A new Courtney album is always a cause for celebration. Since his big-selling debut, 1986’s Journey To The Urge Within, he’s relentlessly pursued sounds of the Black diaspora (jazz, reggae, calypso, drum’n’bass, ska, hip-hop, soca) and also become a respected educator and broadcaster.
And yet the London saxophone legend is still somewhat of a divisive figure on the UK jazz ‘scene’. As he admitted in a recent Jazzwise interview, ‘There are still clubs in London, even in my own London, that I know I will never get a gig in.’ It seems he is still too ‘in your face’ for some venues.
Black Notes From The Deep – Courtney’s first all-tenor album (with the occasional flute overdub) for over 10 years – also drops in some gospel, blues, neo-soul and jazz-dance flavours this time round courtesy of impressive guest vocalist Omar. Stylistically, it’s a game of two halves – Omar features on the uptempo stuff and the blues, while the rest of the album is intimate, compact, mainly acoustic jazz featuring a core unit of Alec Dankworth on bass, Robert Mitchell on piano and Rod Youngs on drums. Black Notes also comes complete with beautiful production (Courtney) and mastering (Claudio Passavanti) – it won’t harm your ears or speakers. It’s nice and short too – the 41 minutes fly by.
The album is chock full of impressive ballads – ‘You Know Who You Are’, ‘Rivers Of Blood’ and ‘How Many More’ sound like instant classics, with rich Mitchell chords that are never quite what they seem. The intriguing voicings of guitarist Chris Cobbson illuminate ‘The Morning After The Night Before’.
Of the vocal tracks, the cover of Herbie Hancock/Bennie Maupin’s ‘Butterfly’ stands out, very much under the influence of Robert Glasper with its two-step feel and outrageous, squiggly Courtney EWI (or is it a synth?) solo. ‘In Another Time’ may even bring to mind the dancefloor sounds of the mid-’80s London jazz revival, reminiscent of Working Week and Everything But The Girl. Opener ‘Rules’ takes its cue from Freddie Hubbard’s ‘Red Clay’ and Courtney plays the first of many fine tenor solos, reminding one of an oft-forgotten Sonny Rollins influence.
Black Notes From The Deep is a very ‘London’ album and a very good one. The UK jazz scene needs it.