(engines imprint EAN: 0700 987779677)
Opening tracks on albums matter, especially if it’s a group new to the listener. It’s a chance to lay out the musical stall, to show the breadth of what’s likely to be on offer in the rest of the album. Phil Meadows, composer, saxophonist and leader of both the Engines Orchestra and the quintet at its core, oversees a stall overflowing with bounty, and he knows just how to lay it out for best effect.
From shimmering strings (yep, this is an orchestra in the true sense of the word) with minimalist, circling low woodwinds, overlaid by chirruping higher ones and underpinned by edgy drums and percussion from Simon Roth, through an inviting, slightly sultry vocal from Alice Zawadzki (also one of the first violins) and then into a descending harp-led motif over which the leader solos, and on with an ever-widening orchestral landscape opening out behind him and back into the vocal culminating in some well-managed chaos mainly from the central combo to a sudden finish, this is orchestral jazz of striking effectiveness and originality.
The follow-up to that opener, Missing Days, is the title track, and again the melodic themes are strong, the soloing eloquent and the arrangement richly rewarding. Lifecycles reminds me slightly of a track from Brad Mehldau’s excellent orchestral album, Highway Rider – maybe it’s just soprano saxophone set against strings – and while I don’t like making comparisons in reviews, this one at least gives an indication of the quality of the music.
But good strong orchestrations are only part of this album. There is the free-er, more experimental side of it, too, as in the brief The Spark, with Zawadzki giving impressionistic sighs within a bustling band, or the more extensive looseness of Intoxicated Delirium, which brings some folk dance jig mayhem to the party – fine work here from trumpeter Laura Jurd, as well as pianist Elliot Galvin and bassist Conor Chaplin, band members Jurd shares with Meadows.
Prelude has some terrific string writing, while Remembrance features harp against some spine-tingling, held, almost Oriental string tones, which then segue into resonant, dark chocolate woodwinds and bass. Galvin and Chaplin really do the business here. We’re back into swirling uncertainty and a virtuosic bit of solo piano from Galvin before he locks us into the groove of Celebration and then proceeds to subvert the beat and order, before Jurd, Chaplin and Roth insist on the groove with the strings along for stirring support.
Strife Of Life features an angry hive of strings and some luminous trumpet, and the closer, Twice The Man, is as complete as the opener, with Zawadzki again swapping her violin for the vocal mic. The album’s rising finale, preceded by Jurd and a wordless Zawadzki over the band, and by a trickily-timed soprano solo from Meadows, has the hairs on the back of the neck up and saluting.
If Lifecycles were just a strong, safe orchestral jazz album it would have been a winner for the writing, arranging and playing, but it’s more than that, because Meadows’ decision to take chances and explore unruliness (and with a group of this size!) shows a truly exceptional – and seemingly fearless – musical talent.
This album actually came out last November, and was launched at the London Jazz Festival, and I shall be having strong words with thejazzbreakfast’s head of filing and administration for the unforgivable lapse in efficiency whereby I completely missed reviewing it then. It would surely have made my end of year Festive 50. Ah well, it’ll just have to make the 2015 one instead.
Highly – if belatedly – recommended!
Categories: CD review