by Ian Mann
July 04, 2021
The seemingly disparate elements are skilfully melded into a unified and convincing whole, resulting in an increasingly distinctive group sound that is very much theirs alone.
“Echoes To The Sky”
(New Jazz and Improvised Music Recordings NEWJAiM7)
Faye MacCalman – tenor saxophone, clarinet, synth, vocals, John Pope – electric bass, FX, backing vocals, Christian Alderson – drums, percussion
The latest release on the NEWJAiM imprint is this keenly anticipated album from the Newcastle based trio Archipelago, led by multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and composer Faye MacCalman.
The group’s music is a fascinating mix of jazz, folk, alternative rock and electronic influences with much of the material on this latest release evolving from MacCalman’s habit of improvising songs at the piano. These are then developed into more complete pieces with the core palette of sax, bass and drums expanded with the addition of vocals and real time electronics.
The members of Archipelago first became aware of each other when they worked together in The Midnight Doctors, the ‘mutant funeral jazz big band’ led by guitarist, composer and producer Phil Begg.
Originally an acoustic jazz quartet Archipelago changed direction following the departure of pianist Pete Currie, long before the group got to the recording stage.
They cite the influence of such pioneering UK jazz acts as Trio VD, Polar Bear and Roller Trio and also the experimental rock bands Morphine and Tortoise. Also feeding into the trio’s sound is MacCalman’s work with folk ensemble The Unthanks.
To date Archipelago have released three digital albums, “I” (2016), “Weightless” (2017) and “Between Waves” (2018). The first two feature the core trio but “Between Waves” was born out of the concert series of the same name which saw Archipelago collaborating with emerging female identifying artists. The album features contributions from guitarist/vocalist Rosie Frater-Taylor, violinist/vocalist Faith Brackenbury, spoken word artist Lisette Auton and vocalist and sound artist Fran Bundey.
In November 2020 I reviewed the trio’s excellent livestream performance for the 2020 EFG London Jazz Festival, recorded at the Star & Shadow Cinema, an independent film and live performance venue in Newcastle. The fact that this session was recorded in an independent picture house made the group’s description of their music as “cinematic improvisation” seem all the more appropriate. Review here;
Archipelago’s Star & Shadow show offered a sneak preview of much of the material to be heard on “Echoes To The Sky”, which was subsequently recorded by engineers Mark Simms and David Brewis at Field Music Studio in Sunderland in December 2020.
MacCalman also performs as a solo artist and played a solo set at The Cube venue in Bristol which was then livestreamed by the 2021 Cheltenham Jazz Festival. The mix of reeds, vocals and live electronics was broadly similar to Archipelago’s approach and the final number of the set saw MacCalman joined by the members of Run Logan Run, the Bristol based sax/drums/electronics duo who had hosted CJF’s series of events from The Cube. My account of this performance can be found as part of our Festival coverage here;
Pope’s appearance represents his third involvement on a NEWJAiM album (out of a total of seven label releases) and follows the excellent “Mixed With Glass”, recorded by his own quintet, a group also featuring MacCalman, and the recent “The King’s Hall Concert”, a wholly improvised live recording by the trio Telemaque, featuring Pope (double bass), drummer Paul Hession and the veteran American multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee (saxophone and trumpet). Both “Mixed With Glass” and “The King’s Hall Concert” are reviewed elsewhere on The Jazzmann.
Pope and MacCalman also work in an improvising trio with laptop artist Shelly Knotts with whom they recorded the digital album “No Bones”.
Pope’s other projects include Cartoon, a trio which teams him with the more senior figures of Chris Biscoe (reeds) and Roger Turner (drums, percussion). He has also recorded as a duo with Biscoe, this occasioned by Turner’s temporary absence due to illness.
In October 2020 Pope also released the digital album “Genteel Eschaton”, a duo collaboration with violinist John Garner.
Liber Musika is a project in which Pope explores the music of such AACM associated jazz composer / improvisers as Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith and Roscoe Mitchell.
His increasing commitment to the art of improvisation has also seen him performing with an impressive range of British and international collaborators, among them saxophonists Evan Parker, Tony Bevan and Cath Roberts, multi-instrumentalists Joe McPhee and Mick Beck, harpist Rhodri Davies, pianist Alexander Hawkins, guitarist Anton Hunter and drummers Paul Hession and Han Bennink.
Further information on Pope’s diverse range of musical activities can be found at his website https://www.johnpopebass.co.uk/
Meanwhile Alderson’s other activities include the The Long Lonesome Go, an electric jazz trio with bassist Jason Etherington and keyboard player Paul Taylor.
Alderson and Etherington are also part of The Unit Alma, another trio, this time featuring guitarist / vocalist Steven Malley.
Like Pope and MacCalman he was, of course, part of The Midnight Doctors but in general details of his musical activities outside of Archipelago have proved difficult to come by.
Turning now to this specific new Archipelago recording which features five pieces written by MacCalman alone and a further three credited to MacCalman / Alderson / Pope. The trio describe the music as being inspired by “transformation, loss and a sense of hopeful mystery”.
