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Adam Fairhall

The Imaginary Delta


by Ian Mann

October 26, 2012


A fascinating patchwork of ancient and modern.The merging of different jazz and blues styles and of divergent technologies is seamlessly done and the album represents a remarkably coherent whole.

Adam Fairhall

“The Imaginary Delta”

(Slam Records SLAMCD 289)

This excellent album by Manchester based pianist and composer Adam Fairhall was released in May on George Haslam’s Slam label but with Fairhall due to bring his group to London to perform this material at the 2012 London Jazz Festival in November the time seemed right for me to take a rather belated look at it.

I know Fairhall’s playing through his work with fellow Mancunians Matthew Halsall (trumpet) and Nat Birchall (saxophones), he appears on Halsall’s “On The Go” and Birchall’s “Sacred Dimensions”, both of which have been reviewed elsewhere on this site. He has also been part of Halsall’s touring line up.

But there’s more to Fairhall than just his sideman role. He also works as a solo pianist and runs a trio featuring Tim Fairhall (bass, presumably his brother although I’m not totally certain of this)) and drummer Gaz Hughes. The seeds for “The Imaginary Delta” project would appear to stem from his duo with electronics artist Paul J. Rogers who provides samples of 1920’s blues recordings which Fairhall then merges with more contemporary musical influences such as the piano stylings of McCoy Tyner. Their album “Second Hand Blues” was released on ASC Records in 2011.See Fairhall’s website for further information on this and his other projects.

“The Imaginary Delta” grew out of his experiments with Rogers and was commissioned by the 2011 Manchester Jazz Festival. The album was recorded live at the city’s Band on the Wall venue on 26th July 2011 and features an expanded line up of Fairhall on piano plus the horns of James Allsopp on clarinets, Chris Bridges on trombone and jug, and Steve Chadwick, leader of cult Manchester band the Magic Hat Ensemble, on trumpet. His regular trio colleagues Tim Fairhall (bass) and Gaz Hughes (drums) complete the rhythm team with Rogers acting as the wild card contributing the modern musical accessories of laptop, electronic processing and turntables alongside arcane instruments such as the diddley bow and novelty items including chains and pepper grinder. In this sense he’s a kind of Leafcutter John figure. Steve Mead, the Artistic Director of Manchester jazz festival spoke of Fairhall’s ambition to “draw upon the early language of jazz and make it speak to us in the 21st century”. Acclaim for the festival performance and subsequent live album (the latter mixed on an analogue desk to preserve the warmth of the live sound) has been virtually unanimous resulting in an invitation to bring this music to the capital as part of the 2012 LJF.

“The Imaginary Delta” is a suite in six parts that blends Rogers’ early blues sources with the writing of Fairhall. Sampled sounds are merged with real time instruments to create a fascinating patchwork of ancient and modern. Opener “Baptist Prayer Meeting” contains a sample of George “Bullet” Williams “Middlin’ Blues” and features Rogers on diddley bow (now you know where Mr. McDaniel got his stage name from) alongside the more conventional jazz instrumentation. The piece grows out of Rogers’ samples and diddley bow to embrace a more contemporary modal sound with rich, deep bass clarinet voicings from Allsopp and Tyner style piano from Adam Fairhall.  The sound generated by the three horns is pleasingly full and the piece eventually concludes with a passage of solo piano.

“Sedalia Rag” combines the rhythms and syncopations of ragtime with more contemporary free jazz leanings. Rogers’ electronic whooshes and bleeps contrast nicely with the more conventional jazz instrumentation in a series of free jazz exchanges informed by the spirit of the past. There’s a prolonged passage for the trio of the Fairhalls and Hughes with Tim’s muscular bass stalking Adam’s piano as the chatter of Hughes’ drums provides both punctuation and comment. When the horns return the piece becomes more obviously a “rag”, albeit one filtered through the prism of Charles Mingus and the whole sixties free jazz movement.

“Arabian Fantasy” includes a highly effective sample of Ivy Smith singing Cow Cow Davenport’s “Cincinnati Southern Blues” which is grafted seamlessly onto a seductive, undulating modal theme. Allsopp’s subtly bluesy clarinet solo, Bridges’ growling trombone and Chadwick’s slow burning trumpet feature then evoke the spirit of New Orleans but in a wholly contemporary setting.

“Tutwiler Train Stomp” begins with spooky free jazz sounds but Fairhall’s piano gradually leads the piece into an exuberant romp with some terrific horn interplay, Chadwick’s brassy trumpet contrasting superbly Allsopp’s woody low register bass clarinet. The horns also get the chance to solo at length with Allsopp going first sketching sinuously mesmerising bass clarinet lines above the propulsive rhythms of bassist Tim Fairhall and drummer Gaz Hughes. Bridges then rasps away fruitily on trombone before Fairhall brings it all home with some torrential piano runs. The solos are punctuated by squalling collective passages and the piece eventually fades away to end as mysteriously as it began. Quite a railroad trip. 

Not surprisingly “Victoria Spivey” features the sampled voice of the lady in question singing “Nightmare Blues”. The piece begins with the crackle of Rogers’ electrics and a sound like ghostly pump organ, perhaps meant to simulate the steam whistles of the Mississippi river boats. Fairhall’s piano delicately wanders around these atmosphere setting effects before settling into an authentic blues pattern onto which the disembodied voice of Spivey is superimposed. Chadwick’s trumpet slurs and growls offer suitable embellishment and the other horns are subsequently added to the mix. The band keep the blues mood going after Spivey is faded out with Chadwick and Allsopp on bass clarinet contributing pithy statements. There’s also an extended solo bass feature for the consistently excellent Tim Fairhall who later enters into dialogue with Bridges with Chadwick, Allsopp and Hughes later joining in as the blues edges closer to free jazz. Adam Fairhall picks up the blues baton again with a solo piano feature that embraces a number of jazz and blues styles. The ghost of Victoria Spivey then returns to sing us out.

The closing “Harlem Fast Shout” sees the group tearing it up in uproarious fashion beginning in Cotton Club era Ellington style before veering off into a free jazz squall and back again. The mood is exuberant and playful with trumpeter Chadwick’s fiery opening solo an undoubted highlight.

“The Imaginary Delta” is a superbly realised project with Adam Fairhall as the fulcrum but all the musicians involved play well and make significant contributions. The merging of different jazz and blues styles and of divergent technologies is seamlessly done and the entiree album represents a remarkably coherent whole. Fairhall is to be congratulated for his vision which blends his extensive knowledge of jazz and blues styles with strong compositional skills to present an entity which is entirely convincing. “The Imaginary Delta” conjures up the ghosts of not only of the musicians sampled on the soundtrack but also those of Ellington, Mingus, Tyner, Ayler and more and (to paraphrase Steve Mead)  makes their spirits speak to a 21st century jazz audience.

Adam Fairhall’s The Imaginary Delta will play at The Vortex, Gillett Square, Dalston, London at 8.30 pm on Monday November 12th 2012 as part of the London Jazz Festival. Support will come from Tom Challenger’s Brass Mask Octet.
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