Friday, July 20, 2007

Journey To The Margins Part 3

Kenny Werner, The Bad Plus, Michael Brecker, Box Of Dub, Cinematic Orchestra

Kenny Werner is reasonably well known as a Pianist, mostly working with a trio, in relatively conventional post-bop style. With his latest album though (his first for Blue Note), he has thrown everyone a giant curveball. Not only has he assembled an absolute dream team for these sessions (Dave Douglas, Chris Potter, Scott Colley and Brian Blade, who plays at this swinging, subtle best here), but he has also ventured into the realms of jazz-rock and electronics. Actually, there’s probably enough refined jazz here to keep everyone happy (Werner’s playing is especially mellifluous on ‘The 13th Day’, a long piece that ends with a haunting theme), but what is most striking is the inventive use of studio resources. Luckily, Werner has achieved this without stifling his group’s energy, and Colley and Blade appear to have struck up an enervating empathy with each other. ‘New Amsterdam’ is underpinned by a quirky groove, whilst the brilliantly named ‘Lawn Chairs (and Other Foreign Policy)’ features some deliciously squelchy keyboard sounds and ‘Uncovered Heart’ is a lush ballad with hints of African melodic influence. ‘Inaugural Balls’ is superbly jagged, and features some energetic free blowing. The electronics sit comfortably alongside the group performances and this is an album of refreshing variety.

It’s always good to hear from The Bad Plus, a group who have divided opinion for as long as they have existed. Oddly, both Marsalis brothers appear to detest them, whilst others (myself included) admire them deeply for expanding the language of trio jazz and opening the music up to a whole new audience. In recent years, however, there has been a strong sense that the group have been losing commercial ground, particularly in this country, where a whole new wave of British groups have occupied the open minded jazz-rock ground they once claimed. ‘Prog’ appears to be a mostly self-financed album, released independently by the band themselves.

The album also represents a certain kind of retrenchment by increasing the quota of reworkings of popular songs. Most are played pretty straight – it’s arguable that this version of ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’ is as ponderous and meandering as the original, albeit with pretentions at serious art. ‘Life On Mars’ is carefully extrapolated and rewired, whilst by its very nature, Rush’s ‘Tom Sawyer’ is inevitably the most deconstructed. None are as exciting as their earlier interpretations of Nirvana, Blondie or Aphex Twin though, and ‘prog’ seems to confirm my suspicions that it is now their original compositions that are most rewarding.

Luckily the group excel themselves in their writing here, particularly bassist Reid Anderson, who contributes two masterful compositions in ‘Physical Cities’ and the choppy ‘Giant’. The latter allows versatile, supremely technical drummer David King to flex his muscles. Ethan Iverson’s piano playing is characteristically polyrhythmic throughout, often apparently pulling in several different directions simultaneously. They remain a superb ensemble, capable of real structural invention.

What a tragedy that Michael Brecker’s final album ‘Pilgrimage’ has had to be released posthumously, but what a miracle it is that he essentially kept himself alive in order to complete it. This would be a remarkable record from anyone in full health – as a result, it’s next to impossible to believe that Brecker was in the advanced stages of terminal cancer whilst recording this. His playing throughout is vibrant and full-bodied, and it’s clear that he remained a confident master of his instrument right to the last moment. It’s also by no means mere hyperbole to suggest that Brecker might have reached his compositional peak here. Whilst there’s nothing in this set that will challenge or reshape the musical landscape, the themes are consistently memorable and the record has an appreciably timeless sound.

It certainly helps that Brecker assembled a group of masters to accompany him. Pat Metheny is at his expressive best here, providing subtle chordal backings and frequently supporting the main melody with counter figures of his own. John Patitucci remains one of the ablest and most solid bassists in the world, and combining him with the swashbuckling drive of Jack De Johnette makes for a pretty much unbeatable rhythm section. The compositions are therefore rendered rhythmically intricate and the intensity is brilliantly sustained throughout, notably so on the magnificent opener ‘The Mean Time’ and the driving groove of ‘Tumbleweed’. The latter has a brilliantly onomatopoeic title, for it does indeed tumble and rattle – with real energy and conviction. There’s also a neat contrast between the insistent, immediate piano playing of Herbie Hancock and the more ponderous and studied style of Brad Mehldau (a musician I personally find somewhat difficult).

