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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Album review: Ollie Howell reveals his true self in excellent second album Self Identity

Howell's tunes are simultaneously introspective, groovy, virtuosic and fun - rich and rewarding, Self Identity is a record to be felt, not thought about.
Self Identity by Ollie Howell.
Self Identity by Ollie Howell.

Self Identity

Ollie Howell

(Ropeadope)

Four-and-a-half stars

Hardcore jazz fans in the UAE will be familiar with much of the material on Ollie Howell’s excellent second album, which formed the backbone of the British drummer’s sublime nightly sets at Quincy Jones’s Dubai jazz club, Q’s.

Self Identity, then, is both a welcome souvenir of Howell’s residency in the city and a sly taunt to those who missed out on it.

The expansive, ambitious set was recorded at Peter Gabriel’s storied Real World Studios before Howell’s three-month UAE stint – which ended in February – and there is a distinct flavour of production to these warm, polished tracks.

Tellingly, things open with a collage of between-take instrumental warm-up snippets, titled Begin..., a reminder of the band’s six human voices and a concession to the technology capturing them.

Electronic warbles introduce the lilting piano ballad Almost Tomorrow, while interlude In Search has Henry Spencer’s tender effects-laden trumpet displaying windswept wanderlust over a swirling electro-soundscape.

But these are mere studio ornamentations to a set that has its aesthetic roots firmly in acoustic, small-group jazz traditions, freshly washed in the considered, conceptual flare that marks Howell’s evolving compositional prowess.

The drummer has a canny talent for writing vapourous, lead-horn lines that spiral and shuffle, exerting a sharp, visceral rhythmic tug and an emotive winsome sentiment – none more so than teaser single Shadows.

There is more than a hint of Brad Mehldau to the reflective, rolling piano chords of Balancing Stones, courtesy of keys man Matt Robinson.

Rise and Fall does exactly as it suggests, building from a delicate, dreamy ballad to Ant Law’s fusion guitar assault and back again. This template is repeated time and again, arc-like takes building and cresting with artful considered poise.

This is, of course, a drummer’s record and the rhythmic telepathy between Howell, Robinson and bassist Max Luthert – who were featured on his 2013 debut Sutures and Stitches – betrays a deep musical bond.

Also returning from that assured earlier effort is subtly cerebral saxophonist Duncan Eagles, whose most muscular work is delivered on the frenetic Moving On, which also offers Howell a chance to pound the skins with a brief closing solo, fading into the rocky, drum n’ bass-influenced strut of Knew.

The level of musicianship is exceptional throughout, yet no voice holds court – every note is sounded in service of the song, not the player. In its best moments, Howell’s tunes are simultaneously introspective, groovy, virtuosic and fun.

Rich and rewarding, Self Identity is a record to be felt, not thought about.

rgarratt@thenational.ae