Jack Davies: Big Band, Flea Circus, and Southbound


UK trumpet player and composer Jack Davies made a hell of a splash on the jazz scene this year.  A former member of Colin Towns’ Mask Orchestra, The London Jazz Orchestra and the Tom Taylor Octet, Davies released three albums in April 2012.  Three.  And not a one of them sounds anything like the others.  One is a big band album, another is a quiet jazz folk recording, and the third is a modern avant-garde production.

Three albums in one month is a hell of a feat, and I wanted to draw some attention to them today.  I’m hoping, later, to conduct an interview with Davies, talk a little about his three albums, but also about creating his own label, V&V Music, on which he released the three albums.

But about that music:  Let’s begin…


Jack Davies Big Band – The Jack Davies Big Band

There has been a promising trend in Jazz these days of young composer-directors creating big band and large ensemble recordings founded in the same modern jazz motifs that they give to their small-group efforts.  How this manifests is that, in addition to the traditional big band sound and format, the compositions get blended with unconventional meters, dramatic changes in tempo, cross-genre pollination like the inclusion of sections that rock more than than swing, and a willingness to sacrifice form to gain some substantive creativity.

Your album personnel:  Jack Davies (composer, arranger, conductor), Martin Speake (alto sax), Mike Chillingworth (alto sax), Josh Arcoleo (tenor sax), Joe Wright (tenor sax, electronics), Rob Cope (baritone sax), Andy Greenwood (trumpet), Tom Walsh (trumpet), Percy Pursglove (trumpet), Nick Smart (trumpet), Reuben Fowler (trumpet, flugelhorn), Kieran McLeod (trombone), Richard Foote (trombone), Patrick Hayes (trombone), Ed Hilton (trombone), Alex Munk (guitar), Tom Taylor (piano), James Opstad (bass), and Jon Ormston (drums).

For my eMusic new arrivals column, in which I made this album one of my Jazz Picks, I said, “Davies seems to prefer burning the envelope instead of just simply pushing it around.”  I finding that, months later, that statement remains quite apt.

Album begins with a track smartly titled “Entropy.”  What begins with rising horns like the pronouncement of a new dawn, ends with a wave of deconstruction… the compositions opening traditional form has fallen apart into a dissonant mass of electronics and refracted notes.  This kind of sound manipulation is typical throughout the album, and leads to some massively successful moments.

Track “The New Infection” plays it pretty straight.  Casual rise and fall, but other tracks like “I Will Wait For You…” are truly experimental in nature.  Electronic sizzle, an unsteady tempo, a tune that just hangs in the air, simply hovering.  Not the type of big band swing one could dance to.

The five part “1984 Suite” begins with ominous blasts of horn, stormtrooper tempos, and polytechnic waves of sound.  Distorted guitar cuts through the dissonance, eventually marshaling the forces for a concentrated march to the end.  Silence descends for Part 2 of the Suite.  Sax solos over the blip and squak of billowing electronics.  Part 3 “Dance of the Proles” is a lilting ballad where the sax sings of better days ahead and the horn section sings of bright futures.  Part 4 “Thrush Song” is a solo piano interlude, the sporadic tinkling of the keys, water dripping intermittently from icicles melting beneath the setting sun.  It leads into Part 5, “Mr. Charrington’s Shop,” which has a resurgent energy, eyes fluttering open as the band prepares to rise.  Saxophones call out, then a wonderful guitar lead that brings an easy glide to the tune that finishes with a saxophone-led grand finale.

This is an album that meshes the traditional big band form with unconventional jazz antics… and, strangely enough, they play well together.  The odd schema of rock-like guitar accompaniment actually enhances the traditional horn section phrasing.  The dramatic changes in tempo accentuate the beauty in each section.  The differences within complete the flawless whole.  It’s a neat trick Davies has pulled off.

Released on the V&V Music label.

Available at eMusic.  Available at Amazon: CD | MP3


Jack Davies’ Flea Circus – Flea Circus

Looking back at my weekly eMusic new arrivals column, in which I made this album my Pick of the Week, I described the album as, “Dark tunes cut through with pretty moonlight.”  That was nearly two months prior to my writing the review to follow.  That moonlight gets mentioned now as it did back then, I think, is pretty significant as to the music’s mood and its consistency.

