Thursday, July 16, 2009

New Fusions

Acoustic Ladyland – Living With a Tiger (Strong and Wrong, 2009)

The name Acoustic Ladyland had a certain logic when the group emerged as an acoustic jazz quartet performing works inspired by Jimi Hendrix. Since then, they’ve become a full-blooded jazz-rock ensemble, with increasing emphasis on the rock. The moniker now begins to look more like a stubborn contradiction.

With explosive guitarist replacing the now departed keyboardist Tom Cawley and Ruth Goller replacing Tom Herbert on electric bass, the band have undergone a major line-up change. This hasn’t radically redefined their sound, but has rather refocused their energies and bolstered their already aggressive dynamic. The resulting album is brutal, insistent and undeniably enjoyable, brimming with riotous energy and enthusiasm.

There’s a playful verve to ‘Have Another Go’ and ‘Death By Platitude’, underpinned by Seb Rochford’s drumming, which is at once rigorous and thrilling. Best of all are probably the swampy ‘Gratitude’ and the closing ‘You and I’. The latter has a primal rhythmic urgency. On the former, Sharkey gets welcome space to demonstrate his chops as well as his array of effects pedals and the group begins to resemble an edgier Led Zeppelin.

Much of the music here is taken at a frantic pace (the opening ‘Sport Mode’ certainly wastes no time in establishing the mood), although the band are sounding increasingly assured with slower grooves too. ‘The Mighty Q’, dedicated to saxophonist and band leader Pete Wareham’s newborn son Quincy is one of these moments, demonstrating that there’s a very human heart beneath the relentless attack. ‘Worry’ even allows a slight hint of melancholy into the proceedings, hinting that Wareham might be able to provide the group with much more light and shade in the future.

‘Living With a Tiger’ is a considerably more confident album than its predecessor ‘Skinny Grin’. That record had its moments – but didn’t sound anywhere near as powerful as this. Perhaps part of this process of refinement has been the abandoning of vocals – although I admire Alice Grant’s original vocal style. On ‘Living With a Tiger’, Wareham’s saxophone playing has the passion, guts and gusto of a bellowing human voice. This could easily be stereotyped as angry music, but I’m struck most by its positivity and joy.

Troyka – Troyka (Edition, 2009)

There’s a great deal of love for Troyka at the moment and it’s easy to understand why. The group is based on a straightforward but original conceit. Here is a conventional organ trio line-up (Kit Downes on organ, Chris Montague on guitar and the truly fearsome Josh Blackmore on drums) playing anything but conventional music. This band deconstructs genre boundaries with a wilful and sometimes brutal intent. The virtuosic ability of these three musicians, not purely in terms of technique, but also in terms of developing expressive musical ideas, is impossible to deny.

The in-demand Robert Harder, who also worked on Acoustic Ladyland’s album, again lends his engineering skills here. The whole album certainly sounds brilliant. There’s a constant sense of drama and tension, frequently found in the contrast between the underlying electronics and Montague’s daredevil highwire acrobatics on the guitar. The drum sound is also impressively crisp, with Josh Blackmore’s elaborately arranged kit voicings influencing the overall impact of the performances as much as the interplay between Montague and Downes.

Yet so much is thrown into the musical melting pot here that it threatens to become both overwhelming and oppressive. The compositions are angular and cerebral, and are frequently characterised by metronomically precise but unexpected interjections of electronic noise and crunching rock guitar riffing. In the short term, the control with which the band executes these changes is frankly breathtaking. The outstanding ‘Clint’ veers from a peculiar groove to a heavy recontextualisation of the slide guitar. But after a few listens, I find myself yearning for just some of the multitude of ideas to be expanded and developed.

Somewhat oddly, Montague’s compositions seem to work best when mercilessly concise. It’s refreshing to hear tunes as short as one and a half minutes in length that somehow sound complete. On the longer pieces, the group seem so keen to squeeze in all of their ideas that it’s often hard to find the common thread. Downes’ contributions, especially the mysterious ‘Golden’, offer breathing space for more lyrical playing.

This is exciting, challenging music and if I sometimes fail to rise to the challenge here, it possibly says more about me as a listener than it does about Troyka as an ensemble. Given time, I suspect this quirky, cerebral beast will reveal more than just an intricate logic.

Zed-U – Night Time on the Middle Passage (Babel, 2009)

Zed-U, a trio featuring Shabaka Hutchings, Neil Charles and Tom Skinner have variously been described as thrash jazz or dub jazz. Inevitably, these generic terms don’t come anywhere close to capturing their subtle combination of dreamy fantasia and punchy improvisation. ‘Night Time on the Middle Passage’ is less concerned with browbeating its audience with its innovative credentials, instead concentrating on mood, texture and space. For this reason, it demands concentration and repeated listens, but may actually be the most successful of these recent records aiming to redefine what jazz musicians can play.

Those who have seen saxophonist and clarinettist Hutchings play live will be aware that he can play with an imposing and impassioned authority. This side of his personality emerges less frequently here and is all the more striking as a result. ‘Chief’ is characterised by a fiery intensity and crafty staccato unison lines. Even better is the gradual crescendo of ‘Roki’, which builds from a restrained introduction into tempestuous repeated phrases.

Elsewhere though, the focus is more on his spare and elegant clarinet playing, frequently manipulated through effects and sampling. What is most impressive about this music is the way the instruments leave space for each other, with Hutchings’ direct, clear motifs interweaving with Neil Charles’ expressive basslines. Charles and drummer Tom Skinner do so much more than simply anchor the group – they inform the texture and intensity levels with intuitive musicality.

There will no doubt be tedious debates about whether this constitutes jazz or not. For the adventurous and open-minded listener, it won’t matter much how it’s classified. It certainly falls into the bracket of improvised music – in live performance, the group use this music as a springboard for further exploration, with tremendously exciting results. No two performances will be the same. In this sense, it fits my personal notion of what constitutes 'jazz', and represents a clear attempt to draw from that tradition and make it more relevant to a younger audience both in London and beyond.

Some have criticised the record for foregrounding texture and sound at the expense of composition, but I’m not sure I agree with this. There are formalities and rigours to the music here. It’s arguable that the pieces seem to be based more around phrasing and articulation than around conventional melodies but in some ways this makes the music more fresh and intriguing. The clipped, rhythmic motifs of Kraftwerk’s. Similarly, structure and dynamics play an important role. From start to finish, the album sounds fantastic, with a careful attention to detail and a consistently mysterious, sometimes unnerving mood. Zed-U’s novel synthesis can no doubt be further developed, but this is a brilliantly realised first step.


Adrian said...

Good reviews, as always. I've never quite been able to get Acoustic Ladyland (or Polar Bear for that matter). Something misses for me. On my first couple of listens to the Troyka it has also failed to connect but inspired by your review I shall revisit.

Have you heard the Mark Lockheart? It's quite impressive.

Daniel said...

Hi Adrian - yes, I love the Mark Lockheart album. I thought I'd written about it already but I actually haven't!

Adrian said...

I've just put up some of my thoughts on a few recent jazz releases.