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Michelson Morley

Aether Drift


by Ian Mann

June 18, 2014


Strong melodies, inventive rhythms and grooves, plus imaginative use of electronics adds up to a winning formula that is thoroughly convincing.

“Aether Drift”

(F-ire Presents F-IRECD 66)

The curiously named Michelson Morley is a trio led by Bristol based saxophonist Jake McMurchie, a musician best known for his work with the enigmatic quartet Get The Blessing. The group name is derived from those of two late 19th century / early 20th century American scientists, Albert Michelson and Edward Morley, with the nature of their experiments also informing both the album title and those of some of the tunes. The duo’s work is obviously a source of fascination for McMurchie but I’m no physicist and found the online information about the pair and their experiments frankly baffling.

Fortunately the music is rather easier to understand as McMurchie brings some of Get The Blessing’s urgency and eye for a hook and a groove to the table. GTB (as they will here on be known) have also been experimenting more widely with electronica in recent years, particularly so on their latest release “Lope and Antilope”. Both McMurchie and GTB trumpeter Pete Judge treat their horns with a range of pedals and other floor mounted gizmos and the saxophonist brings a healthy dose of this technology to Michelson Morley. He’s joined in this new project by two excellent West Country musicians in the shapes of drummer Mark Whitlam and double bassist Will Harris, both regular presences on the Jazzmann web pages through their work with (among others) saxophonists Kevin Figes and Pete Canter, trumpeters Nick Malcolm and Andy Hague and the group Moonlight Saving Time. For the Michelson Morley project Whitlam has augmented his regular drum kit with an increasingly sophisticated array of electric percussive devices and other items of electronica. Credited with drums/percussion/electronics he would appear to be Bristol’s answer to the great Thomas Stronen. 

Crucially all Michelson Morley’s electronic effects are created in real time with McMurchie and Whitlam treating their sounds as they play, thereby adopting the same in the moment, hands on methodology as Get The Blessing. “Aether Drift” was recorded live in the studio with no overdubbing by McMurchie’s GTB colleague (and studio owner) Jim Barr. Thus there’s an agreeable feel of intimacy and immediacy about this music and an organic, humanising aspect surrounding the electronic elements.

All the material is McMurchie’s and in his liner notes he muses on why it’s taken him over twenty years to release his first album as a leader. The success of GTB must be a factor but there’s also McMurchie’s natural modesty and reticence , it can be no co-incidence that he’s chosen an obscure collective name rather than settling for the more prosaic Jake McMurchie Trio. Nevertheless a collective name is perhaps apposite given the degree of interaction between the members of the trio with improvisation playing a significant role in the finished product.

Opener “Rice rage” explodes out of the blocks with McMurchie’s trademark punchy GTB style tenor sax to the fore backed by the flexible, urgent, rolling rhythms of his colleagues. Electronica also plays its part as the tune progresses with keyboard like drone effects creating spacey effects above an intense groove as MM comes across like a jazzier, more sophisticated Hawkwind.

The nine minute title track takes a more impressionistic view of space with its long, subtly looped and echoed horn lines, delicately detailed drumming and grounding pedal point bass. Throughout McMurchie’s solo there’s a sense of the search, of probing deep into space.

“Cross-stream roundtrip time” offers a kind of sci-fi take on Ornette Coleman - I’m assuming the “roundtrip” part of the title is a Coleman reference and, of course, Coleman was also a considerable influence on GTB, even giving that group its name. Here typically short, tricky Coleman-like melodic phrases jostle and swarm around Whitlam’s bustling polyrhythms as Harris powerfully anchors the music. The bassist enjoys a period in the foreground as the trio probe deeper, subtly adding electronic elements to the increasingly fevered and complex exchanges. There’s a relentlessness and nervous energy about this music that quickly ensnares the listener.

“Your eyebrows go well with your face” features electronically treated sax phrases and gently nimble drumming (lots of light, splashy cymbal touches) above long, deep, resonant elastic bass lines. McMurchie solos confidently and eloquently with the electronica kept to a minimum. It’s sometimes good to be reminded of what a fine straight ahead saxophonist he is.

The gently drifting “End Of Age” reveals the influence of Reichian minimalism with its often hypnotic bass lines, fragments of sax melody and understated percussion. McMurchie’s pithy soloing ensures that it stays well within the jazz realm.

However the following “Wish I Knew” pushes deeper into experimental territory with layers of spectral, shimmering electronica augmented by grainy but ghostly arco bass. Tantalising snatches of sax melody are heard before Harris puts down the bow and picks out a pizzicato bass line around which McMurchie solos thoughtfully and gracefully on soprano sax. Percussion, electronica, treated sax and arco bass characterise the closing stages with a sudden fade taking us straight into the closing “Fringe shift”, the title taken directly from the original Michelson Morley experiments.

In a sense “Rice rage” and “Fringe shift” bookend the album with their assertive tunes and playing being more immediate than the more thoughtful, but no less enjoyable, material in between. “Fringe shift” packs a powerful sax riff, a muscular bass motif and busy, colourful drums and percussion. Electronica features briefly on a more impressionistic episode just prior to the end.

McMurchie can be proud of this, his first album as a leader. Michelson Morley takes some of the best elements of Get The Blessing and places them in a less structured, more obviously jazz frame work with the electronic elements ensuring that the overall sound is much more than that of a conventional sax trio. I have a love/hate relationship with electronics in jazz and music in general. I like it if it’s genuinely experimental - the “what if we do this?” factor - but hate it if its used synthetically, as a lazy short cut. Michelson Morley’s use of electronica falls into the genuinely creative category and positively enhances their music. Strong melodies, inventive rhythms and grooves, plus imaginative use of electronics adds up to a winning formula that is thoroughly convincing.

The music on “Aether Drift” was recorded in July 2012 and Michelson Morley have now broadened their sound palette with the addition of guitarist Dan Messore (of “Indigo Kid” fame). It will be interesting to see how much of a difference he will make to the group sound. Let’s hope that it’s not too long before the music of the quartet version of Michelson Morley is documented on disc - we certainly don’t want to wait for another twenty years!

The four piece version of the band have been touring this music and there’s still the chance to catch them at the following dates;

Pepper’s AberJazz Club, Fishguard
20th June 2014

Marsden Jazz Festival
11th October 2014


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