Phil Bancroft Quartet – Degrees of Freedom: Album Review

The Phil Bancroft Quartet have crafted a musical tour de force, that provides an intriguing palette of dazzling musicianship and composition.

 Released: Available now 

Label: Myriad Streams 

Format: Digital 

Phil Bancroft is a well-established leading saxophonist and composer on the Scottish jazz scene and internationally. Degrees of Freedom is the first release on his new innovative Myriad Streams artist-led web platform, with many more releases in the pipeline. The Myriad Streams website includes both a free access, and streamable playlist, of Phil’s music and music from artists he is associated with. As well as for subscribers, access to the full range of albums, which are also available for download on Bandcamp. It is all about building a direct relationship with a diverse range of music listeners, to mutually support the creative process. There is a wonderful introduction to the new platform on the Myriad Streams website (here):

 “Welcome to a calm place to listen to music! The streamable playlist below is always free – and refreshes every few weeks; like a sonic magazine”.

The album itself features a highly gifted quartet of jazz muscians, comprising Phil Bancroft on tenor saxophone, Paul Harrison on acoustic piano, Aidan O’Donnell on acoustic bass, and Stu Ritchie on drums. It has nine original compositions, all by Phil, apart from track six, Free, which is credited to the quartet.

The opening piece Jewelcase sets the scene perfectly for the album, with Phil’s lyrical tenor saxophone, being joined by Aidan O’Donnell’s beautifully understated bass playing, perfectly complemented by the delicate cymbal splashes from Stu Ritchie’s kit. Paul Harrison’s enchanting counter melodies on piano lift the quartet into full improvisational flight. The shifts of rhythmic pace providing a creative springboard for Phil’s stunning flowing phrases, that convey both gentleness and a fiery passion, particularly in the higher register.

The intriguingly named Findlay MacDonald Ate My Hamster, is the second track in, and is propelled by some very dynamic and fast playing from the bass and drums, reflected in the frenetic and agile solos spun on the saxophone and piano. Aidan O’Donnell’s and Stu Ritchie’s bass runs and drum fills are a complete joy, expressing both rhythmic abandon and control. These two opening tracks tell you that this album is going to be a completely immersive and engaging listen, supported by musicians at the top of their creative game.

Some of the other highlights on the album, include the nearly twelve-minute opus, Larry De Luxe And The Temple Of Zoom. Here free form jazz is exquisitely combined with Celtic and Folk music influences. There is a simply wonderful romanticism in the quartet’s playing, where every note and phrase is filled with emotion and a restless exploratory quality. Paul Harrison’s playing here is simply superb, with a narrative underpinning, that takes his solo into breathtakingly imaginative places. Phil’s solo takes up the baton and offers a beguiling resonance of romantic longing, as his playing soars and takes flight. 

The previously mentioned quartet composition, Free, represents the musicians flying free, seemingly without a safety net. It is an incredibly exciting listen as the individual players take off along diverse musical paths, leaving the listener on the edge of their seat, wondering if the piece might splinter. Yet the musicians are in such sympathy with each other that there is a miraculous coherence maintained throughout. This track is a complete musical tour de force.

Closing track, The Kinchieburn, has a lovely story telling ambience, full of sparkling melodies and upbeat rhythmic patterns. There is an exuberance of spirit and playfulness, exhibited by the quartet, providing a joyful conclusion to this quite excellent album. This then is an album that offers a wondrous mix of musical delights and highs, that if you love music that is emotionally powerful, and played with joy and commitment by very talented musicians, you can’t afford to be without. The great Frank Zappa once said, “Jazz is not dead. It just smells funny”. What he meant, I like to think, is that jazz is a genre that is constantly evolving and expressing itself in new ways. Degrees of Freedom is just such an example. Well done to everyone involved.

Phil Bancroft: Website / Bandcamp

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