Black Flower — Magma
This excellent album offers a diverse mix of sounds. Although principally rooted in structures and styling associated with Ethiopian and Afro-jazz, there are more than enough other influences and styles woven into their alluring sonic cloak-of-many-colours, to satisfy a wide audience. For example prog fans will find much to admire in the shifting, swirling patterns of Deep Dive Down, whilst those who have an appetite for appealing songwriting will enjoy much of what the only track to feature vocals, Morning In The Jungle, offers.
The leader of the band is saxophonist and flute player Nathan Daems. He is also a principal member of Echoes of Zoo who's superb Break Out was reviewed by DPRP last year.
Echoes of Zoo's rhythmic, aggressive, sax-led approach is arguably more accessible, but its punk-jazz energy produces music that is most definitely rawer than anything conceived by Black Flower. In my opinion, Black Flower's art has far greater variety, channelling electronica, ethio jazz, Balkan folk, funk and aspects of psychedelia. Delicate, reflective interludes contrast brilliantly with inspired organ fills and buoyant, eyebrow-bouncing rhythms and meditative mind-shifting grooves. When the need arises, melody, energy and subtlety all have significant parts to play.
Magma is Black Flower's fifth release and is the first to feature keyboard player Karel Cuelenaere. This gives much of the music of Magma great depth and variety and his impressive input ensures that the sound palette that the band use is wide-ranging.
This is apparent from the moment the album begins, when synth pulses and effects introduce the beautifully formed, slow-paced title track. As image-forming synth beats recede and step aside, fizzing organ embellishments and cheek-stretching, melancholic sax-lines move the piece towards a different soundscape. The cornet tones created by Jon Birdsong that decorate the piece are delightful. His atmospheric and charming playing is a highlight throughout the release.
The album contains many examples of superb interplay between the musicians. Satisfyingly, the excellent quality of the recording adds to its overall appeal and brings the bands skillful mastery of their instruments to life. Magma's superb sonic quality certainly allows the music to breathe.
One of my favourite tracks is undoubtedly O Fogo. It features a Balkan wooden flute called a Kaval. Consequently, the track has a wonderful ethnic feel where Ethio-Jazz organ-lines coalesce with avant sections and folk-inspired melodies. It's a wonderfully inspiring tune.
The Light probably possesses one of the most memorable melodies of the album. Once again Daems' glorious Kaval skills adorn this evocative piece that is underpinned by some wonderful kit-work. This mix creates a wholesome, clasping experience as the music warmly drapes you in its sun-lit rays and beckons you in.
The flute playing in the magnificent Deep Dive Down is equally compelling. It ducks, floats, and dives. Its fragile, lofty tones are set against an upbeat rhythmic framework, that shifts purposefully as the piece develops and progresses. Different moods are explored in the arrangement and many directions are hinted at, to reveal the depth and full extent of the band's compositional skills. Deep Dive Down is a wonderful showcase for the band's fine skills where keyboards, percussion, bass, cornet and flute all excel.
During Blue Speck, Daems plays an Ethiopian flute called a Washint. It creates a whirling array of sounds. The Washint's breathy, natural, earthy qualities are perfect for the overall mood of the piece that possesses a hypnotic pull that spins around a delightful rhythmic groove. It concludes the album in a very satisfying manner
Magma is undoubtedly one of my favourite albums of 2022. Its sophisticated use of a range of instruments and earthy Ethio-jazz appeal is intoxicating and invigorating. It succeeds on so many levels, and is an album I will play many times again.
Jemma Freese — Shadow Boxing
And now for something completely different!
Is it prog? Is it jazz? Is it avant-garde? After listening to this album on many occasions, I must admit I really don't have a clue.
Apparently one of the ways in which Freese describes the music that she has created in Shadowboxing is math-jazz. Well I am not too concerned about descriptors, but it sort of buttonholes this release as one that is tightly-spun, unique, ethereal in nature and has a deep, contemplative air.
It is a fine example of modern contemporary music that is progressive in its ambitions and execution. In many ways it treads a similarly unsettling path to Ruth Goller's ground-breaking Skylla release, where bass and voice are used to great effect to create music that throws away every songbook rulebook, to create a totally immersive and unique experience.
Just like Skylla, Shadow Boxing challenges assumptions about song structures, and does not utilise a conventional verse and chorus approach. However, Shadow Boxing is much more accessible, and utilises a larger range of instruments. This ensures that the album has greater dynamic range and arguably much greater depth.
Shadow Boxing offers a cutting-edge musical experience for the listener, one that is imaginatively played and performed, and is crammed full of emotion.
If you like female vocals that reach out in a way that is seldom heard, then much of Shadow Boxing will probably appeal. Beautifully-formed syllables, wails, and yowls all have a part to play as the album's story unfolds. The nearest Freese gets to a conventional tune is the beautifully haunting The Fear That Stays; a song that ends proceedings in a delightful and thoughtful manner.
