Ken Stubbs alto saxophone
Django Bates piano, tenor horn
Mick Hutton bass
Martin France drums
Recorded March 1989 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher
After a memorable ECM debut with Eréndira, the talented quartet of saxophonist Ken Stubbs, pianist Django Bates, bassist Mike Hutton, and drummer Martin France—a.k.a. First House—followed up with an even more effective chunk of progressive jazz in Cantilena. From the first soulful licks of the title opener, we know we are in for something special and from the heart. The composer’s alto draws us into the night with recumbent charm, thereby opening an ambitious set that delivers everything it promises and more. Like a model posing for a painting, its contours come into representational being only through an artist’s touch. This leads us into the connective tissue of the piano, which seems to blossom, lured by the alto’s return to a place where dreams can be made real. From this we are introduced to the writing of Bates, of whose “Underfelt” the theme is anything but as it sneaks its way through a burrow of circular motives. Stubbs shells out some incredible improvisation here, working his way far beyond the corners of the page. The Bates train continues on through the whimsies of “Dimple,” for which he clashes horns with alto against exemplary and jaunty support from Hutton and France. More of the same energy awaits us the sprightly abstractions of “Low-Down (Toytown),” to which the rubato slice of blues that is “Sweet Williams” (Bates) is indeed a sweet preamble, while the urban sprawl of “Jay-Tee” features the date’s most spirited soloing from our two lead melodicians. The Bates sector rounds out with the vastly energizing “Hollyhocks,” which features rolling harmonies in the pianism and a spate of resplendent energy that grabs us hook, line, and sinker into the contemplative yet all-too-brief tenderness of Eddie Parker’s “Madeleine After Prayer” (the only non-group tune on the record), which is spun through “Shining Brightly” into a horizon backlit by hope. Once again the alto hollows out our bones and fills them with the marrow of sentiment. Some tracings from Bates initiate “Pablo,” thus ending the album where it began: in a dream where music is the only language that remains.
Of the many strengths First House possesses, it is the compositional prowess within that shines above the rest. The group’s robust musical ideas have immense staying power, and in combination with such a smooth blend of the forward-thinking and the classic, one would be as foolish as Oliver to ask for more in a jazz outfit.