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Matthew Ruddick

Author of Funny Valentine, an acclaimed new biography of the jazz trumpet player and singer, Chet Baker.
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Friday, 18 August 2023 19:40

Wandering Monster - Zenna

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A real band album that mixes original tracks splendidly.

Leeds is where I saw my first jazz gig, at university. It was Roadside Picnic, led by double bassist Mario Castronari. They’re still one of my favourites.

Unsurprising, then, I find myself warming to new album Zenna by Leeds-based band Wandering Monster, also led by a bassist, one Sam Quintana.

This album draws on many sources of nourishment - jazz, naturally, but rock and world music too. Surprisingly, for a third album, this is a mixture of new tunes and covers - I say surprising because one assumes that as a band matures, their creative juices flow faster. Then again, there’s plenty of creativity in reinterpreting something that’s already been proven to work.

The personnel on the album is: Ben Powling, tenor saxophone; Calvin Travers, guitar; Richard Harrold, piano; and Tom Higham on drums and percussion. All play their parts well, but it the twin carburettors of Travers and Powling which inject the musical oxygen to create the pace and urgency of the group, under Quintana’s rhythmic leadership.

A Beautiful Blur is a fairly conventional track, with piano opening alongside languid bass, suggesting the tempo of a slow walk on the beach. Cymbals crash against the shoreline, then guitar and sax enter and soar and dive like seabirds, picking out the main themes note by note. Higham’s ride cymbal work really cuts through, while towards end, sax and guitar compete to dart in and out, with the piano pointing the way towards the end of the track. A nice, if unspectacular opening.

On Push It All Away drums lead the way with propulsive snare trills, sax and guitar provide the colour, sometimes in unison, sometimes apart. Each play solid chunks of notes rather than excessive intricacy, building up the tune around an evolving four quarter note idea. Travers offers up a super sounding guitar solo, richly augmented, cutting through and running at pace along with Higham's propulsive drums - particularly strong is the drum soloing at the end where the contrast of snare and tom provides a strong coda to the track.

Zenna begins with picked guitar with sustain and chorus, over a simple piano accompaniment, with the sax insinuating itself and the drums building up an insistent beat as the snare comes in signalling the track moving into the next gear. Drum triplets abound, then it just drops into a low tempo, as staccato low-end piano notes paint the primary chord choices over which the saxophone plays, sometimes accelerating, sometimes slowing down.

Harrold’s piano solo explores various ideas, with the drums helping to propel it along beautifully. The track has the heft and grandeur of a title track - it makes your fingers want to tap out the tune as you listen. Mid-way it slips into more of a swing rhythm: again it’s the drums signalllng the change of course, and their duelling with Powling's sax towards the end of the track makes this a fight to the finish.

Okonkole y Trompa is all about Afro-Caribbean rhythm and a repetitive piano motif, with bowed double bass provides some temporal counterpoint and languor over which the sax trills and sings in response. It’s a cover of the Jaco Pastorious tune, the bowed bass easing in and out of each chord in a sullen, plaintive way, in stark contrast to the downhill tempo of the piano and drums. Right towards the end the rhythm abruptly pulls up and a bowed bass note is sustained as the piano riff fades out. Great tribute to the master bassist.

What We Talked About starts with an opening bass solo that offers lots of space between notes and rich mid-tones over dropped-in minor piano chords. Then the pulsing guitar plays sustained notes, each note eking out every bit of sonic resonance as the sax begins a conversation with the piano, the guitar swinging in and out in a fractured way as the piano plays each chord arpeggio.

It’s the most free improvised feeling tune; one imagines each of the players’ eyes in the studio darting from drum to bass to piano, waiting in anticipation for the next challenge to respond too. It eventually resolves into a sweet natured ballad.

Cowboy has a simple triad opening on the piano, with breathy sax starting to tell a simple story and discordant piano chord choices keeping the sax honest. This track is all about the ride cymbal on the drums and the loping, sparse guitar winding its way through the song ahead of the sax, which then develops a more dramatic tone, reaching out for the heart of the tune as cymbals crash all around before reverting to a tranquil outro that finishes the album on the lightest of tones. 

None of the tunes are instantly memorable, but the collection sits together well - lots of moods on offer, subtle aural textures, a choice of tempos, enough to keep the listener interested throughout. There is intensity and softness in equal measures, and there’s plenty in Zenna to suggest that Quintana and co are far from running out of steam. 

Indeed, it feels like they’re just getting started.

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