The album commences with the MacCalman song “Waiting”, the lyrics to which are reproduced as part of the album packaging. The words express MacCalman’s love of nature, while the music embraces elements of jazz, folk, electronica and both prog and alternative rock. Pope’s bass guitar, combined with Alderson’s drums and percussion, gives the music an impressive rhythmic drive, this contrasting effectively with MacCalman’s wistful, folk inflected vocals. The sea imagery of the lyrics also finds expression in the swirling instrumental textures, created by a combination of sax and keyboards. During these moments this old prog listener was reminded at times of Van Der Graaf Generator, as filtered through a more contemporary alternative rock aesthetic.
Also composed by MacCalman the instrumental “Gold” commences in a wash of eerie and atmospheric synth textures. Pope’s bass then sets up a groove above which the synths continue to swirl, until MacCalman steps away from the keyboard to pick up a clarinet, bringing a mysterious Middle Eastern quality to the music. Pope’s bass, melodic, but still hard driving and increasingly hypnotic, assumes the lead for a while as MacCalman continues to alternate between clarinet and keyboards. The music ebbs and flows, making effective use of colours, textures and dynamics as Archipelago continue to draw the listener into their unique and increasingly beguiling sound world.
MacCalman’s song “Wake Up” embraces a genuine indie rock mentality, the chorus of “Wake up, Wake up now, it’s time” representing a real statement of intent. The trio’s willingness to deploy rock rhythms gives their music an immediacy that has helped them to gain a young and enthusiastic following on the North East music scene and has seen them performing at major festivals, such as Latitude in Suffolk. However Archipelago’s embrace of rock elements does not in any way signal a willingness to compromise, alongside its arresting chorus and powerful rhythmic drive “Wake Up” also includes a more challenging ‘free jazz’ style episode. The group’s ability to effectively combine seemingly disparate elements within the course of a single piece helps to keep their music consistently engaging and represents one of their primary strengths.
The next two pieces are credited to the trio as a whole, hinting at a greater degree of group improvisation. However one of them (“Wine Dark Sea“) was played as part of the EFG LJF livestream, suggesting a substantial compositional element too.
The slowly evolving “Wine Dark Sea” begins with eerie, almost subliminal synth textures and the evocative sounds of Alderson’s cymbal shimmers and mallet rumbles. MacCalman’s breathy tenor sax emerges to sketch a beguiling melody, folk tinged and undeniably atmospheric. This is a real slow burner of a track, verging on the anthemic, that gathers momentum gently and incrementally, with MacCalman eventually beginning to improvise around the theme, her playing gradually beginning to increase in intensity and making use of a variety of effects. Pope and Alderson combine effectively, responding to MacCalman’s every move with aplomb and adding to the textural interest as well as providing the necessary rhythmic impetus.
The brief “Undercurrent” is something of a feature for the rhythm section, with Alderson and Pope combining to create a polyrhythmic groove, around which MacCalman’s dirty, glitchy, sinister synth sounds swarm threateningly. Finally the groove fragments and the piece ends rather abruptly, suggesting that it represents an extract from a longer, improvised performance. It’s the track that most explicitly acknowledges the influence of electronic and experimental music.
Commencing with the sound of unaccompanied tenor sax “Chemical”, written by MacCalman, takes that opening melodic motif and runs with it, gradually brewing up a genuine ‘punk jazz’ storm with the composer delivering her most powerful tenor sax soloing of the set above the mighty and seemingly unstoppable rhythmic groove generated by Pope and Alderson. At times it sounds a like a pared down Led Bib as the trio really ramp up the energy levels on a piece that is surely destined to become a live favourite.
The final group credited piece, “Silhouette”, sees MacCalman moving back to clarinet for an extended solo intro, eventually joined by the patter of Alderson’s hand drumming. Meanwhile Pope deploys his bass guitar, which at the EFG LJF livestream was augmented by an impressive array of FX pedals, as a textural rather than rhythmic advice, his dark, threatening timbres an effective counterpoint to the sweetness of the clarinet in this freely improvised but highly atmospheric performance. The piece fades out with the unaccompanied sound of Alderson’s hand drumming, almost bodhran like, even here hinting at that never far away folk influence.
The album concludes with a final song, MacCalman’s composition “Burn On”, which begins with the sound of her unaccompanied voice, the folk elements then absorbed into a more challenging instrumental ‘free jazz’ section. The two sections then come together with a second reading of the lyrics before the piece fades out in a maelstrom of electronics. It’s performance that perfectly encapsulates Archipelago’s many influences, with the seemingly disparate elements skilfully melded into a unified and convincing whole, resulting in an increasingly distinctive group sound that is very much theirs alone.
“Echoes To The Sky” has been greeted with universally positive reviews and looks set to put the trio even more firmly on the contemporary music map.
Given the band’s crossover following this excellent and accessible (but wholly uncompromising) album is likely to become NEWJAiM’s best selling release to date.
Having enjoyed Archipelago’s music both on screen and on disc I look forward to witnessing them at a real live gig at some point in the future.
All NEWJAiM releases are available at;
See also https://archipelagobanduk.bandcamp.com/
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