Lydia was in ancient Greece myths a province of what is now western Turkey, ruled at one time by the King Croesus, known for his great wealth. I can’t attest to the financial status of the members of Lydian Collective, but they’ve mined a wealth of gold on their first album, launched at a short but spunky gig at Islington’s Union Chapel on 17 March.
This collection of bright young musical things comprises Aaron Wheeler on piano and keyboards, guitarist Todd Baker, electric bassist Ida Hollis and one of the UK scene’s most make-it-look-easy-without-trying-won’t-you drummers, Sophie Alloway. They are a group that, like many new bands in jazz, are making their name and creating that all-important buzz on YouTube with videos that showcase musical synergy and, more obviously, banging good tunes. Many of the tunes developed out of Wheeler’s desire to adapt his electronica compositions - produced under the moniker of his middle name ‘Lazslo’ - for a live setting. The result is this collection of twelve ridiculously catchy pieces.
Lydian Collective offers up more hooks than the average fishing tackle shop. Opening track 31 is the very definition of jaunty, its complex time signature proving no barrier to the listener while its frequent breaks and about turns bring the listener up short, like when a squirrel darts across your path before you move on, with a smile. It has YouTube hit written all over it.
There’s a sense on this album of Lydian Collective benefitting from the Snarky Puppy wave that has crashed onto the shores of Lake Jazz in recent years. That’s not meant in a disparaging way. There’s clearly a market out there of listeners whose thirst for well-crafted instrumental music - jazz-plus, if you will - that is joyful, smile-inducing and just damned-good to listen to. Well, Lydian Collective steps up to the plate and give audiences exactly that. Like the Puppy, they too have put in the leg work to create word of mouth and that all-important cyber-marketing tool ….. buzz! Adventure is the sweet honey by-product of that hard work.
Guitarist Baker is by trade a composer of video game tunes, and second cut Legend of Lumbar sounds like a track for a video game opening sequence introducing a hero cartoon chiropractor seeking to rid the world of lower back pain. It’s tremendously fun and flexible, hiding the complex timings and chord choices he and Wheeler put into effect. The keyboard riff at the heart of the tune is savvy and perky, making you want to reach the next level.
Cascades is a track that shows Lydian Collective have their fundamental jazz chops down pat, a lyrical and flowing piano-led piece that calms and nourishes in equal measure, while East is all staccato caesurae and spiky guitar and piano riffs that build then pause, build then pause, then break out periodically into a melody so luxuriously sweet the listener feels the pounds just piling on without effort.
Loops has a more jazz-rock-pop feel - think Dream Theatre meets Stevie Wonder - which showcases why Alloway is such a great drummer. On the record, she’s giving it ten to the dozen, but yet live on stage, she makes drumming look so effortlessly simple. Her low-end rhythm buddy Hollis also provides just what this and the other tracks need, without requiring John Myeung-style six-string theatrics. And the band’s all the better for that.
Equinox has a butter-meltingly hot guitar-piano tandem riff at its heart which is utterly compelling when Baker over-dubs with a more complex sound. This, like a lot of tracks, has movement and phases that keep the listener interested and challenged, without losing sight of the musical destination. Lydia’s Dream builds slowly but, like when you’re driving on the motorway, without noticing it you’re at seventy miles an hours and ploughing along this musical highway which has straight sections and the tightest of curves. It has a foot-tapping quality that is unavoidable and makes you want to press the ‘repeat’ button on your musical player of choice, just to feel again that musical bump of pleasure as each element collides with the other.
In the musical market place, distinction is a much-desired brand quality, and this album is certainly distinctive. It has derivative elements, sure, but what marks it out for me alongside the consummate playing and the musical craftsmanship is precisely that indefinable thing that, if music labels could bottle it, their lives would be made a whole lot easier.
Already, in my mind, one of the break-out debut albums of the year.