Mark Lockheart: Days on Earth review – brightest recording from a glittering career

Lockheart hitches a jazz group to a classical orchestra for this fine, ambitious recording

For a musician to have been in at the birth of one of the most vivaciously untrammelled big jazz ensembles ever formed in the UK could have been happenstance. That he did so again with a small group that stretched jazz’s comfort zones enough to be nominated for a Mobo award once and a Mercury prize twice, was hard evidence that the saxophonist/composer Mark Lockheart – a co-founder of the revolutionary big band Loose Tubes in 1984, and the genre-fluid Polar Bear 20 years later – has long had more than luck on his side. Lockheart’s laconically Wayne Shorter-ish sax sound, and influences including Duke Ellington, Gil Evans and Burt Bacharach as well as his Loose Tubes and Polar Bear alumni, have brought him now to the most ambitious recording of his two decades as a leader.

Lockheart has hitched a jazz group, including Polar Bear’s rhythm section (bassist Tom Herbert and drummer Sebastian Rochford), pianist Liam Noble, and young Trinity Laban saxophonist Alice Leggett, to a 30-piece classical orchestra for Days on Earth. A deceptively smooth opening (on silky strings and a Latin-smoochy glide) toughens up as Lockheart’s tenor sax threads through a mercurial, ingeniously arranged sequence of rhythmic changes. Brave World is a moonlit mood-piece for double bass and bass clarinet; This Much I Know Is True floats on a balefully catchy bass hook and the arrangement’s byzantine countermelodies; Party Animal is a Latin chatter between the improvisers including Laura Jurd on trumpet; Believers is a dark rocker driven by Loose Tubes guitarist John Parricelli, and Long Way Gone has a highlife-inspired sound coloured by flutes, harp and swooping strings. So much busily written music may not appeal to all jazz lovers, but Lockheart’s inclusive imagination invites a wider audience than that, and the fine improvisers here are right on his wavelength.

Also out this month

The American saxophonist Joe Lovano, usually an imperious explorer of postbop, world jazz and occasional classical crossovers, has radically changed gear with Trio Tapestry, a mostly slow-paced but sonically exquisite fusion of free-improv and 12-tone serial music with pianist Marilyn Crispell and percussionist Carmen Castaldi. Also released this month is trumpeter Ralph Alessi’s Imaginary Friends – his best album yet for ECM, and an elegant balance of poignant, playful original compositions and gracefully probing improv – notably by the leader and his long-time saxophone partner Ravi Coltrane.


John Fordham

The GuardianTramp

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