The album explores the relationship between creativity, ill health, and recovery. It is rhythmic and primeval, dark and uplifting. It is by turns both sophisticated and raw. Most of all, the heartfelt vocals which frequently take on the part of an instrument, demand a listener's attention. Freese's voice has the capacity and power to hold you tightly in a spell until the music surges, ebbs and flows to a conclusion; to leave a striking mark.
Consequently, I can add Freese's name to my large list of artists who are able to convey an extensive range of emotions via their unique vocal delivery. This list includes Gazelle Twin, Dagmar Krause, Kate Bush, Lauren Kinsella and of course Norma Winstone.
Freese has been involved in several exciting and innovative musical projects since she studied pop composition and jazz vocals at Leeds College of Music from 2014-2017. These include notably Maximo Park, where as a touring member, she is a keyboardist and backing vocalist. Her other projects include the experimental jazz trio J Frisco and the excellent off-beat electronica of the Freese Trio
The line-up on Shadow Boxing includes vocals/synth/rhodes - Jemma Freese, piano/rhodes - Claire Cope, drums - Katie Patterson, bass - Beth O'Lenahan and guitar - Jess Ayre.
It is difficult to describe the music of Shadow Boxing, given its genre-defying nature and unique execution. There were times when I was reminded of the minimalist rhythmic approach of Ikarus. On other occasions, the earnest and honest intensity of Dagmar's work with Slapp Happy and Henry Cow were recalled. Wordless vocals are used to great effect, and there are some tremendous scat passages. When lyrics are used, these convey a deep personal message that explores the central theme of the album.
Freese's range is quite incredible, one moment soaring into the higher octaves with the potential of shattering crystal glass, the next moment chanting and descending towards something much more earthy and malevolent.
The other players support Freese's vision with aplomb. There are some delightful piano embellishments, and the guitar of Jess Ayre adds extra oomph and a gritty texture when required. Ayre's contribution at the halfway stage to the superb Shadow Boxer Pt 1 is particularly gruff, and enhances the tune to good effect.
I think the best thing readers can do, if anything I have written has piqued your interest, is to check out the live performance of the album in the YouTube link, or alternatively head over to the samples link. If you wish to be challenged and hear something quite different, I am sure that you will not be disappointed.
Is it prog? Is it jazz? I haven't got a clue, but it's fascinating and intriguing and as a bonus it also sounds pretty darn good.
Initiative H — Polar Star
Polar Star is without doubt one of my favourite albums of 2022. Since its release, it has received many favourable reviews and I am sure that band-leader David Haudrechy must be proud of what he and his fellow musicians have achieved.
Initiative H's music can best be described as atmospheric progressive jazz. However, a raft of other styles and reference points can be discerned and there are a few occasions when the music of artists as diverse as Frank Zappa, Magma and Keith Tippett might form a suggestion for comparison.
Polar Star appeared in my mid-year best of list for DPRP and I am certain that it will remain high in my top ten pick for 2022.
Everything about this just works so well. The compositions are beautifully formed and impeccably played. The sound quality of the album is superb. Individual instruments are captured in magnificent clarity and when the ensemble is playing as a collective, all the instruments can clearly be discerned. There is a great feeling of spaciousness in the mix that matches much of the album's atmospheric mood, where both dynamics shifts in pace and volume are used to wonderful effect.
Memorable motifs, swish, glide, and weave enchantingly in clearly defined patterns. They shift, evolve and develop to reappear in recognisable, but altered forms. This gives an impression of continuity and unity throughout the release and ensures that the album has a satisfyingly-cohesive feel. Consequently, when the album subsides, the strong melodies, the memorable instrumental hooks and the powerful feelings they evoke, have the potential to dance in your dreams for several days.
The album begins in impressive fashion with Abyssal Zone. Its mix of an ethereal female voice and frantic, brass-led rhythmic parts are contrasted with haunting saxophone interludes that recall the evocative Nordic tones of Jan Garbarek. These work seamlessly together, to create an opening tune that sets the bar exceedingly high for what is to follow. The rest of the album's compositions, for the most part, match and indeed frequently exceed this excellent standard.
However, Abyssal Zone has so much going on during its nearly eight minutes duration, that it is undoubtedly one of my favourite pieces on the album. It includes a gorgeous guitar solo that just unwinds so naturally that is difficult not to be impressed by its goosebump-raising tones. At other times, when the pace quickens and the ensemble push the thrust button, I was reminded of the approach of The Keith Tippett Group in albums such as You Are Here I am There.
Time passes quickly in the company of this dazzling release, and as stated earlier this is due in no small part, by the way in which recurring motifs and melodies have a significant part to play. Equally importantly, it is an album that encompasses many moods. It is by turns sombre and joyful, brash, and plaintive.
