CD review: Steve Tromans & JJ Wheeler

Blue Room
(Mongrel Records MNGRLCD01)

Two highly creative players on the Birmingham jazz scene, pianist Steve and drummer JJ have put together a fine set of mainly familiar tunes and then given them a fresh twist.

There’s the Rodgers/Hart title track, and Gershwin’s A Foggy Day to please the songbook crew, Coltrane’s Central Park West and Giant Steps, and Monk’s Bemsha Swing to please the jazz classics crowd. The unexpected comes in Carla Bley’s catchy Ida Lupino, and the pair round things off with a Blues In J.

The absence of a bass, means the pair have to rethink their usual roles, and Steve, who is used to playing solo, has no trouble keeping the low end filled out, while JJ can explore a more decorative role on the drums.

They start in minimalist mode with loads of space as Tromans slowly works his way towards Central Park West with some nice high/low harmonies, while Wheeler starts delicately with cymbal scrapes before including snare and bass drum as Tromans increases the intensity with repeated single note tattoos.

Things get more fulsome on Giant Steps with Tromans taking a highly original and robustly lyrical approach before he slides back to quiet reflection, Wheeler adding quiet accents.

The neo-Monk aspects of Tromans’ playing are to the fore on the Bley, as the familiar and apparently simple melody starts to emerge. Wheeler takes a more traditional drummer’s role here.

The nicely lumpy mood continues on the Monk and the song which it grows out of – Just Friends, while the two bona fide standards let the duo extend their impressionistic impulses, with Wheeler taking the mallets to drums and cymbals to produce nice washes of percussion behind Tromans’ stating of the Blue Room melody, and again taking a more conventional drummer stance on Foggy Day.

Finally, they stir up quite a groove on the final blues, with Tromans getting stuck in a low end minimalist riff while Wheeler is free at last to have a good work-out on the whole kit.

If there is a downside to this disc, it is the usual one with modestly financed projects: that of sound quality. Both instruments sound a little too far away on the other side of the room, although the general balance is good with the drums never overwhelming. In fact, they could have been a little higher in the mix.

I really like Tromans’s approach, not only in this duo but also with a bigger band, of radically reworking standards. By choosing to play exceedingly familiar tunes he provides his audience with some context and some vital “hand holds” so that they feel more comfortable to go with him and his fellow musicians into the outer reaches where perhaps a safety harness might be appropriate. Often that familiar theme or melody is not even quite stated, but it’s always lurking there beneath the fresh notes and harmonies; it’s still at the back of Steve’s mind.

This thoroughly enjoyable and insightful CD is available from www.jjwheeler.co.uk

Steve and JJ are doing a number of gigs in the next few weeks, many of them at Stray’s Of Newark in the Nottinghamshire town of the same name, as well as an album launch in Cardiff. Find out more at www.steve-tromans.co.uk



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