Russell Welch • Time On My Hands

Russell Welch • Time On My HandsThe first two times I listened to Russell Welch’s new album, I was busy doing something else. Doing what, you ask? As it happens, I was writing a feature about the late British jazz critic Max Jones—which you will have read recently or will soon have a chance to read, depending on when this review is published. And I have to say, after those first two passes, Time On My Hands just hadn’t grabbed me.

This ethereal, Hallowe’en-ish offering does not make good background music, I discovered, frequently imposing upon one’s focus with musical saws out of nowhere, hoodoo-voodoo vocals and bewilderingly complex guitar improvisation. The third time I listened I was bedridden with the ’flu, slightly buzzed on analgesics, with nothing to do but rest and drink fluids. This sorry state, it could be said, is the perfect one in which to enjoy Welch’s weird new record.

Hot Jazz Jubile

The thing is, this is a work which rewards attentive listening. Take “Improvisation no1”: what seemed at first, in my semi-focused writing mode, like the random twiddling of a guitarist possessed revealed itself to be a fascinating journey from rudimentary pluckings and strummings, via increasingly elaborate chord voicings, climaxing in a series of dizzyingly complex riffs with a distinctly flamenco flavor.

With the exception of this spectacular solo, the tracks of Time On My Hands combine the efforts of guitarist/vocalist Molly Reeves, violinist and sawyer Dr. Sick and bassist Josh Gouzy, collectively known as the Russell Welch Hot Quartet. The disc is a collection of recordings made during quarantine, showcasing the group’s ample talents and varied musical interests—though with a distinctly jazzy bent. Make no mistake, though: this isn’t easy listening. Nor is it dancing jazz, although a shuffle would certainly be possible at times.

One criticism I had, having only heard this record in the background, was that many of Welch’s takes on the standards bore little resemblance to the iconic melodies they claimed to recreate. Only on giving the album my full attention did familiar refrains emerge—Dr. Sick’s saw weaves its way through, around and occasionally along the melody of “The Sheik of Araby,” even before Welch’s guitar takes the tune in a more recognizably Reinhardt direction. But the virtuosic Welch goes much further than a mere impression of the master, injecting his own carnivalesque sound into a five-minute manouche marvel.

UpBeat Records

In a similar way, the melody of “That’s Why They Call Me Shine” is threaded subtly throughout the track, albeit engulfed in a tsunami of other notes. Many of these are harmonious, but others are discordant—the often bizarre wailings of Dr. Sick’s instruments provide much of the latter. But here too, careful attention brings greater understanding: what first struck me as an outburst of tuneless violin scratching half way through “Mrs. Ladybug’s Daydream” became a hauntingly nightmarish movement in an otherwise dreamlike soundscape, when I really listened.

This isn’t to say that this mentally taxing record offers no moments of respite. Its arrangements of “My Melancholy Baby,” with Reeves’ sweet vocals and Gouzy’s steadily swinging bassline, comes like a glass of cold lemonade after four tracks of sweat-inducing solos. An instrumental take on Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” serves the same palate-cleansing function near the album’s end, coming just before a splendid rendition of “Sweet Sue” and a frankly bizarre twist on “You Are My Sunshine,” played to the tune of Russian folk tune “Dark Eyes” (or Wingy Manone’s “Ochi Chornya”), featuring some truly menacing voice work, which ends in a frantic whirlpool of entwined strings.

So if you want an excuse to spend ninety minutes in a comfortable chair with a glass of whatever, insisting upon no distractions while you immerse yourself in some seriously stimulating jazz, this is the record for you. Check it out on Russell’s Bandcamp, where you can find his entire discography of eight releases for around fifty bucks—treat yourself to the whole thing and you could reserve the whole day to yourself, whether bed bound or not.

Dave Doyle is a swing dancer, dance teacher, and journalist based in Gloucestershire, England. Write him at [email protected]. Find him on Twitter @DaveDoyleComms.

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