Alex Merritt Quartet
Apparently “Annatta’ is a concept drawn from the Buddhist tradition, referring to 'a moment of awakening, whereby one can come to realise the illusory nature of self.’ Alex Merritt has assembled a formidable band of musical heavyweights for this release, and includes among his avowed influences such determinedly highbrow classical composers Bela Bartok, Alban Berg and Henri Dutilleux, alongside the more commonly referenced tenor titans Coltrane and Henderson.
If this sounds rather uncompromisingly high-concept, the inclusion of tracks titled ‘Justin Time-berlake” and “Conn Artist” suggest that Merritt isn’t averse to a spot of humour; and his choice of a couple of Thelonious Monk’s most lyrical pieces give an indication of his connection to the tradition’s more accessible side. “Conn Artist” has an abstract, Dolphy-style theme, but Merritt’s solo exploration manages to include expressions of his admiration for such melodists as Warne Marsh, and even a hint of Sonny Rollin’s perennial “Oleo”, while still sounding convincingly contemporary. “For Peter Schat” successfully marries the exhilarating rush of Tynerish post-bop with the cerebral austerity of classical chromaticism, with pianist John Turville demonstrating an impressive combination of swing, technique and imagination. Elsewhere bassist Sam Lasserson is by turns adventurous and creative in his interpretations of the difficult structures of the originals, and tastefully supportive on the unexpectedly and wholly enjoyably straight-ahead reading of Eubie Blakes’s ‘Memories of You”; his solo feature on ‘Justin Time-berlake’ demonstrates why he’s rapidly becoming the first call player for sessions requiring a solid understanding of the tradition, and a willingness to reach beyond it.
Merritt’s playing is a delight throughout, his tone light and airy but with enough bite to deliver on the more intense passages. His solos often ascend effortlessly up into the higher registers, and are full of melodic content – more so on occasion than his own compositional themes, such as ‘Annatta” itself, the emotional intent of which is rather difficult to assess. There’s an intriguing blend of influences at work, from the intensity of the 20th century conservatoire to the sunny West coast swing of Stan Getz and Harold Land, and the strength of this release should mark Merritt as a man to watch out for in the future. Let’s hope he continues to partner with drummer Jeff Williams; the UK-based American veteran is the perfect match for this band, and his playing inspires and elevates throughout.
Alex Merritt, tenor saxophone; John Turville, piano; Sam Lasserson, bass; Jeff Williams, drums.