Friday, February 15, 2013
Reviewed by: Ian Mann
Food continue to refine their unique approach to improvised music.
(ECM Records ECM 2269 - Bar Code 370 9440)
“Mercurial Balm” represents Food’s second outing on the ECM label and builds upon the success enjoyed by their 2010 release “Quiet Inlet” (also reviewed elsewhere on this site). Food began in 1997 as a quartet featuring English saxophonist Iain Ballamy plus the Norwegian trio of Thomas Stronen (drums), Arve Henriksen (trumpet,vocal) and Mats Eilertsen (bass). Also making extensive use of electronics the group recorded a series of acclaimed albums for the Feral and Rune Grammofon labels before Henriksen and Eilertsen departed to pursue solo careers in 2006.
Ballamy and Stronen retrenched and decided to continue as a duo releasing “Molecular Gastronomy” (all their albums thus far had boasted food related titles) on Rune Grammofon in 2007 with the help of guest musicians Maria Kannegaard (piano) and Ballamy’s old Loose Tubes colleague Ashley Slater (trombone, post production).
The policy of using guest musicians continued into live performance with the core duo regularly augmented by illustrious guests, among them trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer and guitarist Christian Fennesz who both made appearances on “Quiet Inlet”. I’ve been fortunate enough to witness Food live on a couple of occasions, the 2010 Cheltenham Jazz Festival where they appeared with Christian Fennesz, and the 2011 Harmonic Festival in Birmingham which featured another guest guitarist, the Norwegian Bjorn Klakegg, plus cameo appearances from the Birmingham based trumpet pairing of Percy Pursglove and Aaron Diaz.
Food’s concert appearances usually consist of a single improvised piece of music with the group routinely recording their performances to aid the ongoing process of constantly developing and refining their approach. Much of “Mercurial Balm” is sourced from live performances, the bulk of the material deriving from that Cheltenham appearance and it’s a source of considerable personal pride that I can listen to this album and declare that “I was there!”. Fennesz is thus the principal guest and appears on seven of the album’s ten tracks. The remaining material stems from an appearance at the Victoria National Jazz Scene club in Oslo plus a session at the same city’s famous Rainbow Studio where the album was also mixed by Jan Erik Kongshaug and Manfred Eicher. Other guest musicians include Molvaer on trumpet and Eyvind Aarset on guitar and electronics with Prakash Sontakke making a particularly distinctive contribution on slide guitar and vocals.
Food’s performance at Cheltenham was a single entity so I presume it’s been chopped up into bite size pieces via the art of editing, effectively cherry picking the best bits of the performance. In any event it all hangs together remarkably well with no inherent compromise to Food’s unique aesthetic and overall approach to improvising. Although Food’s music is nominally “free jazz” their sound eschews the belligerence that is so often associated with the genre. Ballamy and Stronen prefer a “less is more” approach with a focus on beauty and on finding form and structure within their self imposed freedoms. The December 2012 edition of Jazzwise magazine contains an interview with Stuart Nicholson in which the pair explain their approach to improvised music making. Nicholson’s piece contains a number of highly illuminating quotes;
“I don’t think improvised music has to sound bleak or horrible or hard on the ear or militant and angry. We have tried to find a way of making it sound musical, lyrical, mysterious, dream like and evocative” (Stronen).
“Our concern is form and thinking compositionally, you’ll never see me bashing around and Iain going for it like Albert Ayler, like a proper free jazz thing! The first note of a concert will lead to something based on ideas that we have been developing for years ” (Stronen again).
“We use space, lots of open air. We use space to listen , I always think there’s too much ‘talking’ in jazz and no one wants to listen to someone who is ‘talking’ all the time. You need air and dynamics to make it interesting and express what you say without overplaying” (Stronen once more).
Ballamy also takes part in the interview but talks more about the specifics of individual tracks than the overall group philosophy.
The quartet edition of Food could sometimes “go for it” but the reduction of the band to a duo has seen them develop a wholly different and increasingly personal approach to improvised music, an approach encapsulated by Stronen’s comments above. The duo’s methods make them ideal for the ECM label where the use of space has long been a characteristic of producer Manfred Eicher’s prodigious output. Ballamy and Stronen also encourage the involvement of like minded guest collaborators, Fennesz and Aarset can be considered as soundscapers first and guitarists second, both are fully attuned to the Food aesthetic.
As mentioned previously Food make extensive use of electronics. Stronen’s conventional drum kit is augmented by electronic percussion plus an array of electronic devices that facilitate the use of live looping and sampling techniques. He also brings a welcome human element to the group via a range of small percussion devices, bells, woodblocks, shakers etc. which add an array of delightful acoustic noises to the group’s primarily electronic sound. Ballamy’s devices are less obvious but he too has access to a discreet set of electronic tools and although he’s credited here as playing saxophones and electronics I also recall him making judicious use of an EWI (electronic wind instrument) at both the Cheltenham and Birmingham performances. At Cheltenham Fennesz was seated at a table containing a lap top plus other electronic gadgetry whilst cradling his guitar on his knee. Although he was continually sculpting and processing his sound the six string was used only sparingly and very often sounded nothing like a guitar.
