comparison would be US tenor saxophonist Ken Fowser, whose two recent Posi-Tone albums, Standing Tall and Now Hear This!, also fit firmly into the hard bop tradition, but like The Chase, treat it as a living language in which much can still be said that’s never been said exactly that way before.