‘Spirit House’ – Joel Harrison 5

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US guitarist Joel Harrison is not the kind of guy to become entrenched in one particular musical niche – in fact, his extensive back catalogue of recordings (probably lesser known to European ears) reveals a desire to straddle genre borders to communicate his searching creativity.

Harrison’s collaboration with sarode player Anupam Shobhakar (Leave the Door Open, Whirlwind, 2013) conveyed an intelligent and empathetic appreciation of North Indian and other world music, ingeniously fusing it with jazz and rock elements; and previous albums reveal an embracement of African, Appalachian, country music and spirituals (to name but a few), as well as the clear influence of American jazz and country guitarists such as Bill Frisell and Duane Allman.

This new release release presents a fascinating quintet line-up – guitar, trumpet, bassoon, bass and drums – in an improvisationally-heavy exploration of originals by Harrison, plus one arrangement. The guitarist explains that a Spirit House, in East Asian culture, is a miniature structure sheltering the deities, “a home of sorts for those invisible forces that guide the visible world” – and hence a useful metaphor for the studio coming-together, following a West Coast tour, of esteemed musical spirits Harrison, Cuong Vu, Paul Hanson, Kermit Driscoll and Brian Blade.

With such collective experience, Spirit House projects a huge vista of powerful styles and atmospheres centred around contemporary jazz and rock, with an instrumental/electronic weave which, at times, is pleasingly difficult to unpick. Title track An Elephant in Igor’s Yard is typical of the energy to be found here, it’s dark, swirling mood underpinned by clashing, overdriven guitar chords and a solid, persistent bass’n’drum pulse; yet there is space within for trumpeter Cuong Vu to blast high into the roof… and is that footloose pitch-bent synth actually a remarkable electronic transformation of Paul Hanson’s bassoon?

The attractive, relatively acoustic feel of Old Friends is inhabited by a playful whiff of mid-’70s prog/psychedelia (mostly thanks to its jaunty, almost Hendrix-fashioned bassoon melodies), as is the tumbling Left Hook, where guitar, trumpet and bassoon superbly combine as a smooth, pseudo horn section before Vu delivers the most impressively extreme range of techniques. Paul Motian’s Johnny Broken Wing drifts freely and emotionally in Harrison’s guitar-and-effects arrangement, the plaintive unison melody carried serenely by Vu and Hanson; and that melancholy aura filters in to the leader’s translation of his own early 90s poem, Some Thoughts on Kenny Kirkland – a tribute, led by soulful vocalist Everett Bradley and Harrison’s ‘Free Bird’ guitar, to those who have departed too soon.

The chattering lightness of You Must Go Through a Winter is carefully measured, leaving a broad canvas over which trumpet, guitar and oboe glide effortlessly – a levitational oasis amongst the heavier numbers; and bluesy Sacred Love increasingly bustles to Kermit Driscoll’s grooving bass as trumpet and guitar grittily duel it out, joined by the new-age inquisitiveness of the bassoon (Hanson’s work a real stand-out). Eight-minute title track Spirit House cautiously ebbs and flows, Harrison’s sparse writing offering the intended freedom to his colleagues; and Look At Where You Are, featuring the leader’s layered vocals, closes the album in smoky, wistful, American folk-rock tones.

Spirit House offers a real sense of discovery, realising Joel’s Harrison’s own intentions: “This is a project that mixes heart, soul, intellect and wit to create music that might move in different ways… to open a door inside the listener that helps to experience something which takes them on a journey.”

Released on 7 July 2015, full details and purchasing options can be found at Whirlwind Recordings.

 

Joel Harrison guitar, voice
Cuong Vu trumpet
Paul Hanson bassoon
Kermit Driscoll bass
Brian Blade drums, voice
with
Everett Bradley voice
Adam Kipple Hammond B-3 organ

joelharrison.com

Whirlwind Recordings – WR4673 (2015)

‘The Aviators’ Ball’ – Matt Owens

MattOwens

I AM REMINDED of a golden age of TV themes. Statuesque 1960s/70s tunes and traditional orchestrations that have remained in the mind, the merest few bars’ snippet triggering inextricably-linked carefree memories. Manchester composer and bassist Matt Owens seems to capture such a spirit in this fine debut of charming, sometimes quirky, and beautiful creations.

Happily difficult to pigeonhole in terms of genre, with elements of jazz, folk, pop and movie soundtrack, Owens draws on an abundance of instrumentalists and vocalists (below) to convey the character of his distinctive writing. The majority of The Aviators’ Ball (a title inspired by Owens’ real-life discovery, in Prague, of an aviation society’s ball!) comes from his suite Ten – one of Manchester Jazz Festival’s excellent mjf originals commissions – and unabashedly seeks a mostly acoustic landscape of waltz, curtsy and blithe melody.

With woodwind, brass and breezy Irish tin whistle, Raindrops on our Rooftop immediately makes that retro leap, its persistent bassoon figure suggesting an era of Puppet on a String and marginal folk/rock band curiosity Gryphon. Title track The Aviators’ Ball exudes all the warmth of gentle period drama as mellow cornet improvisations float over piano and tea-parlour strings; and then – with a cosy woodwind intro redolent of… that’s right… The Clangers! – singer and guitarist Tom Davies delivers his winsome Mouse Song with unexpected and touching simplicity.

As sunshiny as a beach-bound, open-top Morris journey, the crisp, wordless vocal momentum of Going Back to the Village confirms Owens’ picture-painting prowess, arranged here by Manchester favourite (and co-producer of this album) guitarist/singer Kirsty Almeida; and the folksy theme of Every Wish is for You, initiated with pianistic nursery-rhyme candour, rolls along to placid trumpet and flute extemporisation.

The singular, expressive voice of Rioghnach Connolly interprets Celtic love song Black is the Colour like no other, her affecting tones breathing “I love the ground whereon he stands” like changeable winds across heather land. Soft-pop The Peanut Train shuffles to Owens’ downy horn-and-woodwind arrangement; Monsoon is similarly entrancing, led by the impassioned vocal of Zoe Kyoti; and full of dreamy nostalgia, Violet concludes the set, once again highlighting Matt Owens’ aptitude and greater potential for niche soundtrack scoring.

In an album which might initially appear quaint, due to the genuiness of its eclectic, yesteryear approach, the persuasive strength of its endearingly tuneful hooks and arrangements make it utterly irresistible – certainly a delightful musical diversion.

Launching at Chorlton Arts Festival on 18 May 2015, The Aviators’ Ball is available from All Made Up Records.

 

Matt Owens double bass
Neil Yates trumpet, tin whistle
John Ellis piano
Rick Weedon drums, percussion
Sophie Hastings marimba, glockenspiel
Amina Hussian flute
David Benfield oboe
Lucy Rugman clarinet
Jon Harris French horn
Simon Davies bassoon
Semay Wu cello
Steve Chadwick cornet
Edward Barnwell piano
Danny Ward drums
Alison Williams violin
Naomi Koop violin
Aimée Johnson viola
Tom Davies guitar, vocals
Carla Sousa flute
Philip Howarth cor anglais
Jill Allen clarinet
Lucy Keyes bassoon
Kirsty Almeida vocals
Caroline Sheehan vocals
Orli Nyles vocals
Cara Robinson vocals
Atholl Ransome alto flute
Rioghnach Connolly vocals
Billy Buckley guitar, lap steel
Zoe Kyoti vocals, guitar
Rosa Campos Fernandez clarinet

mattowens.co.uk

All Made Up Records – AMU0007 (2015)