Debut albums are always exciting. Is this the start of something exciting, something new in jazz, a herald of the next phase of jazz’s evolution. Or, will it fade away, shooting star-like? This new self-titled debut album from Wandering Monster lies, I think, somewhere in between.
The group - new to this reviewer, perhaps because they’ve largely been established on the northern jazz circuit - is the brainchild of bassist Sam Quintana, and the line-up is completed by Ben Powling on tenor saxophone, Calvin Travers on guitar, Tom Higham on drums and Aleks Podraza on piano and keyboards. Though the group leader is a bassist, this doesn’t feel like a bassists’ album.
Quintana’s starting point was, he says, drawing inspiration from the progenitors of jazz and rock hybridisation, a style which grew with abandon in the seventies. Wandering Monster is very much about creating a cohesive unit and sharing the labour when it comes to soloing and improvisation: this is ‘group’ album, rather than one star player and four hired guns. Even though Quintana wrote all the tracks, this isn't called Sam Quintana’s Wandering Monster, which suggests he’s a very generous band leader, lacking in hubris.
So, what’s it sound like? It’s contemporary in tone and production values, though beneath the surface rockier elements emerge periodically. First comparisons that come to mind are the Kyle Eastwood Band or maybe early Chris Minh Doky, bassist-led bands that aren’t necessarily all about the low-end, but what low-end there is, is inventive and broad in its rhythmic and tonal palate. Across just six tracks, the album aims to explore the ‘inner monsters’ that everyone is prey to. That analytical framework doesn’t straightforwardly translate on a track like The Rush Begins, which is pacey and has some wonderfully obtuse chord shifts, which are a little unsettling, but the overall groove is fascinatingly upbeat.
Sweetheart is the first ballad, led by Powling’s sax wail, and it’s laid-back to an almost comatose extent, though there’s a welcome injection of energy with Travers’ guitar, which while not particularly innovative, does the job satisfyingly well in adding some sharpness to a duvet-soft track. Emöke is similarly slow-paced, but has a greater musical surface area than the preceding track, as it builds up to a strong crescendo, where Podraza’s keyboards - though understated in the mix - provide some delicious comping to Powling’s raspy sax.
We can guess Quintana’s a Breaking Bad fan from the name of track five, Tuco, a tune which begins with a rolling, trippy motif on his bass over which Powling and Travers play in unison, with Podraza dropping in slices of harmonic colour before things turn more conventional mid-tune, as Quintana’s bass starts walking and Podraza’s piano swings and, given room to breathe, offers some lovely melodic wanderings. Last track Happy Place is very much that: a slow-tempo finish that leaves you musically refreshed, with Quintana’s most inventive improvising left to the end.
Listen to a clip of Happy Place here.
This is a fine overall debut which suggests a promise of something more to come, even if it’s not quite in the jaw-dropping, ‘who the hell is this?’ category of stunning first-time albums. At times power-packed and intense, Wandering Monster can also be nostalgic and introspective, even a touch melancholy. I’m open to hearing more.