by Ian Mann
January 11, 2022
“Solar Flash” represents another impressive offering from Sirkis and sees him developing as a writer with another set of ambitious compositions.
(MoonJune Records MJR 117)
Asaf Sirkis – drums, crotales, Gary Husband – Nord Lead 2X synth, keyboards, piano, Kevin Glasgow – electric bass
Sylwia Bialas – vocals, Mark Wingfield – guitar
The Israeli born drummer Asaf Sirkis first came to my attention well over a decade ago as part of the first edition of saxophonist Gilad Atzmon’s band, the Orient House Ensemble. Always a superb technician he has since developed into a hugely in demand sideman as well as the leader of his own groups .
As a sideman Sirkis has appeared on literally dozens of albums. Those with whom he has recorded include vocalists Sarah Gillespie and Natacha Atlas, pianists John Law, Alex Hutton and Geoff Eales, guitarists Maciek Pysz, Eyal Maoz, Ant Law, Markus Reuter and Nicolas Meier plus saxophonist Tim Garland’s high profile Lighthouse Trio. In recent years he has been involved in a number of international projects instigated by Leonardo Pavkovic, founder of the MoonJune record label.
With regard to his own bands it has been fascinating to watch Sirkis’ development as a composer and band-leader, his writing having acquired a growing amount of maturity and sophistication over the years.
As a leader Sirkis made his bow with The Inner Noise, a trio that explored the sonic possibilities of the church organ within a jazz/rock context, the keyboards being handled by Steve Lodder and with powerful guitarist Mike Outram completing the line up. The group’s third (and to date final) album “The Song Within” (2007) represented the zenith of their achievements and is reviewed elsewhere on this site.
From 2008 Sirkis turned his attentions to a relatively more orthodox trio featuring his compatriot Yaron Stavi on electric bass and the Greek born Tassos Spiliotopoulos on guitar. He also recorded three albums with this line up, each one an improvement on the last, with both “Letting Go” (2010) and my personal favourite, the excellent “Shepherd’s Stories” (2013), representing high water marks in his back catalogue.
Since 2014 he has co-led the Sirkis / Bialas International Quartet with Polish born vocalist and lyricist Sylwia Bialas. Also featuring bassist Kevin Glasgow and pianist Frank Harrison this line up has recorded two albums to date, “Come To Me” (2014) and the ambitious double set “Our New Earth” (2019).
For “Solar Flash” Sirkis has assembled a new trio, retaining Glasgow on electric bass and bringing in Gary Husband on keyboards.
Equally adept on drums and piano/keyboards the Yorkshire born Husband can be regarded as the British equivalent to Jack DeJohnette and has developed into one of the UK’s major musical exports. I recall seeing the then eighteen year old Husband drumming with bassist Jeff Clyne’s band Turning Point way back in 1980. That particular tour, supported by the much missed Contemporary Music Network, augmented the core Turning Point quintet with guests Neil Ardley (synthesiser) and Allan Holdsworth (guitar). The latter turned out to be one of Husband’s closest collaborators in subsequent years.
Still working as a drummer Husband enjoyed rock star status during a substantial tenure with Level 42, but he was always drawn back towards jazz and experimental music and also began to feature more frequently on piano and keyboards. During the course of an illustrious career he has recorded seventeen albums as a leader or co-leader, sometimes leading from the drum kit, on other occasions from the piano or electric keyboard.
Husband has also collaborated with an astonishing array of international musicians from a variety of musical genres, among them keyboard player Chick Corea, bassist/vocalist, Jack Bruce, drummer Billy Cobham and guitarists Robin Trower, Markus Reuter and Gary Moore. Husband seems to have a particular affinity with guitar players and is currently a member of John McLaughlin’s 4th Dimension group. A more comprehensive career overview and a more exhaustive list of Husband’s musical associates can be found via his website, http://www.garyhusband.com
“Solar Flash” was recorded at La Casamurada Studios in Spain in May 2018 but was only mixed and mastered in 2021. The programme is comprised solely of Sirkis’ original compositions and the music represents something of a return to the spacey jazz / rock sound of the Inner Noise group. The core trio is augmented on some tracks by the voice of Sylwia Bialas and the guitar of the American born Mark Wingfield, a musician with whom Sirkis has previously collaborated on MoonJune.
The album’s liner notes include a ringing endorsement of Sirkis’ talents from no less an authority than the great Robert Wyatt. Meanwhile Sirkis’ web page promises; “haunting, free spirited electro-acoustic sounds with a wide spectrum of dynamics, ranging from Erik Satie inspired gentle ballads all the way to raw, high energy electric jazz-prog-improv, driven by urgency of expression”.
Rock music, and particularly the strand known as ‘prog’ has always informed Sirkis’ output and he has named Yes, Genesis, Allan Holdsworth, Weather Report and Mahavishnu Orchestra as formative and still ongoing influences. These elements come to prominence again on “Solar Flash” and the MoonJune imprint seems to be a very natural home for Sirkis, allowing him to readily collaborate with similarly inclined musicians.
The press release accompanying the album sees Sirkis explaining the inspirations behind the individual pieces, beginning with opening track “Kinship”. This was the first piece that the trio recorded and as the title might suggest it is a celebration of the rapport that the musicians quickly established in the studio. “It became noticeable that we were speaking the same musical language” enthuses Sirkis, “although this trio has not played live before it felt as if old friends were coming together, hence the name ‘Kinship’”.
