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James Arben A to Z

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Reviews of James Arben A to Z

 

06/10/2008 Blue Note Records

"These guys play very well, they have chops, taste, restraint, and a nice compositional sense, as well as a refreshing attention to detail - they are great players and they have something special as a group" Blue Note Records

 

03/10/2008 Ian Mann

A to Z is an exciting young band co-led by James Arben (reeds) and Italian guitarist Fabio Zambelli. In an unusual bass-less line up they are joined by Joe Stilgoe on keyboards and drummer Lawrence Lowe. “Look Right” also features guest appearances from a clutch of other young rising stars of the British scene including Loop Collective members Jim Hart (vibes), Rory Simmons (trumpet) and Dave Smith (percussion). Chris Hill’s contribution to “Cinque Piante” marks the only orthodox bass on the record.
Arben and Zambelli are graduates of London’s Guildhall School of Music. They have also studied in New York with trumpeter Ralph Alessi among others. Although clearly influenced by 70’s funk and fusion the pair have come up with a vivid and refreshingly contemporary take on the genre. Splitting the composing duties pretty much equally (Zambelli contributes five tunes, Arben four) their colourful writing and use of unusual time signatures ensures that they maintain the listener’s interest and avoid the usual clichés. For all this the music is highly accessible, full of strong melodies, hooks and grooves. The lack of bass is not a problem, Stilgoe’s churning Hammond takes care of the groove in something of a scene stealing performance.
The group start as they mean to go on with Zambelli’s attention grabbing opener “Last Call To New York”. The initial funk groove gives way to a more obviously bebop inspired central section with inventive solos from both Arben and Zambelli. Stilgoe’s Hammond groove and Lowe’s crisp energetic drumming drives their colleagues forward before the funk element returns and Stilgoe takes flight. Throughout the album Zambelli consistently strikes the right balance between rhythm and lead, sometimes soloing brightly, at other times providing choppy funk grooves.
Also from the pen of Zambelli comes “Night In Greenwich”, a modal tune with a suitable after hours atmosphere. Zambelli’s guitar is featured in dialogue with Stilgoe’s Rhodes and Arben’s flute. It’s an attractive tune, inspired in part by the music of Herbie Hancock, a good choice of role model by anybody’s standards.
Arben’s writing début comes with “Sabar” which features a guest appearance from Dave Smith on African percussion. Smith and Lowe are featured in something of percussion discussion. Elsewhere the main theme is complex but memorable, full of tricky time signatures and interlocking horn and guitar lines.
Zambelli’s “Cinque Pianti” explores similar territory and was written after Arben and Zambelli’s New York visit. Guest trumpeter Rory Simmons is featured to good effect, probably fulfilling a role originally intended for Ralph Alessi. There is some powerful soloing from Arben too. Like it’s immediate predecessor the piece has an edgy, urgent, unmistakably urban feel to it.
“Hell’s Bell’s”by Arben is gentler than it’s title might suggest, with the composer’s light and airy flute dancing around Zambelli’s gently chiming guitar. Only with the advent of Stilgoe’s Hammond solo does the tune move into more groove oriented territory.
Arben’s lengthy “Song For Hannah” ranges from ruminative saxophone to grooving Hammond in a fascinatingly textured piece that has far too much going on to qualify it as a ballad as the title might suggest. Nevertheless it’s a fine piece of writing which consistently holds the interest.
Zambelli’s “Utah” draws it’s inspiration from the work US guitarist John Abercrombie. It features the dazzling vibes of guest Jim Hart alongside the composer’s guitar as Lowe handles the complex rhythms with ease.
The title of Arben’s “Ryan’s Ballad” is a nod to the sessions the band run at Ryan’s Bar in London’s Stoke Newington district. Musically it takes it’s cue from film composers such as Ennio Morricone and Nino Rota. The co-leaders both feature extensively and effectively on yet another winning tune.
The closing “The Chase” from the pen of Arben is the track that pays the most conscious homage to 70’s funk, again taking the music of Herbie Hancock as it’s inspiration. Lowe’s sturdy funk backbeat provides the bedrock for fiery solos from Arben and Zambelli and he also gets the chance to shine himself in a series of drum breaks.. It’s a stirring way to finish the album and something of a live favourite I suspect.
A to Z are to be congratulated on a remarkably mature début. Their intelligent writing and spirited playing breathes new life into an often tired genre. “Look Right” is accessible and easy to enjoy but there is a keen musical intelligence here and a sufficient balance of light and shade to warrant repeated listening. The high technical standards we have come to expect from 33 Records aids the process. It will be interested to see how this talented group of young musicians develops, both individually and collectively.

 

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