by CLARE HIRST Clare Hirst has moved between the worlds of pop and jazz, playing saxophone on some of the biggest stages in the world and on some of the most intimate. But on her third album, Touchy, she combines the roles of composer, arranger, soloist and bandleader with the calm authority of a musician who now inhabits a musical world that is very much her own. With all but two tracks on the album written by Hirst and performed for the most part with her current quartet featuring Nick Ramm (piano), Tim Robertson (double bass) and Pat Levett (drums), Touchy is an album of elegant, contemporary jazz with a warm, personal resonance.
The title track is one of those instantly alluring tunes that starts off on the borderlands of easy listening, but ends up somewhere altogether different. This is the kind of trick that modern piano trios such as the Esbjorn Svensson Trio or those post-ironic pranksters the Bad Plus are given to, and while Hirst's silky sax carries the melody, the track is also a fine showcase for the nimble piano playing of Ramm. Pockets, a sprightly New Orleans type of groove, and On The Street Where You Live, a lush reworking of the Frank Loewe standard, both feature Hirst playing soprano sax; the same sensual voice, but a more urgent, astringent tone.
Cherry Blossom (Sakura) is inspired by Japan's (unofficial) national flower which blooms with magnificent beauty each spring, but for only a few days. It is a number which reminds you to enjoy the good things in life while you can, and having arranged the piece for just sax, bass and drums, Hirst performs it with a joyful sense of harmonic freedom. What Now is the album's funkiest track, borrowing inspiration from Miles Davis's So What and prompting Levett to dip into the little bag of grooves that he keeps somewhere about his kit and pull out a typically hip combination of syncopation and swing.
Happiness has a bouncy feel with some intriguing harmonic implications, reminiscent of Thelonius Monk. "I suppose this track is my attempt at defining happiness," Hirst says. "It's a tricky state to describe, so the tune is not as straightforward as it might seem. Happiness doesn't exist without unhappiness, so it has a combination of both elements."
Seven is inspired by the David Fincher film of the same name, starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman - a tale of ritualistic murder, based around the concept of the seven deadly sins. Hirst's composition adds a different, deliciously darker tone to the album. It is the seventh track on Touchy and is, naturally, in seven time.
Come on Home is a ballad with the sort of spacious, haunting feel associated with artists like Jan Garbarek of the ECM label. "My music has lots of space in it," Hirst says. "I think that's because I was born in Cumbria, on top of a moor with nothing much there apart from the sky."
In contrast to such European influences, the album closes with Duke Ellington's Purple Gazelle, a lilting melody which reflects Hirst's longstanding interest in Latin music. Sonny Rollins, a master of this genre, remains one of Hirst's great inspirations, and she began her career playing with the South African pianist Mervyn Africa, a man with his own take on township jazz. "I really wanted to put something in that style on this CD," she says. "It's such great fun to play."
It's a delight to listen to as well and, like all the tracks on this gorgeous album, it captures the ever-shifting mood of a sophisticated performer who has never lost her inquisitive edge. Hirst has come a long way with her music. But it's still a Touchy affair.
David W J Sinclair