In this respect, Ice Breaker is a mournful piece that contains a series of beautifully formed pastoral interludes. These are contrasted with bombastic stop-start sections. Increases in volume are employed to create points of divergence and these are utilised to stunning effect. Ice Breaker is quite superb in every way.
Although the album is highly melodic, discordance when it occurs is used effectively. For example, Silent World is an accessible tune that has exciting solo parts and is uplifting in every respect. However, it ends unexpectedly and interestingly with a sudden discordant flourish.
Over the course of the album several artists were recalled. The fast-paced chaos and rhythmic intensity of one of the sections during Crystal Trap was like something Graham Costello's Strata might have created. Similarly, the slowly-evolving low-end melodies that are prominent in the beginning of Bright Sight were highly reminiscent of the work of Eberhard Weber. I was even briefly reminded of Pink Floyd's Atom Heart Mother during a tiny portion of the excellent title track.
Nevertheless, the artist that I most frequently recall when listening to this album is definitely Neil Ardley. Several sections throughout the release evoked the style of both Ardley's Kaleidoscope of Rainbows and Harmony of the Spheres releases.
It is difficult to adequately find the right words to describe an album that is so impressively performed and composed as Polar Star. It's a lot easier just to say that if you wish to hear instrumental music that is coyly undemanding and is scented by many of the tingling flavours associated with jazz, yet at the same time has lots of other influences and hidden depths to discover, then look no further than this outstanding release.
I am confident you will not be disappointed. I think it is great!
Typef — Type_f
It's quite amazing how a band can offer something that appears fresh, but also possesses a strong retro appeal.
Swiss band Typef manage to achieve this in their very impressive debut, self-titled release. It's an album that glistens with beautiful guitar and synth passages. Typef's authentic mix of instruments and carefully chosen tones, evoke memories of some of the best jazz fusion of the seventies. The sound quality of the album is warm and uncluttered.
Over the course of the album there are occasions that recalled Gary Boyle's Isotope, especially in parts of the excellent Not 13 which also included a taste of the style of Return to Forever during the synth interlude that sweeps the music along at the mid-point of the piece.
However, my subsequent impression on hearing the album and tunes such as Spanische Eröffnung and Thoughts At 4.55 AM (in memory of Laura) was that I was miraculously listening to a lost Gilgamesh release. Well obviously I had not stumbled across such a thing, but it says a lot about the quality of the music that is featured on this release, that I might compare the style of what Typef have to offer with a band of Gilgamesh's quality and standing.
Drummer Sascha Frischknecht is the principal composer for Typef. The rest of the band is made up of Claude Stucki (guitar), Mathieu Friz (keyboards) and James Iwa aka Jérémie Krüttli on bass. The music they create is precisely spun. It is structured, gentle, and soothing, but it also contains enough vitality to be zestful and adventurous and slightly abrasive when the need arises.
Keyboard and guitar are the principal instruments and Friz and Stucki both excel throughout the release. The fieriest guitar solo undoubtedly occurs in the quite excellent Defending Man. It is one of the few occasions when Stucki departs from a highly melodic and clean style, as championed by Phil Lee in Gilgamesh. However Stucki's highly melodic and expressive, flowing solo that emerges during 5over4 is equally impressive.
Nevertheless, the most beautiful guitar moments probably occur in the delightful introduction and mid-section of Kušeljazz, which incidentally also features a bubbling bass solo. Kušeljazz is a slow tempo, reflective piece; Its ability to create an evocative, back-lit mood leaves a stunning after-taste.
Spanische Eröffnung opens proceedings and it is a fine example of just how capable this band is. It sets the scene for what is to follow in a near perfect manner.
not 13 is much more rhythmic and upbeat but it is furnished with a memorable guitar-led melody that is easy on the ear and pulls at the heart and caresses the senses. Contemporary-sounding synthesiser effects dispel any illusion that you might be listening to a classic jazz-rock band of the 70s. However the swooning synth solo vaguely reminiscent of Chick Corea that bursts into prominence, creates a justifiable impression that this album could easily have been released in the mid-seventies.
The concluding track, Home, features the soulful voice of Antonin Queloz. This piece is beautifully formed and has some gentle guitar sections, but it's overall delivery and style felt somewhat out of place when compared to what had gone before.
I did not know what to expect when I first heard this album. However, over time I have been totally smitten by its numerous qualities. Type_f has seldom left my play-list and it continues to impress each time I hear it. Apart from Home, each piece contains an identifiable style and each composition has lots of positive elements to discover and appreciate.
Overall it's a very fine debut from a promising band. If you like jazz-rock or seventies-inspired fusion in its varying forms, I think you will enjoy much of what this album offers.