Steered by the leader’s powerful but responsive drumming the piece features the intricate interplay of the core trio, the rhythmic lattice occasionally topped by Bialas’ soaring wordless vocals. Husband produces a variety of keyboard sounds and solos on synthesiser. Glasgow also features as a soloist, displaying his characteristic dexterity and agility on his six string electric bass.
The title of “Under The Ice” is inspired by Graham Hancock’s book “Fingerprints Of The Gods”, which posits the theory that Antarctica was once part of the tropics and hosted a pre-ice-age civilisation.
This is a haunting and atmospheric piece, with Glasgow taking the first solo on liquid electric bass. Husband’s synth solo finds him adopting a softer, more ethereal sound than on the earlier “Kinship”.
“Aquila” is titled for a constellation on the celestial equator. This in turn takes its name from the Latin for eagle, with Greek mythology citing Aquila as the bird that carried the thunderbolts of Zeus.
Augmented by the appropriately named Wingfield the trio drum up a storm of their own here with the guitarist soaring skywards in a manner that recalls Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour. Elsewhere we hear Husband’s spacey, spiralling synths and the leader’s dynamic drumming.
The three part “Polish Suite” was inspired by Sirkis’ experiences of growing up in Israel alongside Eastern European immigrants, the majority being of Polish origin. The young Sirkis absorbed many aspects of their culture, including art, cuisine and language, but particularly the music, which he describes as “carrying a melancholic signature”.
This first finds in expression via the gentle and atmospheric “Part 1” featuring Bialas’ wordless vocalising alongside Husband’s lyrical acoustic piano. In the context of the album as a whole this opening movement represents a welcome change of mood, pace and overall sound following the comparative intensity of the first three electric numbers.
“Part Two” continues with voice and piano but adds Sirkis’ brushed drums. A carefully constructed solo drum passage then forms a link into the second half of the piece, which sees the music taking a darker, more sinister turn with the eerie sound of Wingfield’s sustain heavy guitar and the softer, organ like drone of Husband’s keyboards.
The album’s lengthiest track is the nine minute “For Eric”, which Sirkis dedicates to one of his drum heroes, the former Weather Report drummer Eric Gravatt (born 1947). Even the artwork for “Solar Flash” references that of “I Sing The Body Electric”, Weather Report’s second album from 1972, to which Gravatt made an enormous contribution.
Sirkis’ homage has an epic, suite like quality and includes the sampled speaking voice of the late Sun Ra. The opening section attempts to “capture some of Gravatt’s tribal energy and mystique and the exploratory sounds of the 1970s”. An atmospheric intro leads into a more bombastic section propelled by Sirkis’ powerful drumming, which sees Husband producing the kinds of synth sounds that Joe Zawinul and Chick Corea conjured up back in the 70s. Ra’s voice is then introduced, expounding on his Ancient Egyptian inspired cosmic philosophy. I’m not convinced that this represents a wise move, spoken word narratives in a musical context don’t always repay repeated listening and this section rather interrupts the flow of the piece as a whole. Husband later stretches out on Fender Rhodes and other keyboards, again summoning up memories of Zawinul, Corea and the 70s, and on the whole I’d have preferred it if Sirkis has just concentrated on the music and let the instrumentalists evoke that period ambience. Glasgow’s melodic bass solo is a reminder of the still ongoing influence of Weather Report’s illustrious roster of bass players, particularly the late, great Jaco Pastorius. The piece then resolves itself with another blistering synth driven jazz rock passage.
The title track was inspired by the Carrington Event of September 1859 when a solar coronal mass ejection hit earth’s magnetosphere and induced the largest geomagnetic storm on record. This resulted in stunningly beautiful auroral displays, but widespread disruption to telegraph systems. Given our current reliance on technology a similar event occurring today would cause global chaos.
The piece begins with Husband emitting suitable sci-fi sounds from his synths before Sirkis erupts at the kit, propelling the music into orbit. Again there’s something of the Inner Noise sound about this performance with Husband deploying a mix of organ and synth sounds and soloing on the latter. But it’s Sirkis’ appropriately volcanic performance behind the kit that is the real focus here.
Rather perversely the third movement of the “Polish Suite” is detached from its companion parts, presumably to provide the album with a suitably anthemic closing piece. Sirkis’ military style drum pattern and Husband’s organ like keyboard drone give the music a solemn, almost funereal atmosphere. Glasgow adds a lyrical and melodic bass solo but it’s Wingfield’s soaring, Floydian guitar that is arguably the most distinctive component, heading for the stratosphere and adding that vital anthemic quality.
“Solar Flash” represents another impressive offering from Sirkis and sees him developing as a writer with another set of ambitious compositions. The presence of Husband, a world class musician, is a huge plus and Glasgow plays superbly too. Guests Bialas and Wingfield both make significant and distinctive contributions.
The album unapologetically nails its fusion colours to the mast and straight ahead jazz fans may well discount it. Nevertheless there are plenty of fusion fans out there who will love this and the affable Sirkis is a musician who has built himself an impressive following during the course of his illustrious career. It’s still essentially a jazz record, although adventurous rock fans are likely to find something to enjoy here too.
Taking the busy Husband’s commitments into account it’s probably unlikely that this particular trio will go out on tour, although it would be hugely exciting if they did get the opportunity to perform this music in front of a live audience.
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