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Yatra is one of the most significant UK jazz releases of the year

Neame’s compositions are relentlessly inventive and his eventful and colourful arrangements a constant source of fascination to the listener.

The rise and rise of Ivo Neame has been one of the big success stories of British jazz over the last few years. A versatile multi instrumentalist Neame played alto sax in vibraphonist Jim Hart’s group Gemini before deciding to concentrate his attentions on the piano. Since then he’s become one of the most in demand pianists on the scene and has been associated with two of the most popular and commercially successful (in relative terms) British based contemporary jazz groups of recent times bassist Jasper Hoiby’s Phronesis and saxophonist Adam Waldmann’s Kairos 4tet. He’s also worked with the emerging Norwegian saxophone star Marius Neset’s Golden Xplosion band and trumpeter Rory Simmons’ ensemble Fringe Magnetic and appeared as a sideman with rising star saxophonists Josh Arcoleo and Trish Clowes. Neame is also an adept accompanist to adventurous vocalists such as Brigitte Beraha, Kaz Simmons and Elisa Caleb.

A founder member of North London’s Loop Collective Neame is a very busy man and his solo career has sometimes taken something of a back seat. His début solo recording, a fairly run of the mill piano trio session “Swirls And Eddies” (Loop Records, 2007) showed a degree of potential but it was not until Neame made the switch to Edition Records and expanded the group to a quartet with the addition of Hart on vibes that he really began to hit his stride. “Caught In The Light Of Day” was packed with complex, inventive, tightly knit compositions superbly played by a quartet of Neame, Hart, Hoiby and drummer James Maddren. It represented a massive leap forward and was a good representation of Neame’s mature style.

Now aged thirty Neame seems to have had no difficulty in successfully expanding his ideas with new album “Yatra” featuring nine similarly distinctive pieces for an octet featuring no fewer than four horn players and comprising of Tori Freestone (flute/tenor sax), Jon Shenoy (clarinet), Jason Yarde (alto sax), Shabaka Hutchings (bass clarinet) plus Hart (vibes), Hoiby (bass) and new drummer Dave Hamblett. Neame himself plays piano and accordion and also doubles on clarinet and alto sax. I saw a scaled down version of this group (Neame, Hart, Freestone, Hoiby, Hamblett) give a successful performance of some of this material at Dempsey’s in Cardiff earlier in the year.
The album, with its extended instrumental palette and crystal clear production (by Neame and Matt Robertson), sounds even better and is undoubtedly one of the most significant UK jazz releases of the year.

The album begins with the title track, “Yatra”, meaning “Journey” or “Pilgrimage” in Hindu and it’s an appropriate title given the dense, circuitous nature of Neame’s writing. “Yatra” the tune is typically knotty and complex but Neame still loves improvisation and despite the tricky nature of the ensemble passages he still gives his soloists plenty of room to stretch out. The title tune includes vibrant solos from Freestone and himself alongside a dazzling set piece that features the four horns exchanging buzzing, darting, serpentine lines. Neame’s background as a multi instrumentalist has helped greatly with his composition, he has played the horns he writes for – “I knew the instruments and knew the registers that would work” he explains. No arguments there, the ensemble writing on the title track and elsewhere is little short of sensational.

“Charm Defensive” is less frenetic but no less absorbing, slowly unfolding to reveal richly purring horn voicings above undulating rhythms with Freestone’s flute a distinctive element. Solo honours go to Hutchings who delivers a frequently stunning statement on bass clarinet, the spirit of Eric Dolphy lives on. Hart adds the eerie sounds of bowed vibes to the concluding section.

The resurrection theme of the film “Robocop” was the inspiration behind “American Jesus”, a tune that also forms part of the Phronesis repertoire. Here the piece is a very different beast with Neame’s accordion giving it a paradoxically European feel. Freestone’s flute solo is bright and airy, floating above the buzz and drone of Neame’s accordion and the patter of Hamblett’s drums. However this being a Neame composition there’s much more going on as the tune ebbs and flows with the composer subsequently switching to piano to deliver a statement of his own. There’s some rousing ensemble playing too.

Neame loves puns and wordplay and “That Syncing Feeling” boasts a typically playful title. It would seem that the title is a reference to modern technology rather than a play on the difficulties of synchronising so many different musical instruments. The tune is slow and dreamlike with a gentle Latin inflected rhythm and with Hoiby emerging as the featured soloist, his tone rich and rounded and extraordinarily fluent.

“Owl Of Me” presents yet another play on words and on my first glance at the cover I suspected that it may turn out to be a heavily disguised version of a famous jazz standard. Instead it’s an original composition that incorporates something of the madcap feel of a piece by Django Bates, a musician Neame has named as an influence. With Neame again on accordion there’s a woozy,circus like feel to the opening exchanges with Yarde eventually emerging from the chaos to deliver an incisive alto solo. Neame and Hoiby also excel on a piece that’s a long way removed from the cosy territory of the jazz standard.

“Unseen Coracle” features some of Neame’s best and most challenging ensemble writing but punctuates this with a delightful duet between the composer on piano and Hart on vibes. Hart also excels on the ensuing solo as Hamblett and Hoiby join in. It’s the vibraphonist’s first chance to truly shine despite being an essential component of the overall ensemble sound.

The simmering “Moody” sometimes lives up to its title with Neame providing a pensive passage of solo piano before entering into tentative dialogue with Hart and Hamblett and subsequently the horns. It’s edgy and nervy and subsequently comes to the boil in a ferment of interlocking horns before Neame turns down the heat once more.

“Heart Murmers” is the closest the album comes to a ballad with its rich, warm textures and noirish, after hours feel. Freestone’s lush toned tenor and Hart’s vibes are the stand out voices on a typically sophisticated piece of writing.

The album ends with the insistent grooves and and colourful horn solos and interplay of “Puppet Show Theme”. Like all the pieces on the record it’s full of incident and ends this superb album on an upbeat note.

Mere words cannot express just how full of ideas this album is. Harmonically and rhythmically Neame’s compositions are relentlessly inventive and his eventful and colourful arrangements a constant source of fascination to the listener. New aspects jump out with each fresh listening. The ensemble passages are precise but always sound bright and fresh and the soloing by the cream of young British jazz musicians is never less than excellent. At the end of the day this is a supreme team effort with each member of the octet fulfilling their role brilliantly but at the heart of it all is Ivo Neame – soloing, supporting, embellishing,comping. His performance, allied to his writing and arranging skills make “Yatra” a triumph. This is complex but never “difficult” music, perhaps a little too busy and cerebral for some, but certain to be appreciated by most discerning and adventurous jazz listeners. Highly recommended.

Oh yes, and if you’ve ever wondered (as I did) if he’s related to the Shepherd Neame brewing dynasty the answer is yes. Makes him even more of a top man in my book.

– Ian Mann, the Jazz Mann jazz blog 24/09/12