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Aquarium Aquarium Review

Album. Released 2011.  

BBC Review

Capable of making a splash, but it wouldn’t hurt to rock the boat a bit.

Kevin Le Gendre 2011

These days, young British jazz musicians play to a strikingly high standard – but the key question that remains is whether they can bring a sufficiently strong personality to bear on work where the notes are anything but wrong.

Ably flanked by double bassist Calum Gourlay, drummer Josh Blackmore and tenor saxophonist-bass clarinettist James Allsopp, pianist-composer Sam Leak is a recent Royal Academy of Music graduate who displays considerable maturity in his leadership of Aquarium. Yet it’s hard to escape the feeling that he is still finding himself among his myriad influences. This debut has echoes of anything from Keith Jarrett’s European band with Jan Garbarek circa 1974 to Charles Lloyd’s mid-90s ensemble with Bobo Stenson via John Taylor’s work with Norma Winstone.

Pieces such as The Treasure Chest flag these up clearly. Here the emphasis is wholly on a carefully handled tension in the rhythm section with drums and bass locked in a fraught, plaintive drone, the delicacy of which is emphasized by Blackmore’s almost tabla-like snare work and the discreet throb of Gourlay’s bass, tantalizing with two or three note stabs. Leak plays economically, brushing upper register chords with a Satie-like finesse to imbue the whole atmosphere with a brooding grace that is then heightened by Allsopp’s stringently wrought overtones and terse but melodic coda.

To a certain extent this kind of wry, intricate lament, where the emotion simmers rather than spills over, greatly defines the whole album; but Leak suggests that he could uncover another rich layer of his musical being if he were to loosen up and groove out. For example, Grasshopper has a fantastically hypnotic Middle Eastern Gnawa beat implied by Blackmore’s jittery drumming that would have welcomed reinforcement by Leak’s rhythm playing at various points in the piece – but his leisurely single notes, while by no means unpleasant, deprive the song of added momentum. It’s possibly a neat symbol of where Leak is right now: the pianist is capable of making a splash but it wouldn’t hurt him to rock the boat just a bit. Chances are he’d make a great fish out of water.

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