The first five pieces on the album feature a trio of Ballamy, Stronen and Fennesz and were presumably culled from the Cheltenham performance. Opener “Nebular” begins with the eerie shimmer of Stronen’s electronic percussion and features the slow brooding of Ballamy’s tenor sax. With Fennesz also aiding the soundscaping process Ballamy sounds as if he’s wandering alone in deep space at the outer edges of the cosmos, as befitting the title I suppose. It’s highly atmospheric and superbly controlled and balanced, the trio interact superbly and never get in one another’s way. Food are always listening and interacting, albeit in their own quietly distinctive way, these guys must have enormous ears.
The first piece runs seamlessly into the more energetic “Celestial Food” with Stronen setting up an insistent electro-percussive pulse above which Ballamy’s soprano dances lightly bringing an almost folk like feel to the music, at times his saxophone almost sounds like pipes. Ballamy describes the piece as “panoramic” and makes the observation that it’s unusual for Food to work with such a clearly defined beat. It’s breezy and lovely and for the listener a welcome variation from the ambient nature of much of Food’s output.
“Ascendant” is a kind of space hymn with Ballamy’s tenor incantations surrounded by the cushioning sound washes generated by Fennesz and Stronen. There’s an ethereal element about the music as the trio slowly draw the listener into their sound world with Ballamy’s sax representing the human voice within the void. Simple and effective it’s often chillingly beautiful.
The following “Phase” is more unsettling with its percolating metallic percussion and heavily processed guitar (although just for once the instrument is recognisable as such).
“Astral” begins with a painstakingly constructed intro from Stronen incorporating drums, percussion and electronics with Fennesz subsequently adding washes of guitar and electronica as the piece gradually gathers layers and momentum. There’s even a passage that roughly equates to a guitar solo before Ballamy’s sax cuts through the murk to soar with remarkable clarity above the currents of percussion and electronica fermenting below.
Molvaer is added to the group for “Moonpie” which I’m assuming was recorded at the Oslo club. Molvaer’s fragile trumpet combines well with Ballamy’s feathery soprano on this lovely piece of space balladry. Stronen and Ballamy often speak of their wish to break down the barriers between composed and improvised music. This lovely example of spontaneous composition exemplifies their approach perfectly.
The next three tracks, presumably recorded at Rainbow Studio feature a very different group with the core duo augmented by Eivind Aarset on guitar and electronics and Prakash Sontakke on slide guitar and voice. Aarset, an accomplished and established electro improviser fulfils a similar role to Fennesz but the Indian born Sontakke adds a totally different element to the group’s music with his distinctive playing and vocalising. “Chantarelle” takes his voice as a starting point, the Indian style vocalising combining seamlessly with Ballamy’s saxophone as Stronen adopts a more acoustic drumming style that is more appropriate to this context.
The title track is based around the sound of Sontakke’s slide guitar, he seems to be the only Indian musician to be playing this instrument and he brings a unique approach to it that is a clear reflection of his Indian background. Once again Sontakke combines superbly with Ballamy and Stronen as Aarset adopts a purely textural role. The Norwegian guitarist can arguably be heard to better advantage on his own recent album for ECM “Dream Logic”, a recording I hope to take a closer look at shortly.
Ballamy commences the ethereal “Magnetosphere” which owes more to Food’s well established spacey style and features rather more of Aarset alongside Ballamy’s long, graceful melody lines. Sontakke is deployed sparingly but effectively as Stronen sometimes mimics the sound of Indian percussion.
Ballamy and Stronen were delighted with the collaboration with Sontakke. “There were no compositions as such but we all had a strong sense of form” explains Stronen before going on to say “in that way it’s totally free but within a concept you might say”. Ballamy praises Sontakke for his openness adding “Prakash was wonderful”. For the listener it’s an unlikely combination that works surprisingly well, all due credit to those involved.
The album concludes with “Galactic Roll”, a final offering from the core duo plus Fennesz, a blend of stately sax melody lines, busily atmospheric percussion and hauntingly effective electronica.
“Mercurial Balm” build on the success of “Quiet Inlet”, a recording also largely sourced from live appearances. The new album sees Food continue to refine their unique approach to improvised music but it’s the inspired choice of Sontakke as a collaborator that sets this album apart from its predecessor. As Ballamy opined Sontakke has risen brilliantly to the challenge and added an extra dimension to the groups music.
JAZZ MANN FEATURES
The sun shines on the final day of an excellent festival.
Ian Mann soaks up the vibes at Cheltenham Jazz Festival.