CD REVIEW: Quest Ensemble - Footfall

Quest Ensemble - Footfall
(PFT 14001. CD Review by Matthew Wright)

Classical musicians are notoriously reluctant to improvise. So the jazz world generally believes, anyway. It means there’s a gap in the scene for a band that uses the instrumentation and tonal qualities of classical music with the communal spontaneity that improvisation can create. It’s a great opportunity for the right group of musicians, and why should improvised music necessarily involve drums and brass or reeds anyway?

Cue Footfall, the debut album from London Quest Ensemble, a Guildhall-educated trio of Preetha Narayanan (violin), Tara Franks (cello) and Filipe Sousa (piano). They offer an intriguing sense of how a classical ensemble, in this case the (classical) piano trio, might sound playing semi-improvised music. These pieces have roots in both classical music and jazz, and take in elements of country and world music too. Without percussion, the aesthetic is gentler than most jazz trios, but the interplay of musical lines is dextrous and intriguing. It’s melodic and easy to listen to, though its initial accessibility conceals some of the originality.

Quest describe their sound as encompassing Vaughan Williams, Steve Reich and the Esbjörn Svensson Trio, and certainly, those are, perhaps, the sonic outposts of their musical world. The Vaughan Williams can mainly be heard in the warmth of their string tone and the charmingly elastic melodies flavouring the lines of improvisation, as well as the flowing, pastoral quality to tracks such as Willow. The Reich is slightly more of a puzzle: Quest’s approach lacks Reich’s theoretical purity; as noted by other reviewers, a better comparison might be with John Adams, whose interest in repeated patterns of rhythm is tempered with vernacular decoration and melody. Which is certainly not to say there’s a lack of interest in structural experimentation. Chorale, for example, builds to a strikingly melancholy climax of violin and cello over a baroque-sounding piano bass line.

The players are all classically trained, though all also have experience in other genres. They clearly know each other well, and the interplay between weaving lines – in which roles are interchanged much more freely than in a traditional classical trio – generally feels athletic and intimate. Capturing the spontaneity of improvisation on CD, to be played in identical reproduction over and over again, always feels in principle a little incongruous. Some tracks here sound more spontaneous than others, though it’s a varied and appealing collection that will find an enthusiastic audience among both jazz and classical enthusiasts.

Quest Ensemble’s album. Footfall has been available on CD for a few months, and has just been released digitally on iTunes. They perform at The Vortex on February 12

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