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Mark Lewandowski Trio Mark Lewandowski Trio
Album: Waller (+ Live Review)
Label: Whirlwind
Tracks: 11
Website: https://www.mark-lewandowski.com/

This stands to be one of the great UK jazz albums of 2017 - and certainly one of the most enjoyable! Mark Lewandowski is a young bass player, and this is his first outing as leader. I had the good fortune to catch him live during his recent tour, and it was a great evening, and huge fun! In part, this was because Mark was supported by two of the best jazz musicians in the UK today - Liam Noble on piano/keyboards and Paul Clarvis on drums. Another element was that Mark really engaged with the audience; it was good to see a band leader taking time to introduce the tunes and to connect with the audience. Finally, the set consisted of great tunes - mainly, but not exclusively standards written by Fats Waller - which were interpreted in novel, sometimes challenging, but (that word again) totally enjoyable ways. Oh! and the soloing was stellar.

The concept behind Waller is very simple - there are great songs out there which form part of the history of jazz, but are often overlooked in the modern repertoire, because they use simple themes, frequently repeated, which appear to offer fewer opportunities for modern styles of jazz improvisation. Mark Lewandowksi seeks to turn this idea on its head, whilst reminding us that jazz is essentially a music of entertainment, of rhythm and of joy: that is its art! As he puts it:

"… everything I do is very heavily informed by the Black-American tradition - it's how I first fell in love with this music….. You can't hide behind this music, so we wanted it to be as honest as possible, based on our own instincts. We're using our collective influences of the past to inform how we improvise as contemporary musicians…"

The album opens (as did the live show) with Lulu's Back in Town which is played fairly straight at first, until Liam's piano plays around with the time and the melody - he is held to earth by Paul's brushwork on the drums. The playing accidentally hints at the close relationship of Lulu to another famous Waller song Honeysuckle Rose. The latter (the penultimate track on the album), starts, as does Lulu, with a snatch of Waller himself recorded live from a radio show. Liam Noble breaks "Rose" apart very much in the style of Thelonious Monk - indeed, I can think of Monk versions which are truer to Waller than this one! This emphasises the core of Lewandowski's project - to highlight the historic development from Waller's stride and swing styles through bebop to modern jazz styles. This is not heritage music - it lives!

Another way in which Mark has fun with the Waller catalogue is by combining two tunes. It's a Sin to …. Write a Letter sets Mark off playing "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter" against Liam's version of "It's a Sin to Tell a Lie", whilst Paul holds the rhythm together. After much larking about with the tunes (that's what improvisation is….?), and Paul using a pair of shoes to tap-dance a rhythm out on Liam's piano top, they emerge with Liam playing "Letter" and Mark playing "Sin". I'll Be Glad When You're Dead …. Suzannah! similarly plays around with a couple of New Orleans favourites; Mark plays "Dead" as a slow blues dirge on bass, until it morphs into an increasingly phrenetic "Suzannah". This is a clever nod to the New Orleans funeral bands which formed such an important part of the birth of jazz - a slow march to the cemetery followed by a joyful 'release' on the return journey.

Jitterbug Waltz is reputedly the first jazz waltz ever written - a good example of the innovative writing of Waller. Though it is difficult not to compare it with other jazz versions - notably Sonny Rollins' version - it is given a gentle treatment by Liam and Paul (brushes again - but with the added live bonus of Paul playing with his sticks on Marks bass strings!). Blue Because of You is an uptempo romp, with an arco bass section from Mark. Fair & Square … in Love takes a live sample of Waller playing "Fair and Square" and turns it into a very slow love song, again showing Liam's strong affinity with bop to modern pianists such as Bud Powell and Dave Brubeck.

Cinders is another slow study, almost a cocktail-jazz piece, which provides scope for a bass solo by Mark which demonstrates his ability to tell a narrative, or even hold a conversation using his instrument. Have a Little Dream on Me is a bass solo track by Mark which allows him to display his breadth of playing and great sense of implied rhythm. Ain't Misbehavin' is one of the longer tracks which again plays around in a fresh way with the harmonies of Waller's potentially overworked standard. And finally, we have a Surprise Ending - Mark croons Jelly Roll Morton's Why? in a 1930's style, with whistled solo!

This album is a joy from beginning to end, and I heartily recommend it!

Martin Price