Concert Review: Sugarwork (Scotland) – Four Illuminati of the Scottish Jazz Scene

Venue: The Jazz Bar, Edinburgh, Scotland
Date: 17 May 2018

SugarworkThis rare concert from curiously monikered electro-acoustic jazz band with a difference, Sugarwork, is to be celebrated. Four illuminati of the Scottish jazz scene, each known for their musical accomplishments and interests stretching deeply into and beyond jazz. Led by pianist, composer and producer, Manchester-born Paul Harrison, who composed most of the tunes aired tonight, the quartet present their eponymous debut album in this popular subterranean Edinburgh jazz venue.

Based in Glasgow where he teaches on the jazz degree course at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Harrison has also long been active in some of Scotland’s most thought-provoking and diverse music projects: the highly esteemed Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and McFall’s Chamber Orchestra, Simon Thacker’s Ritmata (highly crafted world music), Trio Magico (presenting the life-enhancing music of Brazilian, Egberto Gismonti) and club-friendly electronics – drums duo, Herschel 36.

It is often the case across Scotland’s central belt that musicians collaborate across musical genres, so it is no surprise to learn that Sugarwork’s members have played together in other Scottish bands. Thus drummer, percussionist, composer and producer Stuart Brown plays in the last three of the above listed bands, his knowledge of non-western musical styles, added to dub-wise sensibility and a facility with electronica, having led to work with esteemed names such as David Byrne, Gilad Atzmon and Sun Ra Arkestra’s Dave Gordon.

Meanwhile Aberdeen born guitarist, composer and teacher Graeme Stephen is celebrated on both folk and jazz music circuits, over the years demonstrating his considerable axeman chops in many collaborations, including with Aidan O’Rourke, Julian Arguelles and Seb Rochford. More recently his talent has manifested in soundtrack composition for several 1920s German horror films, and this July his own Graeme Stephen Trio will appear at the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival (EJBF).

The fourth member of the band, one-time psychiatrist and latter day tenor saxophonist, composer and teacher Phil Bancroft, like all the Sugarworkers a stalwart of the Scottish jazz scene and perhaps particularly renowned for Trio AAB, has likewise over the years collaborated with many illustrious musicians, Sun Ra, Kenny Wheeler and Thomas Stronen to mention a few. Like Stephen, Bancroft will present his own band, the Phil Bancroft Quartet, at this July’s EJBF.

Tonight we benefit from Harrison’s, indeed all the band members’ musical peripateses. Following a high energy introductory improvisation which gives notice of the band’s love of complex time signatures, with Stephen rocking some tasty high speed guitar figures, the first composed piece ‘The Cradle’ is introduced by Harrison. An intriguing piece with Harrison’s Hammond organ featuring prominently, it eases the way as the gig progresses towards an increasingly Sun Ra feel.

Next is Harrison’s ‘After The Forest, The Sky’, one of the highlights of the evening. Dark, foreboding chords from Harrison are overtaken by an explosion of percussion from Brown, the latter continuing at drum machine speed over Bancroft’s stately sax motifs. Electronica pops and crackles complement Brown’s fizzing percussion then, as dense forest gives way to open sky, abruptly transfigures to lovely slow piano with Bancroft’s singing sax joining in lush and lyrical, achieving a gorgeous and peaceful coda.

Similarly ‘That Strange Summer’ is electronics heavy with good effect. Opening with meditative sax, this cinematic piece crescendos with forbidding slowness, all shimmering cymbals and tentative guitar gestures, hinting at fears unspoken. When it comes, the harsh and tempestuous denouement is a relief.

The final tune pre-interval is ‘Spiral Confection’. With a funky drums opener, electronic keyboard grows steadily as, drums now skittering, the guitar takes quiet lead with sax overlying brief phrases, before – just we are lured into anticipating ‘a happy ending’ – a rambunctious distorted guitar finale.

After the interval we are treated to a short improvisation from Harrison, then a new piece for full quartet, ‘When’. With sax prominent, it is loud and fast, calling people back from the bar. Following this is the very free feeling ‘Watching Life’. With a nice groove and more ‘Lost in Space’-evoking electronica, this one ended peacefully, leading comfortably into Graeme’s charming, methodically – paced ‘Goodbye Hello’. This piece starts and ends quietly, with intervening lyrical sax meandering and meditative guitar.

The gig ends on a prolonged high with Harrison’s magnificent (and interestingly named) ‘Astralgia’, replete with electronica and psychedelia. Brown clearly revelling in the freedom of his array of percussion instruments, whilst guitar and sax perform a graceful dance, all on top of an inexorable, building electronic beat, this feels like rich, beat-led improvisation – to this reviewer’s taste, the best kind of composition.

Reportedly keen not to replicate established tropes in the jazz fusion genre and perhaps something of an iconoclast, Harrison has succeeded in producing something a bit different: recognizably jazz in terms of harmonies and improvisation, but enhanced by electronica, with band members (save, I think, for saxophonist Bancroft) at times manipulating their sound electronically in real time.

Thus in essence this is clever, dark-tinged electro-acoustic jazz, close to but not quite ‘jazz-fusion’. Successfully integrating electronics, Harrison is to be congratulated for exploring musical territory where few others venture. With a band of this calibre, the journey is likely to be as fascinating as the destination.

With one more album debut concert booked for Glasgow and an appearance at this July’s Manchester Jazz Festival, it is hoped that both jazz and electronic club audiences will appreciate the sweetness of Sugarwork’s invigorating, mature and virtuosic music.

Sugarwork CD can be purchased at: