Released on 25th April on F-ire Presents, the John Martin Quartet's Dawning is their debut album. Like everything that seems to emerge from the renowned Artesuono Studios in Ucline, Italy, it is outstandingly beautifully recorded. However, as will emerge here, this is far from the only aspect of this album that is outstanding or beautiful.
Dawning is a delightful surprise in many ways. For a start, it continues the trend to prove that contemporary jazz can be, and indeed mostly is these days, remarkably accessible and beautiful yet remaining meaningful and solidly grounded in the tradition and without having to 'dumb down.' That such an album should emerge from such a youthful and relatively new band (they started playing together barely two years ago) makes Dawning all the more of a delight.
Then, there is John Martin himself and his quartet. Martin emerges here as a remarkably mature player and composer - all eight tracks are his own - with a beautifully consistent, warm, chocolaty-velvety smooth voice on both tenor and soprano, as well as as a remarkably fluid, inspired improviser who is completely at ease and letting go with remarkable panache and invention. In both the composed and improvised elements thoughtful, inspired melody is at the heart of things, and the interaction between both composed and improvised elements on the one hand and Martin and his rhythm section on the other is always supple, subtle and fluid as well as inspirational rather than purely idea-based.
Martin's rhythm section of Jonjo Grisdale on ivories, Tim Fairhall on bass, and Andy Ball on drums is also nothing short of remarkable. Grisdale's and Fairhall's improvs are as supple and subtle as Martin's own, and the ensemble playing is just incredible. Ball's trap work is always sensitive and contributes considerably to the cohesiveness of the ensemble. Indeed, it seems almost incomprehensible that such an empathic and youthful quartet should have been playing together for a mere couple of years.
With melody always strongly at the heart of it all, the music is often built around African-inspired grooves that in themselves prove irresistible. The often complex odd time meters are handled with great aplomb, and together with the often likewise complex harmonies - sometimes reminiscent of Brad Mehldau - add further to the interest and charm of Dawning. Influences of among others early Keith Jarrett are as discernible as those of Wayne Shorter, but never dominate.
As seems to be the case quite often with F-ire releases, the cover of Dawning might be quite at home on the ECM label. For all that however, it works very well indeed, being based on original artwork which in turn was inspired by the music. (Although, for me at least, the music evokes mostly cool, relaxing tones of blues and cyans rather than the 'hotter' and more agitated dominant yellows and oranges of the artwork.) And as a further boon it comes in a double gatefold rather than the ghastly jewel case that ought never to have been invented in the first place.
While there are occasional moments of the slightest hints of tentativeness, overall Dawning is a remarkably cohesive and coherent album, as consistent as one could wish for from the first bar to the last of these satisfyingly meaty eight tracks. And while this is extremely sophisticated music, it is also pervaded by a refreshing sincerity and honesty. There isn't the merest hint of pretense to be found here. Dawning is far more than just compelling - it is mesmerising, full of beauty, charm and wit.
The John Martin Quartet should go far and is definitely one to look out for. Martin and Grisdale in particular are players of enormous promise that should see them right at the top of the British scene in no time. You need to hear this music for yourself! Dawning is one of the most fascinating and beautiful releases of the year so far, and it's a quite stunning debut effort for such a young group of musicians. The F-ire collective have done themselves proud again!
Indeed, I have no hesitation in saying that the John Martin Quartet's Dawning should be considered an essential addition to any good contemporary jazz collection. I certainly wouldn't be without my copy anymore, it's a firm favourite here already.
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