17 May 2018 Debut album release concert, The Jazz Bar, Edinburgh

Photograph and Review by F Mactaggart.

This rare concert from curiously monikered electro-acoustic jazz band with a difference, Sugarworks, is to be celebrated. Four illuminati of the Scottish jazz scene, each known for their musical accomplishments and interests stretching deeply into and beyond jazz. Led by pianist, composer and producer, Mancunian Paul Harrison, who composed most of the tunes aired tonight, the three year old quartet present their eponymous debut album in this popular subterranean Edinburgh jazz venue.

Based in Glasgow where he teaches on the jazz degree course at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Harrison has also long been active in some of the country’s most interesting and diverse music projects: the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, McFall’s Chamber Orchestra, Simon Thacker’s Ritmata (highly crafted world music), Trio Magico (presenting the life-enhancing music of Egberto Gismonti) and club-friendly electronics- drums duo, Herschel 36.

It is often the case across Scotland’s central belt that musicians collaborate across musical genres, so it is no surprise to learn that Sugarwork’s members have played together in other Scottish bands. Thus drummer, percussionist, composer and producer Stuart Brown like Harrison plays in the last three of the above listed bands, his knowledge of non-western musical styles, added to dub-wise sensibility and a facility with electronica, having led also to work with esteemed names such as David Byrne, Gilad Atzmon and Sun Ra Arkestra’s Dave Gordon.

Meanwhile Aberdeen born guitarist, composer and teacher Graeme Stephen is celebrated on both folk and jazz music circuits with multiple collaborations, and also has his own Graeme Stephen Trio, which will be appearing in this July’s Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival (EJBF).  Over the years Stephen has demonstrated his considerable axeman chops in many collaborations, including with Aidan O’Rourke, Julian Arguelles and Seb Rochford, whilst more recently his talent has manifested in soundtrack composition, for 1920s German horror films.

The fourth member of the band, one-time psychiatrist and latter day tenor saxophonist, composer and teacher Phil Bancroft, like all the Sugarworkers a stalwart of the Scottish jazz scene and perhaps particularly renowned for Trio AAB, has likewise over the years collaborated with many illustrious musicians, Sun Ra, Kenny Wheeler and Thomas Stronen to mention a few. Like Stephen, Bancroft will present his own band, the Phil Bancroft Quartet, at this July’s EJBF.

Tonight we benefit from Harrison’s, indeed all the band members’ musical peripateses, and there is certainly a lot packed into this concert. Following a high energy introductory improvisation which gives notice of the band’s love of complex time signatures, with Stephen rocking some tasty high speed guitar figures, the first composed piece ‘The Cradle’ is introduced by Harrison. An intriguing piece with Harrison’s Hammond organ sound featuring prominently, it eased the gig into an increasingly Sun Ra feel.

Next came Harrison’s ‘After The Forest, The Sky’, one of the highlights of the evening. Dark, foreboding chords from Harrison are overtaken by an explosion of percussion from Brown, the latter continuing at drum machine speed over Bancroft’s stately sax motif. Electronica pops and crackles complement Brown’s fizzing percussion then, as dense forest gives way to open sky, abruptly transfigures to lovely slow piano with Bancroft’s singing sax joining in lush and lyrical, achieving a gorgeous and peaceful coda.

Similarly ‘That Strange Summer’ is electronics heavy with good effect. Opening with meditative sax, this cinematic piece crescendos with forbidding slowness, all shimmering cymbals and tentative guitar gestures hinting at fears unspoken. When it comes, the harsh and tempestuous denouement is a relief.

The final tune pre-interval is ‘Spiral Confection’. With a funky drums opener, electronic keyboard grows steadily as, drums now skittering, the guitar takes quiet lead with sax overlying brief phrases, before – just when we are lured into anticipating ‘a happy ending’ – a rambunctious, distorted guitar finale.

After the interval we are treated to a short improvisation from Harrison, then a new piece for full quartet, ‘When’. With sax prominent, it is loud and fast, calling people back from the bar. Following this is the very free feeling ‘Watching Life’. With a nice groove and more ‘Lost in Space’-evoking electronica, this one ended peacefully, leading comfortably into Graeme’s charming, methodically – paced ‘Goodbye Hello’. This piece starts and ends quietly, with intervening lyrical sax meandering and meditative guitar.

The concert ends on a prolonged high with Harrison’s magnificent (and interestingly named) ‘Astralgia’, replete with electronica and psychedelia. Brown clearly reveling in the freedom of his array of percussion instruments, whilst guitar and sax perform a  graceful dance, all on top of a inexorable, building electronic beat: this feels like rich, beat-led improvisation, which to this reviewer’s taste is the best kind of composition.

Reportedly keen not to replicate established tropes in the jazz fusion genre and perhaps something of an iconoclast, Harrison has succeeded in producing something a bit different: recognisably jazz in terms of harmonies and improvisation, but with additional electronica, with band members (save, I think, for saxophonist Bancroft) at times manipulating their sound electronically in real time.

Thus in essence this is edgy, dark-tinged electro-acoustic jazz, close to but not quite ‘jazz-fusion’. Harrison is to be congratulated for aiming for new musical territory. The truism bears repeating that refusing to replicate that which already exists, is surely the greatest form of creativity. And with a band of this calibre, the journey is likely to be as fascinating as the destination.

With one more album debut concert booked for Glasgow and an appearance at this July’s Manchester Jazz Festival, it is hoped that both jazz and electronic club audiences will appreciate the sweetness of Sugarwork’s invigorating, mature and virtuosic music.


Sugarwork’s CD is released on 1 June 2018   

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