There doesn’t seem to be much love for the bass in British jazz these days. The lynchpin of jazz rhythm is conspicuously absent on many recent recordings: witness those by Vole, Tatterdemalion, and the recently-reviewed Barbacana (all on Babel Label), Dan Nicholls’ Ruins (Loop), and now Human, a new quartet assembled by Irish-born Stephen Davis.
Davis is the group’s drummer and principal composer, with Alexander Hawkins on piano, Alex Bonney on trumpet and Dylan Bates (the Brother of Human Chain’s Django) on violin.
Being Human (Babel), the group’s recorded debut, lasts little over half an hour, and is rich in dynamic variation. In an all-acoustic lineup, the lack of bass makes for a relatively middleweight sound, but Human still packs a punch, with most of the album’s six pieces raising plenty of friction: not least the title track, the first of two group improvisations, on which Davis really drums up some heat.
Hawkins plays the changes from almost-there abstractions to choppy, boldly chordal emphases indebted to Cecil Taylor, and he knits superbly with Davis, who likewise modulates intensities with aplomb.
It’s in the airy silences enfolding the more measured performances that the quartet’s distinctive textures cut through. Bonney is masterfully subtle throughout, while Bates’ inflections elide church and folk forms with lissome grace when not burning with astringent intensity.
“Little Particles”, well-named, is a nuanced meditation for muted trumpet and violin accompanied by the most delicate of percussive touches from kit peripherals and inside piano; its resolution, with a soft burr of trumpet fleshing out the violin’s attenuated threnody is sublime until Hawkins imposes a lulling melody which Davis, on brushes, bolsters with a gentle pulse.
For the most part, though, Human play heady, vividly animated music with a dizzying sense of freedom. Witness “I am Planet”, playfully skittish at first, but ending on a collectively fired-up accelerando; and “Cartagena”, a snappy, fiercely propulsive tumble to which Hawkins adds a boogie feel (though Bates, in a cheeky, fleeting intervention, suggests a hoedown alternative).