Upon listening to the first track from the Phil Bancroft Trio album "Swings and Roundabouts", I wasn't sure if soon I would be lulled to sleep. The opening section of the first track was one of such relaxed comfort, confidence, and laid-back swing that my fear was of not being able to finish the album due to lack of interest and general boredom. However, as Bancroft eased into his solo position and began to explore the tonal possibilities of the opening tune, I became aware that this was not going to be a typical jazz combo album. The rest of the album proved adventuresome and beyond what the first track might imply. There seemed to be an underlying vein here, a train of thought that evades the typical American jazz idiom. As I listened more intently, strings of European musicality began to weave in my head through not only the well improvised solos, but also the melodies of these wonderful tunes. But don't misunderstand, this album is all jazz. Listening more intently, I became quickly captivated by the creative forces at work here. Phil Bancroft and company have something to say, and what they say on this particular album is creative and worth a listen.
Group interplay is never disregarded in any combo, and so it is here that the Phil Bancroft Trio work splendidly together. Marcello Pellitteri, the drummer for this date, performs creatively, very tightly, and quite lyrically within the trio setting. Steve Watts does more than his share of holding down the bass lines. Pellitteri and Watts play together in a manner perfectly fitting for the expressive tenor sax lines of Bancroft. Actually, there are times when I wonder who has the lead line between Bancroft and Watts, as the two play so complementary of each other and with the bass sounding so melodic. The swing is there, the drive is there, the creativity is there, as well as a feeling of exploration which makes this album so individual.
The first track "Jiggle" gives us an idea of what to expect on this date. Laid back and lazily swinging, this tune doesn't crackle with fire-like tenacity, nor does it sizzle with speed and dexterity. However, it does burn with creativity and feeling, as does the rest of the album. "Jiggle" reminds me of a more gentle searching, maybe what you'd expect if you crossed Pat Metheny and John Coltrane on a lazy, rainy afternoon. "Space Buffie 1999" is a very rapid tune, with the slow melody speaking over a quick swinging back beat and bass line, which abruptly changes to a half-time feel and then to an even slower tempo. Spoken once, the melody gives way to Bancroft's solo. Bancroft eases his way non-hurriedly through the changes and fast tempo, speaking good thoughts and lines which make you think he's had them waiting for you in order to make you think that he'd had them in his head the whole time just waiting for you to come by and hear them. Huh? Yeah, that's what I meant. Through the tempo changes and coolly indifferent melody, "Space Buffie 1999" lends the ear a couple of interesting twists and turns sure not to disappoint the listener.
"B's Niece" is a tune written very happily and gently for (presumably) Bancroft's niece Lisa Molly (see liner notes). This improvisingly spoken melody is playful and light. Bancroft makes a strong personal quote in this tune, as the bass and drums simply offer a cool background for Bancroft's tribute. "Rock House", a brief marathon, begins as a slower, introspective tune, working into a more groove oriented feel. From there the trio explores different backbeats and fills rather tastefully, bringing the tune to a slow simmer and non-threatening climax, only after they drive back into "the groove" again ... several times. Jumping from one groove to another, always intertwined with the melody, seems to be a trademark with Bancroft & company. However, rather than annoying, these changes work rather well. I was impressed at how flawlessly the trio could switch gears between grooves and tempos and continue with their natural and uninterrupted feel.
"Hubert and Cowboy Pete" is a more traditional track, and a fun tune to listen to. Light and playful, reminiscent of many catch-phrase tunes from the 50's, its Sonny Rollins-esque playability and groove make it ear candy for the listener. Bancroft does a great job of performing within the stylistic constraints of the tune, often exploring but never wandering too far from the main essence of what needs to be said. "Free", properly titled, is a short experiment less than two minutes in length. The tune begins with Bancroft speaking in low, softer tones, while the rhythm section follows along, almost waiting and wanting the lead line to take off into never-never land. Bancroft explores slightly, attempting some bi-tones through his tenor, finally giving way to gravity and a purposeful ending. "Free" is basically an experimental break thrown into the mixture of things, something that you'd expect on a cassette tape at the end of side one. Perhaps it's a preview of things to come from this group?
Bancroft's playing on Duke Ellington's "I Got It Bad" speaks so well through sonorous tenor sax lines that one wonders if Bancroft were there for the original. One might think that they're listening to the likes of a Dexter Gordon type jazz figure as Bancroft plays masterfully on this cut. The big and lusty tenor sound is captivating enough, but Bancroft's positively lethargic and traditionally musical ideas are what make this tune enjoyable. One can tell that Bancroft has done his homework and listened appropriately to the ones who've gone on before him. Not only does Bancroft fulfill his role on this classic tune, but Watts and Pellitteri masterfully accompany their tenor playing partner.
"Swings and Roundabouts", the title cut, opens with several off-beat phrases not ending with the outro of the melody. Bordering on free-jazz, Pellitteri drives a'la Elvin Jones behind Bancroft's solo, while Watts follows along tastefully, and at times forcefully. Though this tune jumps around a bit, as with many of the other tunes from this album, it is a taste of the creativity and spontaneity that the Bancroft Trio are trying to present through their trio setting.
The closing cut, "Love-gone Wrong", begins as a simple melody, giving way to a tenor statement, then working back into a group melody and interplay. Bancroft sounds pop-ish, as if he's trying to add yet another sound variety to the album's already full palate. However, it works well, and the modern style of this tune makes for a fine ending to a very adventuresome album from this exceptional trio.
The Phil Bancroft Trio come out on top with this fine handful of originals and lone Ellington classic. Listening to this group, one can easily predict a future full of great music emanating from these talented musicians. Admirably, Bancroft makes statements that are fresh and personal, while still maintaining a good, solid jazz vocabulary. Being backed by musicians who are on the same level of creativity and exploration, which makes for a rather pleasurable listening experience, Bancroft should supersede expectations with this tasteful album.