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
Gondwana Records – GONDCD015 (2016)