CD REVIEW: Andy Nowak Trio - Sorrow and the Phoenix


Andy Nowak Trio - Sorrow and the Phoenix
(Self-released. CD review by Adrian Pallant)

Given jazz’s abundant constellations of piano trios, Bristol-based pianist Andy Nowak’s debut album Sorrow and the Phoenix sparkles impressively. With colleagues Spencer Brown (double bass) and Andy Tween (drums), this eight-track sequence of originals offers an increasingly attractive blend of crystalline serenity and snappy incisiveness.

Over the last decade or so, the trio has been gigging in South West England, as well as in London and across the Severn, in Wales. They’ve recently completed an Arts Council-supported 2016 tour, and what audiences will have heard is a creative focus redolent of, say, Frank Harrison, Roberto Olzer or Alexi Tuomarila. It’s that spirit which engages so, from the get-up-and-go sprightliness of opener First Light, characterised by crisp, high-line piano improvisation and slick rhythm section, to the sorrowful longing of In the Leaving, its themes of break-up achingly portrayed in Nowak’s close, chromatic chords, though also offering a hint of resolve in that same, lush weave, along with Andy Tween’s emphatic drums/percussion.

Raining in Bristol is cleverly pictorialised by persistent piano ostinati and ricocheting percussion, whilst Spencer Brown’s resonant bass adds much to one of Nowak’s memorable motifs – a syncopated, descending pattern suggesting torrents of water against a pane; and gently-waltzing So Far Away becomes emotionally restless, the pianist’s unpredictable, entangled journeyings akin to Esbjörn Svensson’s more introverted passages. Somehow that e.s.t. reference is carried through into Stop’s agitated busyness, Andy Nowak’s strong phrases in thirds so simple, yet effective – and again, he surprises by regularly and abruptly halting the animation, reflecting those pools of quiet we crave in delicate, shimmering interludes (such compositional details elevate these performances so well).

The elegance of Falling implies a light-swinging, falling-leaf descent; Nowak’s deft, technique is especially appealing here, demanding close attention to his precise, melodic articulation, amplified all the more by intuitive support from Brown and Tween. (We’ve Got To) Bring It Down resulted from a conversation with a friend about tradition versus creativity (“any one of us can be creative; and when we are, we bring it down and make it manifest for ourselves and others”). Here, Tween’s beautifully pulled-back, soulful groove seems to open up a different, still more adventurous aspect of this trio’s character (clav or pitch-bent synth easily imaginable!) – and Nowak again teases with unexpected compositional twists. Finally, the steadily rising positivity of title track Sorrow and the Phoenix, through leaping bass, fizzing percussion and bright, often rocked-tinged piano soloing, draws this fine recording to a close.

With a second album already in development, as well as a Cathedral gig booked at Brecon Jazz Weekend 2016 on 12 August, this is clearly a UK trio with much to offer. Let the music behind the album’s subtly spangled cover art transport you.

Adrian Pallant is a proofreader, jazz writer and musician who also reviews at his own site ap-reviews.com

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