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Acoustic Triangle

3 Dimensions


by Ian Mann

November 07, 2008


With their blend of jazz and classical influences Acoustic Triangle have created something unique. Here is proof that in the right hands "crossover" can be good

The continuing development of Acoustic Triangle has been one of the most fascinating stories in British jazz in recent years. Inspired by the drummerless trios of saxophonist Tony Coe the original line up consisted of bassist and leader Malcolm Creese, reed man Tim Garland and pianist John Horler.

When Horler left after just one album he was replaced by piano wunderkind Gwilym Simcock at which the point the group began to more openly embrace the classical tradition. Creese was looking to extend their horizons beyond the normal jazz demographic and to this end the group began to play in churches and other religious buildings, often in out of the way places.

The strategy worked brilliantly. Acoustic Triangle’s unique blend of chamber jazz and classical music was enthusiastically received wherever they went and won them a whole new audience. They achieved this without sacrificing their artistic integrity and “3 Dimensions” is their most complex and ambitious work to date.

For “3 Dimensions” Creese has augmented the core trio with no fewer than six string players thereby creating a nine piece ensemble. The Sacconi String Quartet consists of violinists Ben Hancox and Hannah Dawson, viola player Robin Ashwell and cellist Cara Berridge. They are further supplemented by the presence of two other classical violinists in the forms of Emma Parker and Charlotte Scott. 

The ensemble’s recent 3 Dimensions Tour saw them playing some of Britain’s largest and most magnificent religious buildings in the form of abbeys and cathedrals. They utilised the size and space of the venues by positioning musicians throughout the venue to obtain a genuinely three dimensional or surround sound-hence the title of the project. With every venue being unique a combined physical and audio “survey” of each venue had to be carried out by the core trio before each performance. Despite this meticulous planning the skill of the players still allowed for a degree of improvisation.

I was fortunate enough to witness their performance in the summer at Worcester Cathedral, part of the classical Three Choirs Festival. It succeeded brilliantly and the concert was subsequently broadcast by Radio 3. Even listening again on radio the resonance and sense of space came across superbly well. Even though the music was played entirely without amplification the sound was remarkably full in the ensemble passages but crystal clear when a solo instrument was featured.

If the album cannot quite replicate the magic of the live experience it is still full of ambitious, multi layered writing from Garland and Simcock and some sparkling playing from the ensemble as a whole. The interaction between the “jazz” and “classical” players is excellent and feels entirely natural. The absence of drums aids this process considerably and distinguishes the Triangle from other jazz with strings groups such as Basquiat Strings or Phil Robson’s Six Strings and The Beat (excellent though those groups are). Jan Garbarek’s work with the Hilliard Ensemble is another parallel , especially as they also perform in religious buildings but overall it would be fair to say that Creese and his colleagues have created something unique.

The album opens with Garland’s five part “Sanctuary For A Living Memory” which covers a broad range of moods and textures, sometimes flowingly lyrical, occasionally more belligerent but never less than interesting. A recurring leitmotif develops throughout the piece and Garland utilises the whole sound palette available to him- his own keening soprano, strings both bowed and plucked, Simcock’s limpid piano, Creese’s resonant bass tone etc. There is even the album’s only concession to percussion in the form of strategically placed bells and chimes plus Garland’s subtle borrowing of a fragment of J.S. Bach’s “And Sheep May Safely Graze”.

Simcock’s Latin flavoured “Fundero” has been in the Triangle’s repertoire for a while now. A cross between a rhumba,a fandango and a bolero- hence the title- it appears here rearranged to accommodate the strings. This brief enjoyable romp is sometimes utilised by the group as an encore.

Also from the pen of Simcock comes the episodic “Red Sky”, a piece of three movements. Simcock’s paean to nature mirrors the moods of the sky itself and by choosing a “visual” title he is able to appeal to the listener’s imagination. Like Garlands “Sanctuary” the range varies from the tranquillity of the pastoral setting to the violence of a sudden storm. The size and range of the ensemble allows Simcock to embrace an impressively wide range of sounds and textures. Pizzicato strings simulate rainfall of various intensities, Garland’s reeds cover a whole gamut of sounds from solo flute through bass clarinet to earthy tenor sax. The rounded tones of the composer’s French horn are heard to good effect alongside his piano playing which alternates between the lyrical and the percussive. Creese also features prominently with a dexterous solo in the third movement alongside his darkly resonant ensemble contributions.

Garland’s “Singing Stones” is yet another ambitious piece of writing, this time in four movements. It takes it’s title from the buildings in which the group love to play and conjures up the space, spirit and grandeur of these places, again utilising an impressive variety of textures. Brooding saxophones and rich dark arco bass combine with layered strings to create a tapestry of sound. Like all the pieces on this album the music evolves constantly, this may be chamber jazz but it is still “the sound of surprise”.

At only just five minutes in length Garland’s closing “The Moon For Her” is almost a vignette compared to what has gone before. Richly textured and suitably elegiac it is a fitting way to close an intriguing album.

With a total running time of just over seventy five minutes “3 Dimensions” represents incredible value for money. It is rather a rich dish to devour in one sitting but there is some wonderfully imaginative writing here and the album makes a splendid souvenir for anyone who attended this year’s concerts.

If Creese and his colleagues have introduced listeners from the classical perspective to jazz it is by no means a one way process. Having developed a mistrust of classical music (and Shakespeare) at school by having such things thrust upon me too early, recent exposure to jazz musicians who borrow from the classical tradition has led to something of a rethink. My love of jazz partly comes from having discovered it for myself, not through parental, academic or peer group pressure and certainly not through mainstream culture. But these days I find myself tuning in to Radio 3 for it’s jazz content and staying there to listen to music from the classical sphere. At long last I feel happy to dip my toe in the classical water perhaps in a similar manner to how the Triangle’s classical converts are coming to jazz. In the right hands “crossover” can be good, it doesn’t all have to be about dumbing down or cynical money making.

After this considerable achievement the next move from these highly talented musicians will be awaited with interest.

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