London Jazz News – Review

The year in recorded jazz has ended beautifully, for me at least, with the arrival of this album by British band Hexagonal. The music is a 50:50 mix of compositions by pianist McCoy Tyner and multi-instrumentalist Bheki Mseleku. Until you listen to it, you might wonder what these two have in common. It’s a hard question to answer – there is certainly a subtle ‘African’ feel to the album as a whole. But whatever the reason, the combination works wonderfully well – perhaps because unless you are already familiar with the tunes, you’ll be hard put to attribute their individual authorship.

Hexagonal are a sextet, or maybe a sexandahalftet, since the trumpet/flugelhorn slot is divided between Graeme Flowers and Quentin Collins. Pianist John Donaldson has taken on the arrangement duties, and done a fine job of it, teasing out a variety of rich melodies, vibrant harmonies and infectious grooves.

The band is impressively hip, with the collective chops to glide through complex rhythms (e.g. Mseleku’s Angola, Tyner’s Fly with the Wind) and gentle latin grooves (e.g. Mseleku’s Joy) with equal finesse. The latter quality is helped in no small measure by a supple rhythm section – Donaldson, Tristan Banks on drums and Simon Thorpe on the bass. Greg Heath also shines on tenor sax and flute, as does Jason Yarde on alto and bari. Thorpe and Donaldson both toured with Bheki Mseleku, while Yarde has had the ‘pleasure and pressure’ of working with McCoy Tyner, lending a sense of authenticity to these performances.

Stand-out tracks? There aren’t any. They’re all great, without exception. Solos? Likewise: it would be invidious to single any of them out. Let’s just say that in these grim times, the optimism of the music shines through like a shaft of sunlight on a winter’s day.

Although Bheki Mseleku died ten years ago from diabetes, at the time of writing 80-year-old McCoy Tyner is happily still with us, and has New York gigs in the diary for next year. Listening to this album has made me wish he would come to the UK, and soon. Hexagonal don’t seem to have any live dates, but in the meantime we can bathe in the warmth of this beautiful, finely-crafted album.

Peter Jones

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Kind of Jazz – Review

Jazz seems to be seeping back into the mainstream in the UK these days, with many year-end best-of lists mentioning the likes of Kamasi Washington and Sons of Kemet, to name but two. It wasn’t always that way, of course, and for many years, jazz fans joked that the Mercury Prize always had to contain one token jazz artist. In its year of inception – way back in 1992 – U2, Erasure and Simply Red were joined by the debut album by South African pianist, and multi-instrumentalist, Bheki Mseleku. Mseleku arguably never got the recognition he deserved, and only recorded six albums as a leader before he passed away in 2008.

Mseleku made London his home for several years. His touring band included a number of local musicians, including pianist John Donaldson and bass player Simon Thorpe – two of the founding members of Hastings-based jazz band, Hexagonal.

One of the other founding members, saxophonist Jason Yarde, had the “pleasure and pressure” of touring with the legendary pianist, McCoy Tyner. And on their debut album, the band pairs material by both McCoy Tyner and Bheki Mseleku to good effect, with the arrangements courtesy of John Donaldson. The blend works well, in part because Donaldson chooses to highlight Tyner’s more African-influenced compositions, many of which date from his marvellous 1970s recordings.

Joining Donaldon, Thorpe and Yarde are a veritable UK jazz ‘supergroup’; Greg Heath on tenor saxophone and flute, Graeme Flowersand Quentin Collins alternating on trumpet (and flugelhorn) and Tristan Banks on drums.

Then album opens with Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit, which first appeared on Tyner’s 1973 album, Enlightenment. Donaldson’s arrangement’s is slightly less lighter, and less intense than the original, which brings out the beauty of the melody. Ballad For The Saints was a swinging ballad from Mseleku’s 1995 recording, Star Seeding. Donaldon’s playing is beautiful here, and there’s a fine solo by Quentin Collins, too.

Man From Tanganyika was from Tyner’s Blue Note masterpiece, Tender Moments. It’s one of the highlights here, and features an exciting horn arrangement, and superb drumming and percussion from Banks. Fantastic stuff. Joy was the opening track from Mseleku’s debut album. It’s given a more uptempo read here, with Greg Heath shining on flute.

Fly With The Wind has long been one of my favourites by McCoy Tyner, and Hexagonal capture the spirit of the original with a compelling performance that demonstrates that as a band, they are even more than the sum of their considerable parts. My Passion is a delicate ballad by Mseleku, which allows Donaldson’s lyrical piano to shine, before Angola again demonstrates that fantastic horn section.

McCoy and Mseleku is a fine debut in its own right, but it will also have you seeking the originals – in my case, trying to get hold of Bheki Mseleku’s debut album, which somehow escaped my attention. The band write their own material, too, but until that appears on their next album, this is the perfect appetiser.

Matthew Ruddick

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Blues and Soul – Review

There’s an old sports saying ‘form is temporary, class is permanent’ and this can be just as well applied to music, this enterprising outfit, namely Hexagonal, have form (or what I like to call Jazz ‘previous’) and naturally, there’s heaps of class too. It’s an exuberant affair born out of the love and an association these uber talented musicians have with two of jazz’s greatest piano pioneers, McCoy Tyner and Bheki Mseleku.

