Tom Ollendorff (g), Conor Chaplin (b), Marc Michel (d)
Bar code: 8427328436151
Rising star of jazz guitar to release mesmerising debut album
A Song for You is the debut album from UK guitarist Tom Ollendorff. Since being awarded the Yamaha scholarship for outstanding jazz musicianship in 2015, Ollendorff has honed his craft on the UK and European jazz circuits to become a rising star and much sought-after player, lending his compelling skills to a range of high profile projects and performing with respected artists and ensembles including Geoff Simkins, Dave Cliff, Huw Warren, James Maddren, Jeff Williams, Ari Hoenig, Or Baraket and Bill McHenry.
On Song for You, Tom Ollendorff’s distinctive style and flair for both composition and improvisation shine through in droves, teaming up with a dynamic band consisting of Marc Michel on drums and Conor Chaplin on bass. This longstanding trio have an innate understanding of each other’s musical idiosyncrasies, which becomes very evident in during the improvisational passages on the album. The result is a series of engaging and hypnotic grooves, interweaving reoccurring themes and subtly allowing enough space for each individual to showcase their undeniable talent.
With both his excellent trio and the aforementioned artists, Tom Ollendorff has appeared at venues and festivals in the France, China, Slovakia, Switzerland, Holland and of course the UK, including leading jazz venues such as The Vortex and the legendary Ronnie Scott’s. The band plan to take the live circuit by storm as the world emerges from this period of lockdown. Speaking on this and of the new album Ollendorff comments: “I am incredibly excited to be getting back on the road to celebrate the release of this album, especially after a year of such limited opportunities to play live. Our tour is going to all corners of the UK and I can't wait to be reunited with audiences across the country. Fresh Sound New Talent have released some of my favourite jazz records, and it is a thrill for me to be joining the long list of incredible artists who are associated with the label. I really hope you enjoy the record.”
Song for You is an outstanding album, sonically illustrating all of the qualities needed by a young and passionate jazz band to elevate to the next level of their journey – the proof is in the listening!
“Tom Ollendorff is one of the world’s finest guitarists. His music is complex yet rooted in melody and feeling”
—Gilad Hekselman, Jazz Guitarist
“I really enjoy the playing and writing of young guitarist Tom Ollendorff, definitely one to watch and listen out for”
—Helen Mayhew, Jazz FM
“He is gaining a reputation as an outstanding improviser and imaginative composer”
"They say lightning never strikes in the same place twice. But sometimes it does. When it comes to new jazz guitarists of more than average talent, London has produced two in fairly rapid succession. In spring 2020, Rob Luft released his immaculate and uplifting sophomore album, Life Is The Dancer (Edition). Exactly a year later, Tom Ollendorff is releasing A Song For You (Fresh Sounds), a debut which delivers much and promises even more.
Ollendorff and Luft have similar signatures. Both are evolutionary rather than revolutionary stylists. They bring quantities of freshness to the tradition but they do not rethink it. In this they resemble, say, Pat Metheny more than, say, Eivind Aarset, although Aarset's high-register neo-trippy lyricism has echoes in the playing of both of them.
On A Song For You, Ollendorff presents sophisticated, melodic music of seraphic beauty. All but one track are Ollendorff originals. Most last less than five minutes. There are two extended pieces: the ballad "Not In These Days" clocks in at eight minutes, and the sole relatively kick-ass burner, "XY," is almost as long. Both fly by. Vernon Reid's much covered evergreen "Autumn In New York" receives a memorable reading (on a par with pianist Al Haig's once heard, never forgotten one on his 1957 Counterpoint album, Jazz Will-O-The-Wisp).
Ollendorff is accompanied by his regular trio, which is completed by bassist Conor Chaplin and drummer Marc Michel, and he co-produced the album with Fresh Sound's Jordi Pujol. A Song For You is a stunning debut. Following Ollendorff's progress looks like it will be time well spent."
—Chris May (April 24, 2021)
"Guitarist Tom Ollendorff’s debut album is out on Barcelona’s Fresh Sounds label. As John Fordham writes in this feature to mark the release: “Ollendorff’s musicianship has already taken him all over continental Europe, and into collaborations with innovators including New York drummer/composer Ari Hoenig and American saxophonist Bill McHenry, but the UK trio behind this fine album has taken pole position in his musical life since he moved to London from Cardiff in 2016.”
Calling a musician a ‘jazz guitarist’ doesn’t define a style and a sound as exclusively as it used to in the days when Charlie Christian dominated the instrument’s promotion from a swing band’s rhythm section into its front line in the late 1930s. Back then, a jazz guitarist’s solos would likely be as clean, linear and melodic as those of a trumpeter’s or a saxophonist’s. But over the decades, the description has come to embrace many other possibilities – John McLaughlin’s wailing sustain and sitar-like slurs, Bill Frisell’s country-inflected electronics, the African vocal-mimicking lyricism and kora-like tones of Lionel Loueke, the deconstructionist sonic adventures of American avantist Mary Halvorson, and a raft of other innovations besides.
