(Stoney Lane Records)
This is the most ambitious release yet from the young Birmingham jazz scene, and quite possibly from any Birmingham-based jazz musician. Drummer Jonathan Silk has expanded his big band to 20 players and then added a 13-piece string section.
Silk has been studying with two of jazz music’s finest composer/arrangers, Maria Schneider and Vince Mendoza, and has clearly been an attentive student: this album is filled with mature and sophisticated writing. With these large forces to write for, Silk still manages to leave space in the mix, and the music has a broad sweep of light and shade. Though I do have a caveat.
As with the Silk band’s first disc, Uncouth, Percy Pursglove is an eloquent soloist, and his improvisations provide most of the strong melodic content against these harmonically expansive, rhythmically varied, atmospheric soundtracks.
The opening Introduction introduces us to Silk’s string-writing, a graceful, faintly melancholy progression overlaid with a perfect little flugelhorn vignette from Pursglove. Then it’s on to the high altitudes of Buchaille, Mike Fletcher’s flute floating like whisps of cloud round the mountainside of brass steadily rising in pitch and intensity, before settling into trombone solo which could be Kieran Mcleod or Richard Foote (a soloist list in the cover would have been nice) and a baritone solo from Rob Cope against a characteristic Silk bouncing pulse. The strings build like amassing clouds.
First Light features Nick Jurd’s double bass and Silk’s brushes in amongst the strings. There is a quiet tension in the music, as if this is a dawn hard-won, or perhaps a vaguely ominous day approaching. Prelude ups the power with a punchy bit of tight horn writing – and playing – including a brooding tenor solo (John Fleming?). Barefoot – Thomas Seminar Food is the featured guitarist – lightens the mood a little but it’s not exactly sunny. Well, not until Mike Fletcher lets rip with a blistering alto solo – a real highpoint of the album – and the band gives him all the support he deserves.
Reflection continues the series of shorter, string-dominated “interludes” which appear throughout, this time with piano (Andy Bunting or Toby Boalch) the featured instrument. In Thought sounds fairly through-composed aside from the Pursglove flugel improvisation – a real peach of a solo. The title track feels like a sci-fi serial theme tune, brassy and electric, underpinned by Jurd’s electric bass, Silk driving hard and with Ford in soaring jazz-rock mode. The longest track, Fool’s Paradise, goes through a few moods and features another fine solo from Pursglove, and the album ends with another evocative string piece, the leader’s drums leading into a final rich brass conclusion.
After the first few listens to this album I had the nagging feeling there was something missing, and although it has been somewhat ameliorated since, I still can’t quite shake that feeling. I went searching for enlightenment in the cover, and found these words from Jonathan: “The music aims to explore a dynamic journey through the large ensemble, taking advantage of the variety of different instrumental forces and framing the unique improvising voices within the ensemble.” And I can’t fault him there: “dynamics” – yes; “journey” – it feels like it; “different instrumental forces” – tick; “improvising voices” – yep.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the missing ingredient is strong tunes. It’s like a big cast scene in a blockbuster movie without the main characters; like a studio mix of all the musical channels except for the one that contains the lead melody line. There are little bits of melody, but often they could easily be accompanying horn parts or counter melodies rather than the real thing. For the most part the really strong melodic content is not written by Silk but improvised by Pursglove or Fletcher or the other soloists.
Of course, this might be Jonathan’s aim. It is suggested in the album title, perhaps? Those bits of written melody certainly have the substance of fragments. And in the abstract art of the cover? Yes, maybe I’m wanting a stronger story or narrative where impression and suggestion is all that is intended. But I can’t help feeling that while he learned all the right things from Schneider and Mendoza, he somehow missed the crucial lesson on writing strong melodies – the kind that stick with the listener after the impressions of the arrangments have dissipated. And I fully accept that this is a question of personal taste. You might not hear it the same way at all. And, incomplete or not, it’s still a brilliant achievement.
Go buy it. And go hear it live.
- Buy your copy of Jonathan Silk’s Fragment from Stoney Lane Records HERE.
- You can hear this music played live this Friday 9 December at the CBSO Centre in Birmingham. It starts at 8pm, tickets are £12.50 to £15 and you can book HERE.
Categories: CD review