1. Sumer Night on the Water
3. Brigg Fair
4. A Dream of Thee
5. Dead in the Cold
6. Linden Lea
8. Last Love
Tony Woods - Saxes, flute
Pete Churchill - Piano
Rob Millett - Percussion
This album could hardly fail to attract me, since it contains works by two of my favourite "serious" composers: Delius and Vaughan Williams. They were both part of the early 20th-century movement by English composers who were interested in various kinds of folk music, and much of whos work reflected their love of landscape. Delius, in particular, created entirely new harmonies which widened the boundaries of classical music and also inspired several jazz musicians. In a recent interview on BBC Radio 3, Pete Churchill commented on these composers' "tough harmonic underpinning" and Tony Woods added that they had a great sense of melody. This CD richly elicits these qualites.
I have already applauded a previous album by the Tony Woods Project, whose line-up differed from this new trio, although the new group includes percussionist Rob Millett, who was featured on the vibraphone in earlier recordings. On this album, Rob mostly supplies reticent fluttering beats on the tabla, occasionally emphasising the beat so that the approach is closer to jazz. In fact the Avalon Trio does what jazz musicians have been doing for ages: improvising on existing tunes, although in this case the material is by Delius, Vaughan Williams and Gerald Finzi, with two original pieces by pianist Pete Churchill.
The album opens with Delius's Summer Night on the Water (which is actually the first of the two songs "To Be Sung of a Summer Night on the Water"), a typically beautiful Delian melody. Tony Woods shows how Delius's unusual chords supply a challenging but satisfying basis for jazz improvisation. His soprano sax brings an oriental feel to the music, while Pete Churchill's flowing solo captures the lyricism of the piece. The other Delius composition on the album is Brigg Fair, a series of variations on a folk-song originally recorded by Percy Grainger in Lincolnshire. Rob's tabla leads the piano into 4/4 time before Tony adds a passionate solo and Rob heats things up further with a percussion solo.
The title-track is by Gerald Finzi - one of his Five Bagatelles, based on an old Italian dance, with Tony Woods eloquently handling the theme on wood flute and bringing out its buoyant, pastoral quality. Finzi also wrote Dead in the Cold and Eclogue, both of which have the same pastoral feel as well as the sense of folk music.
The sole composition by Ralph Vaughan Williams is Linden Lea, which I remember singing in music classes at school. It is a beautiful song, with unexpected harmonic turns which add to its poignancy. Pete Churchill takes it for an adventurous ride and Tony Woods solos with fervour.
The two other pieces are by Pete Churchill and try to capture some of the mood of the rest of the album, as if the group is improvising on "serious" compositions. In A Dream of Thee, Tony Woods' sax swirls feelingly and Pete's solo develops gradually, with Rob's percussion hustling busily behind him. Last Love begins wistfully but Tony's sax then prances around as in a folk dance.
I hope this album will make more jazz musicians aware of the possibility of using "serious" works as the basis for jazz improvisation, without the artificiality of "Third Stream" experiments which try too hard to fuse different styles. I also hope that this CD exposes more listeners to the unique music of Delius and the whole English renaissance movement which produced so many works with a special Englishness about them.