John Pope Quintet’s debut album has just been released in January 2021 – even though the Quintet have played together since 2016, they have never released a group recording. Having performed live at jazz festivals for years and become established in the UK jazz scene, John Pope Quintet’s recorded work is long anticipated. Mixing a love of free jazz, hard bop and 60s avant-jazz, Mixed With Glass is an accomplished live work of incredible proportions. Composed by John Pope himself, each track features something new – moments of tight, soulful ensemble playing mixed with shredding solos, and quiet, melancholic melodies mixed with experimental and avant-garde techniques which seek to undermine the accepted foundations of the music. Mixed With Glass provides some classic swinging grooves with much more adventurous and challenging soundscapes: there’s something for every listener.
‘Plato’ opens the album with a stomping beat and a classic brass band feel, which is soon complicated by a powerful and intense solo from Jamie Stockbridge on alto saxophone. Stockbridge is really shredding on this track, and this live and improvised feel is aided by the recording itself – the band sound as though they are playing together as one, and the drumming has a loose, live feel which makes listeners feel as though they’re at a real gig. Johnny Hunter is also hitting the bell, or making use of a cowbell on the drums, which makes the groove danceable and light; this, and Pope’s continued groove on the double bass, keep the piece moving. The B section of the track is much more chromatic, and the drum playing even more busy, yet there is a sense of cohesion which runs throughout. The track ends with a final push from every player as they appear to release all of their final ideas at once – this track is an intense one, yet is a really enjoyable listen.
‘Misher, A Miner’ again opens with a satisfying swing groove, accompanied by a sweet and soulful brass head. This then moves into some fun call and response between the trumpet and the rest of the brass section, which then quickly becomes more experimental and the swinging rhythm begins to deteriorate. MacCalman features on a complicated yet sultry clarinet solo; many of the tracks on Mixed With Glass oscillate between tight, structured playing, and an experimental dissipation into less structured and more atmospheric soundscapes. Even in the quieter and more avant-garde moments of this piece, the listener is completely engaged – there is emotional tension, musical interest, and beautiful melodic moments which create a sense of anticipation for the rebuilding and layering of the music to come. The track ends abruptly, with parts of the original melody returning, creating a cyclicality and wholeness to the piece.
‘Mixed With Glass’ provides a huge contrast to the two previous tracks, as a completely different atmosphere is created by the band. Featuring a soothing melody from the alto and tenor saxes, and slow brass backings, this piece makes me feel comforted in an unusual way. Hunter’s drumming is definitely experimental, yet the track’s overarching theme is of calm and simplicity compared to the others on the album. Pope’s double bass solo features the use of harmonics and distortion, yet fits the atmosphere of the track perfectly. The subtlety of everyone’s playing on this piece is not lost on the listener. The control needed to play quietly under Pope’s solo requires accomplished players – and the band are up to the job.
‘Ing’ opens with an immediate challenge to the average listener, as Pope bows a chromatic line on the bass and Graham Hardy uses extended techniques on the trumpet which produce unusual and, at times, frantic sounds. The piece feels very sporadic, truncated and stilted; yet, Pope and Hardy begin doubling the melody, and the piece moves into a swinging groove. The solos on this track are a very interesting listen, and the track ends abruptly with a sense of triumph from the band – rightly so. ‘The Right Hand Path’ features another compelling groove from the drums and bass – it’s important to note that the Quintet have no harmonic instruments to aid their musical language, yet in many ways this adds to their ability to experiment and to their brass band feel. Again there are many chances for each player to express themselves on this track, as there are solos galore – in some ways, this piece seems more straight-ahead in rhythm, in order to allow for each player to shine melodically. However, it wouldn’t be a John Pope Quintet track without some fierce experimentation at the end!
‘Beautiful Pink (Is Not Ugly)’ opens with quietly questioning double bass playing, which feels more intimate than previous tracks. The bass and clarinet play the melody together in a beautiful moment of layering, and then the sax and clarinet move together and then apart, like rivers making their way towards the sea. This piece is just as exploratory as previous tracks, but it feels emotional as well as musical. The piece begins to take a turn as the trumpet growls in a disruption to the previous atmosphere – yet each player slowly comes to rest, maintaining a quiet and breathy tone until the very end. Finally, ‘Country Bears, Come North’ ends the album’s journey with a huge contrast to the previous track. The piece opens with a danceable drum groove, which is soon complicated by a chromatic alto sax melody and a busy, full-textured sound. The melody on this track isn’t as catchy as some of the others, yet the drums and rhythmic ideas are compelling. In some ways, this piece feels more vigorous in its experimentalism than the others – yet this may be because it is the album’s final piece, and the band’s final chance to express their ideas to the audience. As the melody is repeated at the piece’s end, the band slow down the tempo in a really playful way.
Mixed With Glass features some extremely talented players, so the accomplishment of the recording is not unexpected. However, the cleverness of Pope’s compositions, and the way in which they oscillate between structure and experimentalism, is surprising and unique. The live aspect of the recordings is a much-needed antidote to the lack of live performances we have been able to attend in 2021 so far, and the way in which the Quintet sensitively respond to one another’s playing contributes to this live feel. Whether you enjoy a soulful stomping beat, subtle melancholic melodies, or brave experimentation, this album is definitely worth a full listen (or two!).
Review by Evie Hill