Graded on a Curve:
Ben Bryden,
Figure Of Eight

On Figure Of Eight, Scotland-native and NYC-based tenor saxophonist Ben Bryden leads a band featuring the guitar of fellow UK-to-NYC transplant Phil Robson, the bass of Desmond White, and the drums of Rajiv Jayaweera, the rhythm section current New York residents both originally from Australia, with Bryden’s horn flanked on two tracks by fellow tenor and long-time collaborator Steven Delannoye. The record has moments of accessible warmth that can harken back to the heyday of post-bop but with sustained passages that are undeniably new in conception. It’s out now on compact disc and digital through Circavision Productions.

Along with Figure of Eight’s generally inviting comportment, the chosen instrumental configuration of tenor, guitar, bass and drums only serves to deepen ties to modern jazz’s classic era, though in reality, this specific lineup, with guitar sans piano or organ, isn’t as historically common as one might think. However, it was the set of axes featured on Sonny Rollins’ comeback classic of 1961 The Bridge (with Jim Hall on guitar, Bob Cranshaw on double bass and Ben Riley on drums), and as Ben Bryden’s latest plays, a certain compatibility with the Rollins album does become discernible.

These qualities are far from overwhelming, though. Much more prominent are elements that are decidedly non-jazzy, and immediately so, as “Luskentyre,” named after a beach in Scotland, delivers a brief opening prelude that also stands as a bookend with the record’s outro “Bostadh,” which is also titled after a Scottish beach. The promo text mentions post-rock, and while that’s not off-target, please don’t get the idea that Bryden and company have navigated into Tortoise territory.

We are somewhat nearer to the work of Sigur Rós, and yet fleetingly so, as “Cold Shoulder” instead flows with a jazziness that’s distinctly urbane; Bryden’s playing is lyrical, Robson establishes his deftness with clean, ringing tones and note runs, and the rhythm section is crisp but unperturbed, though the atmosphere thankfully withstands getting too velvety.

Given that “Cold Shoulder” was written by Bryden at age 15 for his high-school rock band, it can be surmised that the song has undergone a considerable transformation as it lands solidly in the jazz mainstream, but with an undercurrent of contemporaneousness that only really becomes apparent upon familiarity with Figure of Eight’s whole.

Taken at a slower pace (one could call it romantically smoldering), “Goodbye Lullaby” extends the mainstream-isms of “Cold Shoulder” as Delannoye enters the equation; rather than executing solo tradeoffs, the horns mingle productively, adding weight and an unexpectedly powerful crescendo to the proceedings.

Delannoye sticks around for the strikingly different “The Art of Fielding,” in which the record makes its sharpest left turn into the rock zone; Robson’s playing shifts into a distorted mode while White and Jayaweera provide sturdy momentum as hard rocking alternates with more melodic and initially atmospheric sections. Hurdling to the conclusion, the rocking does win out.

It’s here that mentioning this record’s sole non-original composition, an unreservedly jazz-infused reading of Billy Joel’s “She’s Always a Woman,” might lead a reader to speculate that Figure of Eight is stylistically, shall we say, all over the place. But while there’s no denying the range, Bryden’s versatility isn’t disruptive (not even during “The Art of Fielding”), and the disc suffers from no perceived lack of focus.

Now, if asked if I want my jazz records to come with interpretations of Mr. Joel, I’ll almost certainly reply “No Billy, thanks.” With that out of the way, I can’t deny that Bryden’s version of the tune is pretty sly in how it eschews overplaying the nods to jazziness in the source while reducing but not eradicating the recognizability of the original. In short, Bryden trumps the cliché of giving a pop tune the jazz treatment, and that’s both friendly to the ear and in line with the record’s thematic emphasis on memory.

That would be Bryden’s memories, as Joel is listed in the PR as an artist absorbed by the saxophonist as a child through the fandom of his mother. Furthermore, “She’s Always a Woman” is surrounded by two more short pieces, “Sielebost” and “Horgabost,” that are also named for beaches in Bryden’s home country.

But if the man is feeling homesick, the mood resists melancholy as the non-jazz aura of these snippets/ extracts enhances the aforementioned similarity to post-rock, but more through instilling a sense of album construction that’s quite contemporary. But on the other hand, we can trace this tendency of assemblage back to Teo Macero. See what I mean about Figure of Eight’s blend of Modern Jazz classicism and elements that reside far nearer to the current moment?

Crucial to this blend of old and new and additionally to the album’s thematic recollections is expert playing by everyone involved, with Robson exceptional throughout but particularly across “Auburn Skye” as he elevates a tune that’s already flush in gorgeousness courtesy of Bryden’s tenor. Taken together with the collective showcase “Spectre by the Door,” Figure of Eight makes its deepest inroads into the inexhaustible heart of the jazz style.

But then “Scarista” (named for yet another Scottish beach) varies the program once more, and specifically by giving the jazzy soloing a tangibly indie-experimental sonic bedrock that sounds to my ear like the result of looping. There’s also the return of the guitar motif from the album’s opening seconds (and which returns once more at the close).

If much of this set connects as Bryden looking back, “The Art of Fielding” simply concerns an acquired love of baseball, and “A Respectful Salute to the Socially Relevant” tips the hat to The More Socially Relevant Jazz Music Ensemble, the indie-jazz band of his guitarist friend Reinier Baas (who also played on Bryden’s 2016 disc of Ivor Cutler interpretations, Glasgow Dreamer).

The latter selection fits into Figure of Eight’s overall scheme pretty seamlessly, as does the compositionally rich (and too damned short) “Flow Gently Sweet Afton.” My main quibble with the record is that I’d like to hear them tear it up a little more, but when I’ve had my fill of raw mayhem and want to settle into a mode significantly less raucous, Ben Bryden and band will fit the bill pretty nicely.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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