Have you ever had one of those secret moments in a restaurant where you look down the prices on the right hand side of the menu first before looking across to the left to see what those prices will buy you? I’ve done that with CD track timings over the years but of course for different reasons. For example, in my days as a radio presenter, looking for a unit that provided the two minutes and fifty-five seconds necessary to complete a show on schedule was part of the business of broadcasting. But other reasons were based on taste as much as technicality. With full respects to the extended explorations of a John Coltrane or a Keith Jarrett, I wonder whether brevity may still sometimes be the soul of jazz wit. Older generations of jazz critics than mine revered seventy-eight records - three-minute universities of concentrated musical philosophy, which also tacitly proposed the idea that if you couldn’t get your statement across within such a time-span, you might just possibly be going on a bit. This was just one reason why I liked the look of Chris Hodgkins’s brand-new solo album - its longest track all of four minutes and forty-two seconds, and its shortest clocking in at just two minutes and twenty-four. Looking left from timings to titles produced more optimistic outlooks - a musical menu remarkable for diversity, judgment and a likeable, though not obsessive, preoccupation with world class Jazz composer-arrangers who just happen to be British. This collection, remarkably, celebrates the works of Alison Rayner, Henry Lowther, Diane McLoughlin, Eddie Harvey, Kathy Dyson, Rowland Sutherland, Humphrey Lyttelton and Lennon and McCartney as well as Rodgers and Hart, Sahib Shihab, Neil Sedaka, Horace Gerlach and Louis Armstrong among many others, all within the compact space of sixty five minutes and twenty-two seconds.
These good thoughts and decisions, of course, are the creation of this album's mastermind - Chris Hodgkins, jazz trumpeter. lt's necessary to add the last two words because since 1985, Chris has occupied a separate high profile position in our music’s establishment - as director of Jazz Services Ltd., the organisation which formalizes shapes and enhances the activities of Britain’s jazz scene. For his work in this area alone, Chris should, in future years. find himself lining up for inclusion in some eminent honours lists. Because before he got to work hewing out a recognizable working landscape for our music just over twenty years ago, British jazz was both uncharted and unprotected territory. For musicians who bravely take on such causes, however there is often a backlash that the music they play is put on hold in favour of the other causes. Many eminent jazz performers who have diversified into other areas, writing or broadcasting for example have found their musical image and aspirations defocusing - simply because they’re doing something else rather than just playing and making records.
This won't happen to Chris Hodgkins however, not least because recording has formed a major focus of his recent activities. And even though it’s several years since he travelled the British jazz roads as a professional trumpeter, I know that my old friend has lost not one wit of passion for his instrument. His daily practice routines as well as an absorbed interest in the science of trumpet-playing, would put many more eminent professionals to shame. And in recent years his playing has achieved new heights. Chris Hodgkins, trumpeter, can and does surprise any audience lucky enough to hear him with the kind of multi-faceted concept which can move anywhere from the angry heat of a Roy Eldridge to the mid-period delicacy of a harmon-muted Miles Davis.
You can hear all of these moods and more on this CD, which, as with his first, features just three players - the leader, Max Brittain (one of Britain’s premier-league guitarists) and bassist Alison Rayner (a founder member of the Guest Stars and regular player for Deirdre Cartwright, the Vortex Foundation Big Band and The Emma Peel Fan Club). In short –The Chris HodgkinsTrio. To ensure that an album with such minimal staffing maintains its interest, you need skills, inspiration and diversity. All of them present and more than correct here, from the opening delicate calypso-waltz Sweet William by Rayner. Full Count shows off Chris’s harmon-muted sound at its most attacking (Candoli and Eldridge combined!), underpinned by Rayner’s full-toned acoustic bass and followed by Brittain in the kind of vivacious work which springs from him at every solo opportunity. Breaking Up Is Hard To Do, introduced by Chris’s poised open-horn, breaks later into a small masterpiece of three-piece scoring as the bridge recurs. And note the trumpet and bass counterpoint at the coda - chamber-jazz at its most refined. Eddie Harvey’s Grey Skies 9A Song For February) - based on guess which concept-related chord changes by one I. Berlin Esq! -offers concluding choruses recalling (like Phalanges later) the Braff-Barnes Quartet. And his Where’s Trog? (in title and conception a friendly nod to old colleagues and friends Wally Fawkes and Humphrey Lyttelton) is, again, trio jazz at its most crafted and ingenious. Henry Lowther’s No Silence in the Lamb has Hannibal Hodgkins in harmon-mode again, changing to cup a few tracks later for the nimble Lytteltonian double Mezzrow/Mezz’s Tune and demonstrating in the process his trio’s concern with fine points of tone-colour and mood. Here There And Everywhere, like the expansive Taking a Chance on Love (listen to Rayner’s outstanding bass solo!), and the yearning If We Ever Meet Again - an Armstrong-Gerlach delice, all feature the leader’s expansive open-horn. And how many groups could willingly move from such mainstream performances as these to the bustling modernity of Urban Cowboy or the considered dignity of the Overture from Telemann’s Water Music (arranged by Henry Lowther)? To finish, Chris’s own Swinging at the Copper Beech brings back joyful echoes of Buck Clayton as this collection cruises home along the mainstream freeway. Chris Hodgkins’s second solo album is done and dusted. And according to my scorecard, that’s two sets to love!