‘Evolution: Seeds & Streams’ – John Ellis

johnellis_evolution

THE OCCASIONS when art coincides with one’s own surroundings and experiences can be pretty special, even life-affirming; when music, in particular, somehow reveals its power to three-dimensionalise the here and now whilst also more brightly illuminating itself.

An unlikely setting for my recent experience of this was a softly sunny, three-hour southbound drive along the M6 and M5 – and the looped, Sunday morning soundtrack: John Ellis’ Evolution: Seeds & Streams. This new instrumental release began life as a 2015 Manchester Jazz Festival commission, the original music of the Manchester-based pianist, singer, composer, producer (and founder member of The Cinematic Orchestra) accompanied by visual projections from artist Antony Barkworth Knight.

Daniel Halsall’s intriguingly minimal cover art offers little insight as to what lies in waiting – yet inside, a ten-piece ensemble, with John Ellis’ piano at the centre, presents a compelling, unfolding soundscape. Perhaps now somewhat clichéd, music can often be described as ‘a journey’; but it was this inspired line-up (including kora players Cali Nyonkoling Kuyateh and John Haycock), offering a blend of jazz, world, folk and cyclic minimalism, which connected so markedly with the contrasting urban and rural fluctuations of that motorway passage, and have continued to enthral ever since.

One of the attractive characteristics of Ellis’ music is that it doesn’t rely on spotlight soloing to make such a deep impression. Instead, it achieves this through congruous shape-shifting textures and highlights from acoustic instruments and synthesiser which, despite an often repetitious basis, never become jaded. It’s as if composer and musicians paint their broad canvas so sensitively that they leave sufficient white space for the listener to contribute, thereby becoming involved emotionally; and its accessible, melodic hypnotism gradually pervades the air like a richly fragrant balm.

Flight‘s resonant, synthesised ‘womb’ ostinato gives rise to the ebb and flow of brass, reeds and cello, all coloured by subtle piano, flute, percussion and bird calls, with distinctive kora evoking a Toumani Diabete-like sound world – an unusual yet heavenly blend. Seamlessly changing scene, Sam Healey’s lyrical alto in the first of two interludes segues into Unidentical Twins, whose open, eastern calm strengthens to include the most rapturously phrased trombone improvisations from Ellie Smith; and Interlude Two‘s electronic cityscape momentum, tempered with cello and piano embellishments, feeds into The Ladder which possesses an echoic electric piano groove redolent of Soft Machine and reverberates with gently mesmeric, Steve Reichian overlaps.

Led by Helena Jane Summerfield’s clarinet, Poemander‘s homely, tuneful charm is again delicately enhanced by dual kora – but also note the luscious, close-knit brass and woodwind arrangements which swirl like a gentle but purposeful breeze. Electronic subtones in A Bigger Cake (and a keyboard motif which might even recall Supertramp) prompt Ellis’ delightfully chromatic, free-spirited jazz progressions; and Arrival‘s simple, folksong oasis features the haunting, wide portamento of Jessica MacDonald’s cello and an abundant instrumental summation of this whole, wondrous experience.

One of 2015’s most satisfying surprise packages, this album is now in the car glovebox as part of an essential ‘survival kit’.

Released on 11 November 2016, Evolution: Seeds & Streams is available from Gondwana Records, at Bandcamp, as CD or high-quality digital download (visual projection teaser trailers here).

 

John Ellis piano, keyboard
Pete Turner bass, synthesizer
Helena Jane Summerfield clarinet, tenor sax, flute
Sam Healey alto sax
Ellie Smith trombone
Jessica MacDonald cello
Cali Nyonkoling Kuyateh kora
John Haycock kora
Rick Weedon percussion
Jason Singh beatbox

johnellis.co.uk
antonybarkworthknight.com

Gondwana Records – GONDCD015 (2016)

‘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)