Album Review : Maria Grapsa Sextet– Life : The jazz pianist/composer and her band merge melody, power and tradition to break new ground.

The Breakdown

Without doubt Maria Grapsa has got something to say and a singular way of saying it.
Musical Dojo Records 8.8

As we gear up to indulge in all things jazz for next week’s London Jazz fest, here’s a strong reminder that the UK scene itself remains bustling with new talents. The pianist and composer Maria Grapsa together with her sextet has just released a solo debut ‘Life’ via Musical Dojo Records and its some statement.

Athens born Grapsa has been a key contributor in some stellar ensembles over the last couple of years (think NU Civilisation Orchestra/Suede Jazz Collective) plus you may remember her cinematic, latin funk number ‘Under The’ which gathered serious airplay traction for the COLECTIVA sisterhood in 2021. Throughout you get the feeling that Grapsa has been circling and probing, in wait for her moment to step out. Well with the release of ‘Life’ she shows that as a jazz musician and band leader she can more than command the spotlight.

That’s not just a result of her assured musicality but because, without doubt Maria Grapsa has got something to say and a singular way of saying it. ‘Life’ is an emotionally articulate album, one which she says reflects on her own personal journey from early childhood through to academic achievement, a masters in environmental engineering no less. It also resounds from her musical journey, from classical beginnings to a jazz dimension.

It’s fitting then that memories are referenced throughout the album’s concept, from a childhood photo of her sister on the cover to the echoes of Greek folk tunes in the record’s luscious melodics. Her recent paths are also fundamental to the intuitive understandings on ‘Life’ with her sextet drawn primarily from players she has known from her music studies in Birmingham. To introduce we have Matthew Kilner (tenor sax), Liam Brennan (alto and clarinets), Kai Chareunsy (drums), Tommy Fuller (bass) and Becca Wilkins (vocals), all threaded with Brum connections in some way.

Possibly as a result, although ‘Life’ is driven and shaped by Grapsa’s expressive compositions, this is very much a mutually supportive, holistic sound. The band leader is obviously a fine, fluent jazz pianist but the focus here is not on her individually, her ideas are realised in the shape of a committed sextet record. Unsurprising then that ‘Life’ introduces itself with two accomplished whole group instrumentals. The Fundamental Difference features a flowing melody forged by the twin horns over a nimble contemporary post bop swing. Graspa’s defined articulate solo, which shows a clarity and purpose that recalls an emergent Gwilym Simcock, categorically makes some room as the opener progresses. Those locked horn lines feature again in Nothing is Static although this time the band sweep through some impressive dynamic changes from skittering switches between sax and piano, through razor edged bop to a closing bossa tinged sway.

The tracks which feature new scene vocalist Becca Wilkins showcase Grapsa’s real acuity for song writing. Palace On The Hill has an arresting simplicity as it strolls along gorgeously, a love story to a time and place framed by Wilkins’ relaxed but gently yearning voice and her picture painting lyrics. Oh and there’s a heart grabbing hook plus infectious final sway guaranteed to get those summer jazz fest arms waving. Even more stripped back but deceptively moving is Circus Lane that takes the slow glide of a mournful New Orleans street band and achieves something hymnal. The singer’s poetic imagery and Grapsa’s empathic soundtrack are a perfect combination and something to look out for in the future.

That vocal and melodic pairing also add a resonant emotional depth to the deeply affecting lullaby Childhood. The composer’s young nephew brings an excited commentary to introduce this powerful song of innocence lost set to the dramatic melodic curl of traditional Greek folk. From the emotive pairing of Wilkin’s pure voice and Liam Brennan’s sombre clarinet to the whirling urgency whipped up as the other players join, the track maintains a beautifully realised natural momentum.

Clearly this is an album with an in-built flow created by the well-rounded compositions and arrangements that always make space for the musicians to open up. The breath-taking title track captures all of this fluid dynamism in one place. It’s a tune of returning themes and internal stamina with a post-rock underpinning and an air of EST-like tension. Wilkin’s lyrics roll graphically through the metaphors (“eyes on the stars/my feet carve paths/ through the land we call life…”) and the guest input from new sax dynamo Emma Rawicz is understated but no less sensational. As the song gears up into a rumbling Sun Ra scuttle, the Rawicz solo unravels and unwinds through lines that merge mystery with mayhem. Some of those miniscule high notes that she squeezes from her horn are otherworldly.

It’s a characteristic of this impressively assured album that all the embellishments are located with due care and attention. Such an eye for the right detail continues into the final track Ana Back with the twin guitars of Tom Pountney and Torin Davies injecting an electric fizz to this locomotive closer. From cool elegant fills to bluesy rock abstractions, the track motors to the coda, Grapsa pounding out the big riffs until the band stomp home together.

As you step back from ‘Life’ you recognise that this is an album that has drawn its own subtle arc, that’s taken you back and moved you forward, remembering the familiar and finding new ground. The Maria Grapsa Sextet have written excellent first chapter in a story that looks set to run and run.

Get your copy of ‘Life‘ by Maria Grapsa Sextet from your local record store or direct from Maria/ Musical Dojo Records HERE

The Maria Grapsa Sextet play live at The Pizza Express Jazz Club, London on 17th November as part of the London Jazz Festival – Get Tickets HERE

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