‘Floa’ – Mammal Hands

Floa

NORWICH-BASED Mammal Hands’ debut album Animalia (2014) considerably raised the profile of saxophonist Jordan Smart, pianist Nick Smart and drummer Jesse Barnett – a trio apparently discovered by GoGo Penguin’s bassist, Nick Blacka. Since then, they have continued to garner interest in the UK, as well as enjoy international popularity (including gigs at festivals in the United States and Canada). Back in the recording studio, they now return with follow-up, Floa.

Comparisons with GoGo Penguin and the Portico Quartet are understandable (listen to the first three tracks, and this might be the GoGos with Jack Wyllie guesting). But Jordan Smart’s saxophone prowess does provide Mammal Hands with an organic, melodic advantage as he shapes his improvisations around the predominant piano ostinati; and notably, as this nine-track album proceeds, the trio pleasingly begin to develop their own, distinct voice.

So, opening numbers Quiet Fire, Hillum and Hourglass easily recall the aforementioned bands’ output, their trancelike repetition ebbing, flowing and gradually crescendoing to greater intensity (steadily-filling Hourglass, in particular, possesses – perhaps with an intended reference in the title – an appealing Philip Glass-like hypnotism with beautifully unexpected key shifts). But a change of gear in the form of a Dave Brubeckian 5/4 swing, in fourth track Think Anything, opens up a whole new vista of interest – a joyful, dancing blend of American jazz and European folk which invites intensifying improvisation from pianist Nick Smart, as well as the opportunity to create catchy, swirling riffs in fourths with Jordan Smart’s alto. Similarly, the sit-up-and-listen effect of In the Treetops suggests Mammal Hands eking out their own identity, as a highly repetitive sax figure is enhanced by Ibiza-style sustained strings.

By this mid-point, there’s the realisation that this music has the ability to seep and flow into the senses, as in the subtle, almost Oriental placidity of The Eyes that Saw the Mountain – yet here is a track which also sparkles with fresh, heavier grooving expressions. Kudu equally reveals that there is much more to this trio than the album first suggests; effective details such as Nick Smart’s low, undulating piano motifs and Jesse Barnett’s tabla resonance create something special in this increasingly energetic, high-point number. Miniature The Falling Dream indicates an aptitude for more filmic textures, with a gently cascading, Brian Eno-like dreaminess; so, too, does changeable Shift, whose eventual rockiness contrasts markedly with dramatically-charged serenity.

Striking, minimalistic cover art apart, don’t judge a book by its cover – i.e. immerse yourself in this whole album’s riches to understand how Mammal Hands are successfully charting their own course… and enjoy.

Released on 27 May 2016, Floa is available as CD, download and vinyl from Bandcamp.

 

Jordan Smart saxophones
Nick Smart piano
Jesse Barnett drums, tabla
with
Gavin Barras bass
Natalie Purton violin, viola

mammal hands.com

Gondwana Records – GONDCD014 (2016)

 

‘Into Forever’ – Matthew Halsall & The Gondwana Orchestra

IntoForever

MANCHESTER-based trumpeter, composer, arranger and bandleader Matthew Hallsall appears to have played a masterstroke with The Gondwana Orchestra’s new album, Into Forever.

The chilled, slowly-shifting soundscapes of Matt’s previous releases, though hugely popular with audiences, have not especially struck a chord with me; the spiritual koto-and-harp atmospheres of 2014’s album When The World Was One and more recent EP Journey in Satchidananda/Blue Nile sounding particularly ambient, even soporific. But the realisation of a long-held desire to work with vocalists has, like a smouldering taper to a wick, brightly ignited Halsall’s compositional skills here like never before.

Halsall first met Manchester ‘soul poet’ Josephine Oniyama whilst collaborating on a BBC Radio 3 programme, consequently sparking his imagination – and in enlisting both Oniyama and vocalist Bryony Jarman-Pinto, along with a string ensemble, something beautiful (and often pleasingly retro in feel) has occurred. Blending the nine-piece Orchestra’s world/jazz hues with these new colours, there’s an awakening of sound whose multiplicity recalls Air (of Moon Safari fame), Nils Frahm, The Cinematic Orchestra… and going back further, glimmers of Chick Corea’s Return to Forever.

The 11-track sequence is introduced by Josephine Oniyama’s strong, clear vocal in Only a Woman – illustrating a daughter’s eventual role reversal in caring for her elderly mother, its gently buoyant pulse is tempered by lush strings and shimmering harp glissandi. And the memorable octave-vocal of As I Walk – at steady-though-hypnotic walking pace marked out by strings and deliberate percussion – is finely decorated by harp and wordless backing. Serene interludes are to be found along the way, Dawn Horizon heralding the especially engaging Badder Weather whose Santana-like groove is illuminated by Oniyama’s emphatic vocal delivery. These Goodbyes reveals a deep, cinemascopic yearning (dedicated to the passing of one of Halsall’s friends and supporters), whilst fast-travelling The Land Of is clearly pictorialised by complex, clattering drums and percussion, as well as deliciously mystic flute which, in following Longsham Temple, evocatively pitch-bends the slower melodies, perhaps suggesting a long journey’s arrival.

Brief interlude Cushenden is majestically oriental, its strings resembling the world music explorations of Kronos, and title track Into Forever becomes meditative in its combination of Josephine’s Oniyama’s vocal lines and Halsall’s blue trumpet, upheld by delicate harp ostinati and droplet piano elaborations. Similarly transcendental Dean Park (prompted by an outdoor Tai Chi class the trumpeter witnessed in Taiwan) suggests the quietly-flowing streams of a Chinese garden, complete with bell-like chimes, which Halsall’s smooth improvisations pervade. And to close, Bryony Jarman-Pinto’s quirky, inflected vocals animate Jamais Vu (a fascinating voice which should be employed more extensively in later projects).

Still with Matthew Halsall’s trademark Eastern-flavoured ambience, this is a recording whose new-found vocal richness suggests further possibilities for development, and is sure to be a hit with established fans.

Released on 2 October 2015, Into Forever is available in CD, 12″ vinyl and digital formats from Hallsall’s own label, Gondwana Records (at Bandcamp) as well as online and in record stores.

 

Matthew Halsall trumpet
Lisa Mallett flute
Rachael Gladwin harp
Keiko Kitamura koto
Taz Modi piano
Gavin Barras bass
Luke Flowers drums
Sam Bell percussion
Chris Cruiks percussion
with
Josephine Oniyama vocals
Bryony Jarman-Pinto vocals
and
Margit Van Der Zwan cello
Natalie Purton viola, violin
John Purton violin
Jote Osahn violin
Ollie Izod violin

matthewhalsall.com

Gondwana Records – GONDCD013 (2015)