Aquarium: Aquarium (2011)
Aquarium's self-titled debut is strong on melody and displays a welcome combination of ability and enthusiasm from each of the London-based quartet's members. Led by pianist Sam Leak, a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music, who formed Aquarium in 2008, he's an inventive composer, crafting tunes that enable the quartet to stretch out while retaining a strong central themean approach that puts Aquarium in that sector of the jazz scene occupied by similarly creative young bands like the Kit Downes Sextet (which includes Aquarium saxophonist James Allsopp and bassist Calum Gourlay) and the Kairos 4tet.
Leak and Allsoppwho is featured strongly on tenor saxophone and bass clarinetare a formidable duo. Allsopp is initially the more noticeable player, particularly on bass clarinet, while Leak is the more nuanced and less demonstrative of the two; it's a balanced and winning combination. There's some terrific interplay, too, between Gourlay and drummer Joshua Blackmore.
"The Treasure Chest" has touches of John Coltrane's spirituality about it, thanks in particular to Allsopp's tenor saxophone. "Sleek" is more playful, centered on a funky groove from Blackmore's drums, and featuring some honking saxophone from Allsopp. "Shy" is a sedate, calm, and rather melancholy tune. "Shades of Grey" also exudes calmness, albeit of a more romantic hue. Leak and Blackmore are at their most delicate here and Gourlay's bass solo is warm and sensual. There are times on "Evensong" and "The Treasure Chest" when the band seems to lose direction and sounds a little hesitant. But those moments, though starkly apparent, are brief.
"Shades of Grey (featuring Rhiannon Bradbury)" is not simply a reprise of "Shades of Grey" with added vocals. It is instead a reinterpretation of the tune, performed as a duet between Leak's piano and Bradbury's voice. Leak plays sparingly, emphasizing the lower register of the instrument, as Bradbury sings her own lyrics. She sings beautifully, with occasional vocal inflections that are reminiscent of Kate Bush. In her lower register Bradbury sounds controlled and mature. In her upper register she's a little edgier, with a childlike quality. The result is instantly appealing.
Aquarium is yet another indication of the strength of talent to be found among the younger generation of British jazz musicians. These four players already show a musical maturity beyond their years on this impressive debut. The potential that they also display is possibly even more exciting.
Track Listing: Strangers; Grasshopper; Evensong; Shades of Grey; Pisa Rain; The Treasure Chest; Shy; Sleek; Shades of Grey (featuring Rhiannon Bradbury).
Personnel: Sam Leak: piano; James Allsopp: bass clarinet, tenor saxophone; Calum Gourlay: bass; Josh Blackmore: drums; Rhiannon Bradbury: vocals (9).
Record Label: Babel Label