Ross McHenry – Nothing Remains Unchanged (First Word Records)

Reviewed by Des Cowley.

Ross McHenry is an award-winning bassist, composer and producer, originally hailing from Adelaide. An innovative and restless musician, his music to date has genre-hopped across jazz, afrobeat, electronic, and chamber music. 

Nothing Remains Unchanged, however, sits firmly in the jazz idiom. It was recorded in New York with a stellar quartet that includes the great American drummer Eric Harland (best known for his work with Charles Lloyd), along with Canadian saxophonist Ben Wendel, and New York based (but Adelaide-born) pianist Matthew Sheens.

The recording is McHenry’s fourth for UK based First Word Records, and, given the standard of the music on offer, it may well become his breakout album.

The opener ‘Complicated Us’ is prescient of what’s to come, kicking off with a subtle bass line before Sheens’ piano and Wendel’s sax usher in a warm and gentle melody. But true to McHenry’s compositions, nothing stays the same for long. Choppy rhythms soon enough splice up the tune, with Harland’s drumming driving it in new and surprising directions.

At the halfway mark, Sheens lays down a series of dark thunderous chords, reminiscent of McCoy Tyner, providing a launching pad for a blistering sax solo by Wendel. From its lyrical opening, the piece has suddenly veered into the energetic and intense terrain we associate with Coltrane’s classic quartet, all delivered in a fraction over five minutes.

The following track, ‘Adelaide’, arguably the album’s tour de force, starts off in light and breezy fashion before taking a decidedly left turn. Midway, Sheen’s piano takes on a strident urgency, as he punches out anxious, repetitive notes, while Wendel’s sax, like a slow-burning fuse, wails in a plaintive tone. Harland throughout is a wonder, never coming to rest on a predictable beat, but instead constantly shuffling the tempo, driving his fellow musicians at every turn.

Elsewhere, ‘Processional’ begins with slow funereal sax, played over muted piano notes, building majestically before it too segues into darker, more exploratory territory. ‘Perspectives’ is a quiet and lyrical piece, a touch of late-night ambience, beautifully extended with a coda that takes it to an entirely new place.

The album ends with ‘Highway Morning’, a lush gospel-tinged groove that sees it out in joyous style. Nothing Remains Unchanged is the sound of tight-knit unit operating at the peak of its game.

If reaching for comparisons, I’d lean toward Keith Jarrett’s European quartet, featuring Jan Garbarek. There is something of that same mix of deep lyricism and emotional intensity, along with telepathic communication, to be heard here on McHenry’s album, there is a similar exploratory ethos is at work. Like Jarrett, McHenry succeeds in being easy on the ear without sacrificing complexity. The best of his compositions function like journeys, often arriving at destinations far from where they started. 

Nothing Remains Unchanged is a testament to McHenry’s growth as composer and bandleader, flagging him as a talent deserving of our attention.