Album review: Backblocks (Sam Bates Trio) by John Hardaker

Sam Bates at drum kit

Backblocks Newmarket Music NEW3334.2
Sam Bates Trio

Review by John Hardaker

Read John Clare’s review of this CD

Backblocks coverMeg Bates’ cover art for ‘Backblocks’ scratches a rhythmic red, gold and yellow chiaroscuro across a landscape that is both surreal and Australian in its arid white blast.

It is an apt graphic face for the music contained on Brisbane drummer and composer Sam Bates’ recent album with longtime trio-mates Marc Hannaford on piano and bassist Philip Rex.

Rhythm. Heat. Lines. Movement. Energy. Since 2010’s ‘The Singularity’, The Sam Bates Trio have naturally progressed into the force of nature that we hear here.

Bates’ compositions serve not only as starting points for group conversations – maybe too polite a word for some of the joyous noise here (check the driving swing of opener ‘He Who Laughs’) – but also suggest some abstract shapes and fractured lines for blowing. So the melody informs the solo which informs the band, creating a circularity in improvisation – just as it should be for this music, but is rarely done as beautifully as this.

The Monk-like crabwalk of ‘Super Jumbo’ has Marc Hannaford mirroring its odd line and texture in his algebraic solo. ‘Seaworthy’ splashes through time signatures and colours – green-black-aubergine – with Bates’ watery brushes churning like spindrift and Philip Rex’s bass solo sliding beneath the surface like a barracuda. (‘Seaworthy’, like the translucent ballad ‘Make It Stop’ show the trio’s dynamic dimension to the full – they can spit fire, but also paint with smoke).

The short, sharp shock (2:29) that is ‘Rat Resume’ recalls that other piano trio, EST in its anti-jazz approach and loping polyrhythms that threaten to uncouple from the pulse at any time. (I love compositions by drummers!). This rhythm thing also surprises on ‘Backblocks’ closer, ‘Wolverine’, where syncopations rub up against each other, sometimes leaving a burr, sometimes a polished gleam.

And whatever Bates’ singular and smart compositions challenge Hannaford and Rex with, they take and play and dance with. Marc Hannaford, once again, startles with invention, spark and a thorough command of all he elements beneath his fingers and in his mind (and soul). Philip Rex has that essential double-think down beautifully – groove yet fly, one foot in the earth and one in the sky – that a bass needs in this music.

‘Backblocks’ is a brilliant evolution for Bates and his Trio – as it should be. What also should be is that you all hear it. Promise me you will.


Sam Bates: drums
Marc Hannaford: piano
Philip Rex: bass


Purchase your own copy on the Newmarket site


Backblocks on the Newmarket Music website

Read John Clare’s review of this CD