For me, the measure of a true muso is in the execution of the slow stuff. There are several pieces on The Bitter Suite which meet my required assessment criteria in this regard. For example on Black Saffron a beautiful passage focusses on the harmonic unification of trombone and saxophones. Jamie Oehlers introduces it after Grabowsky’s superbly simple piano extemporisation, so intoxicating you’re hoping it will never end. To trump it seems impossible. But Oehlers, with his impeccable timing and uniquely considered articulation sets up a tentative trio, a mournful, sensually indulgent conversation with James Greening joining on trombone and Andrew Robson on alto sax, like three inebriated guys bemoaning the current state of the universe, or problems shared around the kitchen table.
There is an element of this in the following “hair of the dog” piece, Try the Veal, also measured in tempo, but more upbeat in sentiment with a fine opening theme performed by Cameron Undy on double bass interacting with piano and drums. This gradually leads into another gathering of the aerophones, alto leading the charge with again, great improvising on accompanying piano. The block chordal coda is soothing in its solidarity. Sisyphus is also slow, further allowing this camaraderie to flourish along with the “bitter sweet” theme.
A lot of Paul Grabowsky’s writing explores chromatic riffs and modulations. His pieces are often complex affairs with the lovely jazzy syncopation you would expect. What is most endearing about his work is the inclusiveness of all band members. There is never that sense of anyone having to compete for virtuosic attention. This does not negate the ability of different tracks on this album to highlight individual musicians in the ensemble. Of note are the impressive improvisatory skills of all musicians displayed on the upbeat Twisty.
The opening piece, Paradise, may dip its lid to Brahms, as Grabowsky suggests, but it seems to have more to do with that composer’s night-time frivolities than his Symphony No. 1. Paradise takes us back to the 1920s with its muted trombone and sculpted sliding notes. Here we are in a seedy bar somewhere, a bar that gets several decades’ worth of makeovers before journey’s end. We traverse everything from vaudeville to modern to boozy jazz, Oehlers, Robson and Grabowsky in particular starring on this track.
Scriabin is based on his exquisite Piano Prelude, Opus 74, No. 4 and it is easy to understand Grabowsky’s attraction to this composer’s lyrical exploration of similar scale structures and modulations as exemplified in Grabowsky’s own work. There is mourning in this piece which, when taken over by the saxophone, adds to the intensity of the original’s expression. Again, it is slow and beautifully weathered – a feature track which highlights the overriding “voice” of the album.
Everyone has a chance to shine on the much more experimental and largely upbeat Vexatious. What stands out on this track is the unique playing styles of individuals. Where Andrew Robson presents as a smooth, highly articulate operator with silken melodic passages, Oehlers plays dirty, with an unbelievably gritty finesse traversing the entire range of the instrument. Greening is wondrous in his daring monologue and even Simon Barker, in the background on many tracks, has an understated but rewardingly complex solo here. Fittingly, the final passage draws all the blowers together with the unison theme that opened the piece.
Bitter Suite is a celebration of jazz in all its guises, with early references to Ellingtonesque horn sections, and the greater freedom and experimentation of contemporary jazz. The Sextet’s indulgence in slowness is a particularly rewarding aspect of the album.