I was surprised when I put on saxophonist/compopser Andy Sugg’s new album. The last Sugg album I heard was when I (glowingly) reviewed the excellent Berlin Session album in early 2013.
That album was free and wild and had the colossal shadow of John Coltrane falling across the wonderful music made with Sugg’s daughter, Kate Kelsey-Sugg and players Jan Leipnitz and Sean Pentland.
The new one, Wednesdays at M’s, could not be more different. The focus is far more on composition, arrangement and timbral texture and has a decidedly fusion edge, complete with electric flavours.
But then I was surprised that I was surprised – after all, Sugg is a searching, seeking, probing player. Why would he sound now as he did four years ago?
The Group is entirely different, too, apart from Kelsey-Sugg on piano (and vapour-like vocals on closer ‘Rings Around The Moon’). Made up of leading players such as drummer Nate Wood, Ben Eunson on guitar and Australian-abroad Sean Wayland, this is no ordinary Group.
And they need to be extraordinary to navigate Sugg’s remarkable compositions and bring them to vivid life – each tune is completely owned by the ensemble; the ensemble playing and solos leap from the speakers with a rush of blood and fire.
The electric edge doesn’t become apparent until Ben Eunson’s guitar solo on opener ‘Djuna at One’. The groove is buoyant, rolling along on the tough acoustic bass of Matt Clohesy until Eunson’s electric guitar chops into it, right down to the bone. Eunson’s playing across Wednesdays at M’s is a highlight: biting here, fluid there, he plays with a wide range of textures that should be an object lesson to more than a few contemporary jazz guitarists. His tone is metallic but fleshed out with more than enough blues to make it sing beautifully.
The fusion thing is taken up a notch over the three part Suite, ‘Hemispheric’: Part 1 is swathed in Christian Almiron’s Zawinulesque synth washes. Almiron returns for Part 3, soloing and swooping across the brightly choppy rhythm.
A highlight of the album is ‘Mandela’. Built on a criss-crossing set of riffs, this groove pushes Sugg and Eunson to some spiraling highs. Sugg’s playing throughout is revelatory yet always with deep soul and humanity in his delivery. On the Berlin Session album he played only soprano; here he plays only tenor and it fits the tougher ensemble dynamic perfectly (it is particularly thrilling when in unison with Eunson’s Stratocaster).
Prior to recording, these eight pieces were worked up in a weekly workshop environment on NYC’s Lower East Side in a vacant dance studio belonging to ‘Mike’, hence the album title. You can hear the freedom and care that Sugg was allowed to lavish on their forming: nothing is rushed and there was obviously room for tints of other non-jazz genres to colour the music. In essence, the music was allowed to grow and evolve in a hothouse.
At the foot of his liner notes, Andy Sugg simply says ‘Thank you, Mike.’ I, and anyone who listens to Wednesdays at M’s will surely second that emotion.
For more information visit: www.andysugg.com