There’s a relentless momentum to much of this material, alongside some brilliant improvising, investing new life in what are essentially familiar modal explorations. The sound is always crisp and full of spirit, so even over the most elaborate extemporisations (the extended introduction of the title track for example), there is a curious warmth and zest. The group is equally adept at handling introspection though, and the central ballad ‘When Can I Kiss You Again?’ is moving in its unassuming grace and elegance.

‘Pilgrimage’ will inevitably be seen as a symbolic recording – a miraculous valedictory statement of real integrity and depth. In this case, though, this is not without genuine justification. Brecker appears to have imbued this material with personal warmth, compassion and humanity. As a result, it’s a record that, whilst brimming with musicality, is also purely and simply enjoyable.

The Soul Jazz record label, already established as a superb chronicler of otherwise hard to find soul and reggae rarities, has been branching out considerably in recent years. Branching into the world of arty disco, punk and post-punk, they have been instrumental in recovering a number of lost masters of their art. Perhaps their most significant release to date remains the wonderful Arthur Russell compilation, the success of which led to other companies investing in recapturing the rest of his extraordinary output, both as a composer and as a producer (although I’m still waiting for a CD reissue of the Dinosaur L album). This year, they have journeyed yet further into the contemporary pop landscape with a compilation of prime jungle and drum ‘n’ bass from the early nineties, and the truly magnificent Box Of Dub, a compilation that neatly connects the nascent dubstep movement back to its dub reggae origins.

All the genre’s prime movers and shakers are here (Burial, Kode 9, Skream, Scuba), with a generous selection of tracks not available on their respective albums. The Kode 9 and Burial tracks are particularly impressive, dark and imposing in their creative vision, and brilliantly executed.

Yet it’s the less well known moments that are most striking, in that they show clear links between this ‘future dub’ collection and the classic Lee Perry and Keith Hudson produced works which no doubt served as major sources of inspiration. ‘Dread Cowboy’ is credited to Tayo Meets The Acid Rockers Uptown, a direct reference to the King Tubby/Augustus Pablo classic, and is a deliciously laconic skank refreshed for the contemporary sonic landscape by the use of stuttering percussion and sub-bass sounds borrowed from grime. The two tracks by Sub Version feat. Paul St. Hilaire (unfortunately the sleeve notes are not informative enough to indicate whether these are direct collaborations or a producer’s reversions of pre-existing tracks) are most illuminating – Hilaire’s voice is strongly reminiscent of Horace Andy, and both tracks are majestic.

Jason Swinscoe’s Cinematic Orchestra have finally returned with yet another ‘soundtrack to an imaginary film, as yet unmade’. Fortunately, ‘Ma Fleur’ is arguably their most evocative record to date, benefiting considerably from a number of significant contributors from the jazz world and beyond, and frequently moving outside the jazz-meets-trip-hop box in which Swinscoe had been in danger of confining himself. There are hints of folk music and pop balladry (the latter mostly brought by singer-songwriter Patrick Watson), and the comparisons with Talk Talk’s ‘Spirit of Eden’ are not entirely wide of the mark, although ‘Ma Fleur’ doesn’t share that record’s extraordinary sense of space and control.

That being said, those wanting more of the same will be more than satisfied with the reappearance of legendary soul and gospel singer Fontella Bass on ‘Familiar Ground’ (aptly titled) and ‘Breathe’, the latter pulling off a neat trick in combining concerns both old and new. It’s a strikingly beautiful and poignant piece of music, brilliantly constructed. Bass has apparently been unwell – perhaps as a consequence she sounds more vulnerable and less overpowering on these tracks. ‘Child Song’ again prominently features the sinewy drum loops of Luke Flowers and rolling upright bass figures of Phil France, albeit with some neatly arranged backing vocals varying the texture. Elsewhere, guest musicians such as percussionist Milo Fell and pianist Nick Ramm leave their own indelible mark on proceedings, and the string arrangements are dependably lush, particularly on the lovely ‘All The Stars Fell’.

A number of the other tracks require some effort on behalf of the listener, particularly the gentle, deceptively simple ‘Music Box’ which sees Watson share vocal duties with former Lamb singer Lou Rhodes. The title track represents Swinscoe at his most engaging, collaborating with saxophonist Tom Chance to produce something immersing and compelling. The opening ‘To Build A Home’, somewhat oddly, most closely resembles Coldplay, were that group to have any sense of real drama beyond the merely emotionally manipulative.

‘Ma Fleur’ is a slow burning but beautiful achievement, and it seems appropriate that it needs to be ingested as a complete whole. It has a delicate ebb and flow, and at its best is as emotional as it is atmospheric.

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