SOMETIMES it pays to step back and remember that the kaleidoscope of UK jazz has many focal points beyond the frequently illuminated London scene.
There’s the Worm Disc massive in Bristol, Ishmael Ensemble and all; the Gondwana northern powerhouse of Matthew Halsall; Brighton’s Sola Terra (home of Ebi Soda, etc.) and Mammal Hands lurking in the far eastern flatlands around Norwich.
Now another connection is being added to that extending network as new music comes shooting down the jazz superhighway from Scotland, led by drummer/composer Graham Costello and his seismic collective STRATA.
Their first full-length release, Obelisk, rattled the senses and rumbled the earphones back in 2019 with its newform, big band post-rock; and now coming over the horizon is the follow-up, Second Lives, which was released on May 7th on the highly revered home of nu-jazz, Gearbox.
The switch to a new label marks a step up for the band and it also coincides with a giant leap in their music. Obelisk may have laid down STRATA’s foundations, big arrangements and dynamic variation, but it still clung to the dependable impact of vibrant soloing and upfront virtuosity. Second Lives is something else altogether.
The scene is set on the new record with an introduction of suspended variations sketched out on Fergus McCreadie’s pensive piano followed by, “Eudaimonia”, a tune that gently rises over a pulse of throbbing single notes from the band. Suddenly in a sunrise moment the track bursts open, Costello’s cymbal led jetstream whipping around the other players’ exploration of a minimal note pattern. It’s an opening that points to STRATA’s dedication to a powerful orchestral focus on Second Lives, with Costello’s compositions the centre of attention.
This concentration on how ‘we sound as one’ is most evident on the rampaging, crescendo-driven tracks on this album. “Legion” may kick off with some frenetic funk rhythms from Costello and Harry Weir’s vibrantly unhinged sax skronking but as the big stomping single blasts from the rest of band build, the track hits overdrive. Similarly “Arrowhead” might begin with flighty new wave guitar rhythm clicks; but before long the whole band are delivering a unified surge of riff-driven intensity.
It’s during these full-on soundscapes that STRATA reveal their intuitive understanding of the staple post-rock loud/quiet interface. “Ataraxia” shifts deftly from jangling piano urgency to rising tides of brass and back again. The band repeat that control and grasp of tension on “The Colossus”, a tune that advances ominously on the listener over its six-minute march, pursuing a final showdown as relentlessly as The Comet Is Coming. Like that trio STRATA show that they can rein in the exhaustion to get somewhere ultimately exhilarating – it’s a stunner.
Despite all this dynamism you’d be wrong to think of Second Lives as all bombast and no balance. The deep-pooled beauty of “Iris” and “Snowblind”, which reverberates around Joe Williamson’s guitar, both extend beyond being just interludes; they have their own significance. Similarly the slowly evolving ambience of “Circularity” unwinds majestically into a shimmering presentation of spiritual jazz, whilst “Impetu” fuses a highlife bounce and some pure rock heft with the same bravado as those early Neil Cowley releases in the noughties.
So, sensitive variation and purposeful inventiveness runs through the grooves of Second Lives all the way to the closing title track’s delicately unravelling piano, which floats on a breeze of emotive harmonics and a hymnal melodic swell. It’s a theme tune that whispers hope and like the rest of the music on the album leaves a sense of resolution.
For a record that Costello says was rooted in reflections on personal resilience and identity, you sense that Second Lives has an enduring quality because STRATA know who they are: makers of energised modern jazz music for the world today and who thrive on the challenges of that responsibility.
Graham Costello/STRATA’s Second Lives is out now digitally, on CD and on vinyl from Gearbox Records; you can order your copy here.