Tenor saxophonist Trish Clowes has a deep empathy for the poems of Oscar Wilde, for in the sleeve notes of her last two albums she quotes his words at length as if she aspires to the true poetry of sound.
Born in Shrewsbury in 1984, a father’s tutelage had her playing piano at four and then the clarinet, before a visit to a local big band festival rehearsal gave her a first blow on a saxophone — and she hasn’t put it down since.
She moved to London in 2003 to study at the Royal Academy of Music and in 2008 won an award from the Musicians Benevolent Fund to form her new sextet, Tangent, which was also the title of her debut album of 2010.
The opener, Prelude to a Sketch, is pitched within an orchestral setting, and Clowes blows a lithe and buoyant, almost featherweight horn over the strings.
Calum Gourlay’s earthy bass anchors her flying sound in Search.
Gwilym Simcock’s pellucid piano and an empathetic orchestra give her flickering tenor a warm comradeship in Sketch.
Cello, viola and trumpet join the ensemble for Dreamer, with the cogitations of James Maddren’s drums — unforced and subtle — adding a wayward sense of mystery.
Gourlay adds his testimony and when Clowes enters it is a tender dream of life that she is telling, reflecting the words of Jessie Jones’s poem Coloured Eye, which is the album’s finale, her horn’s “sensitive ringings” and the “rainbow waves” of her tenor are like a sonic gossamer.
These are at the heart too of her album of 2011, And In The Night-Time She Is There. The title comes from Wilde’s poem The Sphinx and its three-part suite, the Iris Nonet with string quartet, is dedicated to the love of her late grandmother.
Her quartet with Gourlay, Maddren and Chris Montague’s filigreeing guitar adds celloist Heidi Parsons for three tracks, who, with Maddren’s brushes, cushions the sound even more on the opening track Atlas, assuaging all its edges. They’re gone too from Green Circle, with Clowes’s solo floating like a kite over her confreres.
Parsons’s cello adds more depth to On/Off and as Clowes finds a kind of levitation over her bow work it is as if they are playing in the air. There is a softly beautiful colloquy between Clowes and Montague’s guitar in Seven. Simcock and the string quartet are with her on the somnolent Animator and through the Iris Nonet, where the plucked strings, fleeting violin phrases and delving bass are harbingers of a warm solo. The sound of faraway strings and Clowes’s mollifying horn, suddenly interrupted by Montague’s electric wares, set alight the suite’s second movement.
Clowes’s Little Tune, played with a virtual quiescence by the composer and Montague, ends an album of unusual and original beauty.
Her 2014 album Pocket Compass, partly recorded with the BBC Concert Orchestra — and following a visit to California where she befriended 81-year-old tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter — features Tangent and Simcock again. Wilde’s lyrical poem of the Thames, Symphony in Yellow, graces the sleeve and a lyricism of kinship runs right through the album.
The album’s opener Radiation finds her playing with more power and volume, and in Question Mark Montague’s electric sounds and Simcock’s strident notes find echoes in a much freer soprano saxophone chorus from Clowes.
Back on tenor for Porcupine she sounds pricklier and more defiant alongside Maddren’s more heated drums, and for her tribute to Wilde’s poem she says that she was responding to his “idea of a beautiful butterfly floating above the smoggy urban skyline of London.” Her sound couldn’t be closer to his image and resonates with his words. Wilde’s sister she is.
In Balloon, with the orchestra, her timbre is in the air again, her soprano moving with a new combustion and energy matched by Montague’s throbbing chorus.
This is definitely a balloon with an engine. Her dedication to Shorter is Wayne’s Waltz, where, back on soprano she remembers 60 years of his recording artistry in a dance of love and homage.
She is his inheritor a continent and an ocean away, and a young woman brimming with the surprise and ever-inventive singularity of her magic.