The opener ‘Walk Spirit Talk Spirit’ kicks off with heavy horn blessedness reigning down on this lilting slow burner of a tune that explodes into fast swing driven imperiously by drummer Tristan Banks, a seductive track that encapsulates this heavyweight collective to a ‘T’. In striking contrast, ‘Ballad of The Saints’ is the polar opposite, a restrained, highly lyrical yet somehow melancholic tune adorned with Flugelhorn (Quentin Collins) that proffers a majestic stillness. The Man From Tanganyika’ a propulsive beauty, is my personal fave, Jason Yarde’s earthy and heavy baritone, Graeme Flowers virtuosic trumpet, Simon Thorpe’s resonant (and set in granite) double bass topped off with a blistering drum solo all adds up to a sonic treat. ‘Joy’ too, is damn good with exceptional interplay from Greg Heath’s melodious flute and John Donaldson’s modal/swing piano that underpins this whole album in an extremely soulful manner giving the project and homage, depth and clarity.

The most assured, empathetic and communicative playing comes easily for these musicians on this cohesive debut, startling at times with trenchant soloing a plenty and highly reflective. These are early days, but it will be interesting to see them develop their own original tunes but for now, let’s just say the state of jazz in Britain is safe in their hands……

Emrys Baird

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Jazz Views – Review

John Donaldson’s piano style – dynamic, exciting, heavy with dense left hand chording and fluttering pentatonic runs –  has drawn comparisons with that of McCoy Tyner, and he worked extensively with maverick South African pianist/composer before the latter’s untimely death. Ensconced in his Hastings stronghold,  he has written a set of well plotted arrangements of tunes by both these inspirations, and assembled a muscular band of UK A-listers to play them. Opener ‘Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit’ sets the scene – Tyner’s original piano figure is re-written for the horns, who   deliver the part with a swaggering gusto, leading into a pounding straight eights groove that bursts into soaring swing under Greg Heath’s fluent tenor solo. Fellow Hastings resident and Mseleku accompanist Simon Thorpe combines with powerhouse drummer Tristan Banks to keep the grooves locked and tight – ‘The Man From Tanganyika’ is taken as a rollicking  afro 12/8 that adds a convincing update to the seminal original recording, while Mseleku’s ‘My Passion’ is played with a grace and subtlety that highlights what an outstanding composer he was; the Mseleku material stands up consistently well against the better-known Tyner classics.

It’s fun comparing the contributions from the two trumpeters, with Flowers’ warm tones and lyrical accuracy offset by Collins’ fire and flash. The internationally acclaimed, currently under-represented Jason Yarde reminds us what an outstandingly characterful player he is, on both alto and baritone; the lesser-known Heath more than holds his own in this exalted company. With so many powerful contributors the leader’s own piano is almost sidelined but there’s room for pithy statements on ‘Joy’ and Mseleku’s astonishing ‘Angola’, the latter also providing a feature for Banks to demonstrate what’s what in terms of modern drumming. ‘For Tomorrow’ is a contemplative, beautifully arranged closer. The album’s highlight is an 8 minute workout on Tyner’s ‘Fly With The Wind’ – full of imaginative arrangement details, powerfully and precisely delivered, with everyone playing up an absolute storm. Catch them live if you can.

Reviewed by Eddie Myer

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Hastings Independent Press – Review 

September 2018 saw ten years since the death of the South African musician Bheki Mseleku and Hastings-based sextet Hexagonal, will be performing his music at a brace of gigs in Lewes and Hastings, at the start of December.

They will be playing selections from their debut album McCoy and Mseleku (Hexagonal Records 2018), which pairs the music of Msleku with that of another major pianist-composer, McCoy Tyner.

Hexagonal are the perfect band to do justice to this exciting and high energy music. Leaving aside the fact that the collective consists of six of the best musicians active on the UK scene today, several members of the band have actually worked with McCoy and Bheki, lending the album a distinct authority and authenticity. Composer and reeds player Jason Yarde had the ‘pleasure and pressure’ of working with McCoy Tyner, while bassist Simon Thorpe and pianist John Donaldson toured with Bheki Mseleku in the years leading up to his death.

Although four band members are Hastings residents, one hesitates to describe Hexagonal as a ‘local band,’ given their success at a national level.  Notable milestones over the first year of the band’s existence include Scarborough Jazz Festival, Herts Jazz Festival, playing at Chelsea’s legendary 606 Jazz Club on International Jazz Day 2018, and broadcasts on BBC Radio.

And as individual musicians, they are all very much in demand as instrumentalists and composers in their own right, having worked with everyone from Quincy Jones to Van Morrison.

But it’s true that the group came together in Hastings, and they took full advantage of the town’s fertile musical scene, to develop the concept of the band through live performance. Particularly supportive was the FILO pub with its regular jazz nights: indeed, the band started life as the FILO All Stars.

Despite this, given their busy careers, it’s still something of a struggle to get the six of them in the same room at the same time and nothing short of a miracle, that they recorded the album.

But how lucky we are that they did! Every track is a winner, with hooky melodies, blistering horn solos from Jason Yarde, Greg Heath, and (depending on the weather) Graeme Flowers or Quentin Collins on trumpet, and endlessly inventive polyrhythmic backing from Donaldson, Thorpe and standout drummer, Tristan Banks.

It’s not all fireworks though; the beautifully mellow ballads ‘My Passion’ and ‘Ballad for the Saints’ (both by Mseleku) provide well-judged moments of contemplation, with the former allowing Donaldson’s lyrical piano to come to the fore.

Wonderful as the album is, there’s always an energy and unpredictability about live performance: that’s what improvisation is about, after all. But if you need another reason to go and see them, these two upcoming gigs will offer not-to-be-missed opportunities, to hear some of the band’s original compositions.

  Thursday December 6th, The Con Club, Lewes, 7.30pm
  Friday December 7th, Kino Teatr, St Leonards, 7.30pm

By Andrew Myers

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Jazzwise – Review