Sometimes, though, a musician emerges to reclaim the jazz guitar past by returning to some classic first principles, resetting the agendas of the present in the process. The young British musician Tom Ollendorff is one such, to judge by his debut album A Song For You, just released by Barcelona’s Fresh Sounds label in its New Talent series.
Ollendorff’s musicianship has already taken him all over continental Europe, and into collaborations with innovators including New York drummer/composer Ari Hoenig and American saxophonist Bill McHenry, but the UK trio behind this fine album has taken pole position in his musical life since he moved to London from Cardiff in 2016. An elegantly accomplished mix of gracefully grooving songlike themes, warmly conversational improvising, baroque-like unaccompanied etudes, and one headlong fast-bop swinger, the tracklist is not only a credit to Ollendorff’s meticulously musical playing and jazz chops but also to his beguiling compositions (‘Autumn In New York’ is the only cover), and his closely attuned relationship with double bassist Conor Chaplin and drummer Marc Michel. For this listener, Ollendorff’s sensitivity to space and nuance, and the expressive economy of his phrasing sometimes recalls the work of the legendarily graceful Jim Hall, and the newcomer makes no secret of his fondness for telling a musical story patiently, and with instrumental melodies that could just as easily be sung.
‘The guitar can be such a moving instrument, I think,’ Tom Ollendorff says, ‘and I’m fascinated by the idea of songs, so I wanted to write pieces that felt like songs to me. When I first went to music college I didn’t know any, then I was shown The Real Book and I began to understand how they worked. And I also came to feel that a trio was a great way to express them. I made this album a year and a half ago, and I was focused on a chamber music trio sound, where there’s a lot of freedom and space, and you can really get stuck into the detail, right into the corners of songs. I’m still focused on that – although of course I appreciate there are many ways to play guitar, and there are certainly things happening in contemporary jazz with electronics and synths that I also love listening to.’
Tom Ollendorff’s dexterity in playing polyphonic lines, and the presence of some unaccompanied Bach pieces on his website invites the thought that he may have learned at first as a plectrum-eschewing classical player – a speculation reinforced by his fastidious choice of instrument, a unique guitar built by a former violin-maker, the Italian luthier Dominico Moffa. It turns out, however, that while classical music had a significant influence on his childhood, it wasn’t on the guitar.
‘My mum’s a very good pianist and sang in a choir, and my dad loves opera, so there was always music around in my childhood,’ Ollendorff says. ‘And I was taught classical piano from the age of five or so, and got really interested in it, so I guess I got a feeling for the freedom of the two hands working independently pretty early. I’d also go with my parents to the Wigmore Hall and the Proms, up to the age of 12 or 13. But around then, I discovered the guitar, because there was a guy at my school who got me interested in it, and I started teaching myself. I was into funk and fusion then.’
The guitar bug had bitten, and didn’t let go. Tom Ollendorff took a year out on leaving school, knowing by then that he wanted to be a professional guitar player, but not knowing how to find a way in. When the family had relocated near Bath, a chance meeting with Bristol guitarist Guy Harrup – a local hero as both a player and a teacher – encouraged the teenager to believe the possibility wasn’t just a dream.
‘I liked the sound of his playing at a gig, so I talked to him afterwards. He was a popular performer in Bristol, and he was addicted to George Benson, so he showed me some Benson tunes – and he gave me plectrum saying “this’ll give you a jazzier sound”. He was a great guy and a fine player, it was really sad that he passed away in 2017 at only 53. Strangely enough, I did my first gig at Ronnie Scott’s that year, and it happened to be on the same evening as George Benson’s show there. George listened to my whole set, which was amazing to me, and of course I thought about Guy then, who had helped me to get there.’
Ollendorff enrolled on the jazz course at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in 2011, studying guitar with Dave Cliff, one of the stalwarts of the second wave of the UK bebop movement, whose career had blossomed from the 1970s on. Cliff favoured the understatedly agile lines of the Cool School style created by American pioneers including piano genius Lennie Tristano and Birth of the Cool saxophonist Lee Konitz, and Tom Ollendorff recalls that, in listening to Cliff’s recordings ‘I could hear his fantastic improvisational fluency over harmonies, which made me realise the standard I needed to get to.’ Jazz studies at the college were also powerfully influenced by the Welsh pianist, accordionist and composer Huw Warren, whose personal signature in original pieces made a strong impression on Ollendorff.