This is a different kind of folk music.  The instruments give it some Old World flavor, yet the compositions imbue it with a sense of Blade Runner futurism.  Music of the Past, envisioning People of the Future.

Your album personnel:  Jack Davies (trumpet), Rob Cope (clarinet, bass clarinet), Aidan Shepherd (accordion), and James Opstad (double bass).

The trumpet is the sound of moonlight, the accordion the story of the soil.  Bass ticks off the passing of time as measured by rings of a tree, and clarinet is a friendly voice inviting wanderers to take a seat by the campfire.

The music is understated, but evocative.  At times whimsical, whispers of Kamikaze Ground Crew strangeness.  Other times, the notes are proffered with a firm handshake and steady gaze.

Opening track “Zapushalka” offers some of that whimsy.  Allusions to a tango, Davies’ trumpet fires lines of notes over the heads of the quartet, stopping only at song’s end to burrow down into the music of the others to bring the song to a close.

Second track “All the Night’s Adventures” is a trumpet serenade to the moon.

The trilogy of “Three Miniatures” begins with the stalking notes of Part 1’s “Monster.”  This leads to Part 2, “So Let Us Melt,” a ballad of beguiling charm.  It ends with Part 3, “Lamp Post,” as accordion brings a fuzzy pulse to a hypnotically paced tune.

Trumpet sounds often in flight, sometimes soaring high above, sometimes gliding just inches from the ground, but on tracks like “La Puce” and “Sehr Gesangvoll,” it sidles up onto a nearby bar stool for a friendly chat.  Accordion is cheerful laughter drifting from across the room.

“The Wood” keeps the Old World ambiance, and reminds us that haunted places and fairy tale monsters do exist.

The closing track “Tresses” has all four quartet members walking ahead together, their sound layered side-by-side, a perfect storm of harmonization, a satisfying synchronicity of tempo, all four voices as one, one voice spoken in four parts.

Overall, Flea Circus has an odd personality… the kind that keeps a person coming back to engage with some more, the kind that makes it easy to appreciate its quirks as positive personality traits and its flaws as the vagaries of unusual intelligence.  It’s a different kind of album, and originality earns some respect.  That it’s also pleasantly listenable, that gets it a high recommendation.

Released on the V&V Music label.

Available at eMusic.  Available at Amazon: CD | MP3


Jack Davies – Southbound

An album that is distinctively modern in its avant-garde approach to jazz.  Asymmetrical lines of attack, melodies hidden from sight, and rhythms sporadic, often masking their intentions until the last possible beat.  Of the three albums, Southbound is clearly the most contentious of the group, the aggressor of the trio.  But those aren’t traits absent from Big Band and Flea Circus… it is just on Southbound, Davies lays those qualities bare, shows them as they are when not clouded by large ensemble textures or folk music eccentricities.

Your album personnel:  Jack Davies (trumpet). Rob Cope (tenor sax), Tom Taylor (piano), and Jon Ormston (drums).

Many of the tracks are set against a backdrop of silence, as in the song “Paragraphs,” in which the lumbering sax and trumpet lines stand out starkly with no accompaniment, though there is a sense of sonic isolation that doesn’t dissipate when piano and drums join in.  Or “Little Glass Box,” which is the gentle footfalls of piano down a darkened hallway, only the faint candle of sax to help light its way.

At times, though, there is an elegance to the music that belies its preeminently aggressive behavior.  Opening track “Bird’s Nest” has the fluttering exchange of notes that abide by their own personal rules of dance, and the grace of “Minus Ten,” which attempts to simulate the unpredictable pattern of melting ice.

Then there’s tracks like “Churning” and “Excuses Excuses” bouncing with excessive energy about the room and spoiling for a fight, conflicting with album closer “In For Luck,” a quiet-tempered call for peace.

On its own, Southbound is a solid example of modern jazz, but when viewed as a facet of Davies’ three releases, it shines as strongly as the others.

Released on the V&V Music label.

Available on eMusic.  Available on Amazon: CD | MP3


It’s rare to get three views of an artist simultaneously like this.  Take the time to enjoy the opportunity and the music alike.