Rising star George Crawley captures improv spirit

Saxophonist George Crowley. Picture: ContributedSaxophonist George Crowley. Picture: Contributed
Saxophonist George Crowley. Picture: Contributed
DESPITE its unprepossessing title and revolting sleeve art, delving into George Crowley’s second album is not at all like opening a container of writhing invertebrates.

Far from it: the saxophonist may have titled the album, and his current quintet, Can of Worms, but there’s nothing in the least squirmy about the full-on, gleefully improvised jazz it contains, and which he brings to Edinburgh and Glasgow later this month.

“The name began as a joke really,” the 28-year-old London-based saxophonist and clarinettist tells me, “but Can of Worms seems quite appropriate in a way, because, although we’re not breaking any moulds in terms of form or anything, we’ll play a little written music then go off on a little adventure or whatever, just people blowing together.”

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So anything might emerge, he agrees, which is, of course, what makes improvised music so exciting.

The quintet, which Crowley brings to Edinburgh’s Jazz Bar and Glasgow Arts Club courtesy of Jazz Bar proprietor Bill Kyle’s Bridge Music agency, features fellow tenor-saxist Tom Challenger, Dan Nicholls on piano and keyboards, bassist Sam Lasserson and drummer Jon Scott, all of whom are seasoned young players from the London jazz scene.

On the album forsaking his clarinet – although, he tells me, he’s working on bringing bass clarinet into his gigs – Crowley favours twin tenor saxophones “for their beautiful warm sound, but also for the fact that Tom and I play quite differently, especially in an improvising context, so to have two of us playing tenor sax offers a massive sonic palette.

“Some of my favourite bands when I was at college [the Royal Academy of Music] had two tenor saxes in them.” He and Challenger have also been playing together in the horns and percussion octet Brass Mask, which mingles New Orleans marching band music with contemporary jazz and hip-hop, and the two of them did a Radio 3 session last year with just the tuba player and drummer – “It worked really well so it just seemed a natural thing to ask Tom to do this.”

The album’s arrangements open with Crowley’s melancholy-toned solo sax before becoming increasingly rumbustious, with the two sparring horns joined by Nicholls’ ringing piano as well as a lively excursion on Wurlitzer. It certainly leaves plenty of space for band members to cut loose and has a distinctly live feel. Preserving spontaneity, he says, was a key factor. “I’ve been in situations where a band’s been gigging a lot and feeling really good, then as soon as it gets into a studio and the red light goes on, things tense up a touch. I was adamant that wasn’t going to be the case with us.

“There’s a limit to the number of takes you can do when you’re really giving it everything, otherwise it starts to get a bit ragged. But this felt like the genuine thing and the energy of it all was something I wanted to get across on the album.”

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While influenced by the predictable sax giants – Henderson, Shorter, Coltrane, Young and Rollins – Crowley’s tastes are nothing if not eclectic and he says that he’s currently listening to more electronic rock or pop than contemporary jazz. Before music college, he took a degree in English literature at Cambridge, his dissertation dealing with parallels between improvisation and the Beat poets. Literature and music are closer in his mind than people might think, he suggests, although a tie-in is yet to emerge in his music.

He received warm reviews for his debut album as a band leader, Paper Universe, which he made with Scots bassist Calum Gourlay, pianist Kit Downes and drummer James Maddren. Consequently, one of his rare trips playing north of the Border was last year when he played the Jazz Bar and Glasgow Arts Club in a Scots band including Euan Burton, pianist Tom Gibbs and led by Glasgow drummer John Lowrie. “It was so much fun playing both these venues and I was just about to record Can of Worms, so Bill Kyle was very receptive to the new quintet coming up, even without hearing any of the music.”

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The prospect of playing outside his usual London territory appeals: “It’s the possibility of starting again on a blank canvas and saying to people, ‘This is what it is.’” Clearly a can of worms is not anticipated.

• Can of Worms is out now on Whirlwind recordings. Crowley and band play the Jazz Bar, Edinburgh, on 18 February and Glasgow Art club on 19 February

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