‘Huw was a big presence at the college, and an iconic figure of jazz in Wales,’ Ollendorff says. ‘He took ensemble classes, and I played quite a bit with him – really interesting music, lots of complicated time signatures, Balkan influences, ideas from all over the place. I was also listening to all the usual jazz guitar influences, like Wes (Montgomery) of course, and Tal Farlow – but the player who really became my role model was the Israeli guitarist Gilad Hekselman, who’s worked with Esperanza Spalding, Chris Potter, Mark Turner and lots of fantastic people, and who taught me in my first year at the college. I loved his sound, his compositions, the way he presents the guitar as such a dynamic instrument, full of complexity, and vulnerability too. A big part of my practice repertoire comes from him, from the time he showed me a Bach piano part transcribed for guitar and I copied it. Gilad lives in New York, and I would go there for a month every year. Each time I’d be thinking how much better I’d become since the last visit, and each time I would realise that he’d become about a million times better! He’s constantly evolving, and that’s a wonderful quality.’
Tom Ollendorff has been on the road with his trio in May, and the chance to interact with an audience again has not only been an immense relief but also a reminder of the catalytic effect live music-making has on the structure and pacing of a gig. ‘I’ve only done two gigs in front of people in the past year,’ Ollendorff observes. ‘So returning to it could have been a little intimidating, but everything makes sense once you’re playing. What’s stuck in my mind most from being back playing live is that unique feeling when the audience are totally with you – as a performer, there’s no better feeling. We were reminded of that just last night at a fantastic club in Nottingham called Peggy’s Blue Skylight, where the energy of the audience was such a huge source of inspiration. The more we’ve played this music the more freedom we’ve developed with it, which is when stuff really starts to get fun!’
The guitarist is unstinting in his admiration for his partners and their intuitions about the ensemble sound he’s after. He recalls that he first met bassist Conor Chaplin on his own first professional gig – ‘in a pub, and my main memory from it apart from meeting Conor, was that there were only four people in the audience, and two of them started a fight.’ More harmonious subsequent meetings convinced Ollendorff that he’d met the perfect bass partner. ‘I realised how well he understood the function of the bass in the trio setting,’ he recalls. ‘How incredible his musicianship is, how clear in the high register, how alert he is to the way the music changes in performance.’
Ollendorff met drummer Marc Michel when the latter was a postgrad student at the Royal Academy of Music in 2017, and soon realised that he possessed a similar sensitivity to the dynamics of trio music. Marc Michel also happens to be a fine guitarist himself, which Ollendorff considers makes him an especially subtle percussionist for a lineup like this one.
When live music revives, it’s likely that the accomplished Tom Ollendorff’s giglist will return to the robust look it had back in the pre-pandemic year of 2019 – when it showed a packed rota of performances with the trio, but also at Kansas Smitty’s with singer Ella Höhnen-Ford, or with bebop saxophonist Geoff Simkins, or young bands led by drummers Joel Barford, Will Sach, and Marc Michel. Touring with Ari Hoenig was also in his schedule for that year, and the guitarist already has a recording date with the innovative New York composer/percussionist set up for this autumn. But however many opportunities his lyrical and song-rooted musicianship bring him, the trio that made A Song For You is unmistakeably Tom Ollendorff’s big priority for a good while yet.
‘I feel as if there’s a lot of myself in this album, and I really hope that it will reach out to people,’ the guitarist says. ‘And we all want to keep working on the things we’ve done so far together, and push them further. After a year like the one we’ve had, where playing has been so difficult, it feels like there’s a lot more to come!’."
"Pregevole chitarrista della nuova scena indie jazz britannica, Tom Ollendorff realizza infinite 'scale' afroamericane, cogliendo o scegliendo il giusto spazio tra John Abercrombie e Bill Connors. Intuizioni urban per un disco di delicate improvisazioni, su una texture post bop tutta da studiare. Un disco che affonda le radici nel jazz e nel moderna concezione della "forma" canzone, in cui l’interplay gioca un ruolo fondamentale tra i musicisti in azione. A questo aggiungiamo una spiccata ricerca sonora caratterizzata da un sound essenziale, asciutto e da una ricerca melodica a tratti minimale in cui ogni strumento e ogni nota blu è al servizio di un’idea compositiva ben precisa. Una sintesi concentrata di (notizie) neo jazz che valicano qualsiasi confine. Da segnalare le progressioni di XY, l'intreccio di Aare e il groove morbido di A Song For You, diventando spunto per una crescita interiore collettiva:un ponte che accorcia le distanze tra culture, tradizioni e punti di vista. Originale Tom Ollendorff con melodie immediatamente riconoscibili. In studio, Conor Chaplin (bass), Marc Michel (drums)."
Windout (June, 2021)
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