First House: Cantilena (ECM 1393)

 

First House
Cantilena

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.


Original cover

First House: Eréndira (ECM 1307)

 

First House
Eréndira

Ken Stubbs alto and soprano saxophones
Django Bates piano
Mick Hutton bass
Martin France drums, percussion
Recorded July 1985 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

A session like the one documented on Eréndira can easily made or broken by a saxophonist, and I’m happy to say that Ken Stubbs succeeds with plenty of inspiration to spare. His soloing is at once ponderous and restless, constantly moving in and out of shadow, adding just the right amount of cursive to his flowing script. With the help of Bill Bruford’s Earthworks double agents Django Bates and Mick Hutton on keyboards and bass, along with drummer Martin France, he leads this young fusion outfit’s debut with stylish, mature writing and deft exchanges all around.

“A Day Away” starts as if awakening, those first rustlings of the morning flittering across France’s kit, Bates opening his eyes as butterfly’s wings to sunlight, while Hutton takes our first steps, breathing in the saxophone’s crisp air. Stubbs carries a gentle tune in “Innocent Eréndira,” lilting over bass and a gentle tat of cymbals. Like an airborne serpent falling to the ground with that final breath, he slithers into a dark hole before opening the thematic radar of his cobra fan for “The Journeyers To The East.” This touch-and-go excursion finds the album’s surest traction, and seems to wink at us, knowingly. The rhythm section excels, launching Stubbs into a backflip that allows the soles of his feet to graze the underbellies of the clouds. Pay particular attention to Bates here, and you’ll know why he was already one of the hottest jazz pianists of the 1980s. “Bracondale” and “Grammenos” lull us into surrender with promises that Hutton and Stubbs fulfill with grace. The latter tune swirls with wondrous enervation, Stubbs scaling a mountain of tight hooks and crashing improv before sliding back into a forlorn back (v)alley. The brief wave that follows in “Stranger Than Paradise” washes us onto the shores of “Bridge Call,” a lonesome dove spreading its melodic feathers over rivers and islands. Another brief teardrop falls in “Doubt, Further Away,” trickling down the face of one who is about to smile for the first time in ages.

Thus ends a beautiful, seemingly forgotten album from a quartet of musicians who tended to involve themselves in more progressive acts. Here, they take it back home. Don’t pass this one by.


Original cover