Self release – available from Bandcamp

Shirley Smart (cello); Demi Garcia Sabat (drums & percussion); James Arben (flute & tenor saxophone)

Recorded April 2021

Cellist Shirley Smart is becoming a familiar presence on the UK scene, and with her unique and lyrical approach to the cello, is finding herself playing in a wide variety of diverse musical projects. This, of course, also includes her own innovative projects with her trio and sextet.

Although coming from a formal background in music and having studied classical music, Smart is a gifted and intuitive improviser. This approach to making music with no imposed barriers, be they genre, scored, or improvisation, has led the cellist to adopt a style of playing that is utterly compelling and completely her own.

As for many creative musicians, the recent pandemic and the restrictions imposed upon their movements and opportunity to play with others initiated many fine works that were born out of this imposed isolation, but the interaction with others that is such a vital part of making music was being stifled.

Recording parts remotely and using post-production to make the final finished product is all well and good, but nothing can match that personal interaction between musicians playing together in the same room in real-time.

“Stories” is just one of the albums that, with the musicians involved, emerged from the lifting of lockdown restrictions. Free to mix and play again, Shirley booked a studio and with Demi Garcia Sabat and James Arben and no preconceived ideas went in and made music.

Freely improvised it may be, but such is the depth of empathy and trust between the three musicians that it is often difficult to comprehend that what you are hearing is spontaneously created in the moment with no safety net.

Conceived in the studio and later sequenced to form three distinctly different “stories”, there are times when the music follows a more abstract path, but these remarkable musicians quickly find elements within that seem to evolve organically. There are moments where the music dictates the path to be taken, and the musicians are obliged to follow.

With the range of sounds available with the cello, whether plucked or played with the bow, Smart’s rich and sonorous sound is a constant source of wonder, and with Sabat’s expansive percussion, the soundscape is vast even when playing as a duo.

Melodic fragments come and go, sometimes developed at length or alternatively quickly discarded as the music moves on.

This sense of freedom and discovery between Smart and Sabat explores the Middle East on “Terraza Andaluza” (from Part 1 – The DragonFly), and the duo explores more abstract territory on “Pasacaglia”.

Smart’s incredible technique and ability to conjure the most marvelous sounds from the cello can be heard throughout, but I was particularly captivated by her playing over Sabat’s brushwork on “The Viaduct” and the playfulness of “Undercurrents” (both from Part 2 – Mirrors).

With his tenor saxophone and flute, James Arben also brings another voice to the music without breaking the spell and mood created by Smart and Sabat and integrates himself into the music seamlessly. His tenor playing can be brash, as on the quick blowout on “Catharsis” (Part 3 – Subterranean Journey) or gentle, full-toned, and lyrical.

Arben’s flute playing in this context is a joy and “Sphynx” (from Part 2 – Mirrors) and from Part 1 “The Dragonfly” work superbly with cello and percussion. The trio asks themselves “Is That Swing” (from Part 3 – Subterranean Journey), and it most certainly does.

Over the course of 19 improvisations, the musicians build three magnificent suites, and it is an inspired idea to have the mix of duos and trios, as when Arben pops in and out of the conversation, it makes for a thrilling dialogue.