Gaya Music Productions
Reviewed by Toby Wren, February 1st, 2015
Alex Stuart is an Australian guitarist who has been living and performing in Paris for a number of years. I am not sure how he is received in Europe, but his work makes an interesting counterpoint to Australian jazz as a geographically distant but highly relevant exponent of contemporary jazz guitar playing and composition. Having a keen interest in jazz guitar, I was surprised that I had not heard of him before now, and his work no doubt deserves wider recognition. His guitar playing itself is lithe and aggressively spontaneous, mediating the kind of rhythmic attack of Wayne Krantz with the sound and technical wizardry of James Muller. The ensemble is made up of local French musicians, none of whom are familiar to me, yet who deftly negotiate Stuart’s often complex compositions, creating a cohesive and satisfying ensemble sound.
On the recent Place to Be (2014) we find a balance of the improvisational and the compositional. Stuart has a distinctive and varied approach to developing compositional materials, and of balancing the contributions of his collaborators. The tunes are all distinctively different and yet give us a cohesive vision which fits well alongside the work of such players such as Muller, Quentin Angus, and Gilad Hekselmann, while asserting its own character.
The album begins with Little Black Lion, an introspective but insistent riff in a 9 beat cycle. An idiomatic figure inspired by classical guitar techniques is played on overdriven guitar, gradually giving weight to overlapping saxophone solos. Stuart patiently supplies the accompaniment for the track, preferring to introduce his band members. The next track Viet Crew provides a quasi-tropical infectious groove overlaid with Stuart’s characteristic approach to rhythm, an approach which includes incorporation of distinctive figures that sit in odd relation to the beat, creating a fresh and appealing sound. Stuart takes his first solo of the album, and reveals in a microcosm many of the influences which are more broadly (and potentially more convincingly) realised at the composition level: sure there are jazz guitar influences, bebop, rock, and the blues, but there are also touches of Indian ornamentation and unconventional tempo relations that create a level of detail that rewards repeated listening.
The title track, Place to Be, demonstrates many of his concerns. It begins with a rapid arpeggiated ostinato, which becomes the bedrock for weaving saxophone counter-melodies and improvisations by Irving Acao and Stephane Guillame. The instrumental roles are reversed for the guitar solos, with the saxophone performing a variation on the ostinato while the guitar solos, creating a fascinating and intricate texture which is as satisfying as it is unexpected. There is plenty of dynamic and textural interplay in the ensemble, as well as some fascinating rhythmic interpolations. Stuart’s bluesy solo, on a solid-body instrument replete with delay and overdrive, is brief but sets the scene for what follows, a synthesis of blues, rock, bebop and more contemporary sounds. The same distinctive voice is present in the ballad Pour Vous. The song demonstrates a different side to the ensemble, yet it is bristling with rock attitude, threatening at several points to relent and become a rock song, yet always returning to the minimalistic and emotive opening theme.
Place to Be is another fascinating episode by Alex Stuart, that gives us a more refined and potentially more restrained artistic vision than demonstrated on his previous album. The restraint does not translate to a lack of interest however, but rather a different facet of a distinctive musical personality, one that delights in its unfolding.