Secret Architecture at the Jazz Bar in Edinburgh, Scotland, 11/26/11
A "sophisticatedly engaging" quartet that references bop, fusion and more
Scotland and New York City generally don’t have many things in common, but one—albeit always, to some degree, in transit—is the young tenor saxophonist and expatriate Fraser Campbell. After leaving his hometown of Perth to attend Boston’s Berklee College of Music, Campbell began playing with some classmates: pianist Wade Ridenhour, bassist Julian Smith and drummer Zach Mangan. They all graduated in either 2007 or 2008 and, after dubbing themselves Secret Architecture (which sometimes includes saxophonist J.J. Byars) have since landed themselves a comfortable gig at Caffe Vivaldi in New York’s West Village, where they have held a weekly residence for the past year.
Campbell came home to Scotland alongside the rest of the quartet last week, marking part of a larger tour with a two-set performance at the Jazz Bar in Edinburgh on Saturday night. The venue, which serves as the only real pulse of the city’s jazz scene, seemed to be filled equally with fans and the family and friends embracing the triumphant return of a favorite son.
Even without that background knowledge, it would be clear that Secret Architecture radiates a special kind of energy; it’s a core of old-fashioned, urban-cultivated musical exploration presented within the framework of the much more postmodern and multi-generic elements of contemporary improvisation. A performer with melodic mannerisms that are natural extensions of varied liberated luminaries like Ornette Coleman and Sonny Rollins, Campbell led the group with a mature, driving tonal physicality that belied his age. The palindromic opening tune, an original called “The Snow on Seht,” dove straight from airily composed head harmonies into full throttle free playing with solid command and powerfully emotive bursts.
With each passing phrase and tune, the quartet settled further into a flow that spanned diverse references to classic bop and other jazz idioms as well as fusion-laced nods to present-day mainstream styles of R&B and pop. Smith and Mangan proved to be an unceasingly effective rhythmic backbone, alternately showing aggressive and sensitive sides while displaying visible emotion that could have filled the room on its own. Ridenhour’s long solos layered and contrasted nicely with those of Campbell, with twisting modal runs and rich, singing lines that reminded one of Brad Mehldau or, even more recently, Robert Glasper.
A highlight was the original “Too Dark for Skylarks,” with an odd-time, rubato feel that slipped into a distinctly hip-hop-flavored beat, setting the tone for Campbell’s harmonically inventive and passionate flights of improvisation. Another original, “ The Last Song Was Freebird,” featured yet another dynamically fresh transition, this time from tight, catchy unison riffs to breakneck hard bop.
Secret Architecture, with youthful vigor and intellectual open-mindedness, can give 21st century acoustic jazz something it sorely needs—a new champion of the long tradition of group improvisation, one that has the ability to communicate that history in a language that is both genuinely current and sophisticatedly engaging. In wild forays within that jungle of sound, the musicians may, at this point in their careers, find themselves reaching too far from time to time, but that spirit of exploration is infinitely more valuable than any comfortably tired approach to the standards. It will be especially exciting to watch them approach new challenges and generic interpretations as they continue to grow, in New York and beyond.