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The Sirkis / Bialas International Quartet

Asaf Sirkis / Sylwia Bialas International Quartet, The Hive, Shrewsbury, 06/04/2019.

Photography: Photograph of Asaf Sirkis by Hamish Kirkpatrick of Shrewsbury Jazz Network.

by Ian Mann

April 09, 2019


A huge variety of vocal and instrumental sounds and a similarly broad range of musical styles and influences with superb performances from all four musicians.

Asaf Sirkis / Sylwia Bialas International Quartet, The Hive Music & Media Centre, Shrewsbury, 06/04/2019.

Asaf Sirkis – drums, crotales, konnakol, Sylwia Bialas – vocals, waterphone, Frank Harrison – keyboards, Kevin Glasgow – six string electric bass

The Israeli born, London based 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 recorded with pianists John Law, Alex Hutton and Geoff Eales, guitarists Maciek Pysz, Eyal Maoz 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 Leo Pavkovic, founder of the MoonJune record label.

With regard to his own bands it has been fascinating to watch Sirkis’s 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 the excellent “Shepherd’s Stories” (2013) representing high water marks in his back catalogue.
In 2015 Sirkis performed the “Shepherd’s Stories” material at a memorable concert at The Hive by an all star quintet featuring Spiliotopoulos and bassist Kevin Glasgow plus John Turville (keyboards) and Gareth Lockrane (flutes), both of whom had guested on the album. My review of that performance can be viewed here;

The Polish born vocalist Sylwia Bialas also made a guest appearance on “Shepherd’s Stories”, something that helped sow the seed for this current project. Bialas lived and worked in Germany before moving to the UK and joining Sirkis’ current project, the international quartet commonly referred to as IQ. Bialas co-leads the group which also includes Frank Harrison on piano and keyboards and Kevin Glasgow on six string electric bass. Glasgow has replaced Patrick Bettison who played electric bass and chromatic harmonica on IQ’s 2015 début “Come To Me”.
Review here;

Tonight’s performance featured IQ performing material from their forthcoming album “Our New Earth”, a two disc set due to be released on the MoonJune label in May or June 2019, once final mixing has been completed. IQ is a genuine co-leadership with Sirkis and Bialas both contributing musical material and with Bialas sometimes providing lyrics, in Polish, for Sirkis’ tunes. The pair also share the on stage announcements, thus helping to ensure that this is genuinely a partnership of equals.

The group kicked off with a segue of pieces scheduled for the new album, beginning with Sirkis’ “A Message From The Bluebird” which commenced with Harrison’s arpeggiated keyboards overlaid with Bialas’ soaring wordless vocals and Sirkis’ fluid but powerful drumming. Bialas is a singer who uses her voice as an instrument, indeed when she first started singing she attempted to reproduce the sound of jazz instrumental solos vocally. In the light of her acknowledged love of the ECM sound the Norma Winstone comparisons are inevitable, especially for British audiences. Yet Bialas’ voice has a raw power that is not always associated with Winstone, perhaps the result of singing with blues, soul and rock bands in the formative stages of her career. The first instrumental feature came from Harrison, the first of several inspired solos from him and one that saw him bouncing ideas off Sirkis, the playing from each musician becoming increasingly fiery and dynamic. The pair first came together in Atzmon’s Orient House Ensemble and these brilliant exchanges were forged in the crucible of twenty years of playing together.
Harrison’s expansive piano solo evolved into a voice and piano duet that formed the bridge into the next piece, Bialas’ song “Reminiscence”. As the dialogue between Bialas and Harrison continued to evolve Sirkis joined the pair, sketching melodic patterns with mallets on toms in the style of a classical tympanist. The addition of cymbal shimmers and crashes brought an atmospheric and dynamic dimension to the music as Glasgow entered the proceedings and Bialas’ voice began to soar, sometimes evoking the wail of the muezzin in Middle Eastern music. We also enjoyed another expansive piano solo from Harrison, again trading ideas with Sirkis, whose kit was set up to face the pianist. More dramatic wordless vocalising from Bialas then brought this lengthy but engrossing opening segment to a close.

The Sirkis tune “The Shadow Of Oblivion” was given Polish lyrics by Bialas who intoned the English translation above Glasgow’s solo electric bass introduction. The words were poetic and sombre, reflecting Bialas’ interests in poetry, literature and folklore. Meanwhile Glasgow’s playing, which included guitar like sounds, represented a feat of supreme musicianship. Harrison added keyboard textures sourced from a sample of bowed guitar filtered through his laptop. Indeed the combination of laptop and a Kawai MP7SE keyboard produced a rich variety of sounds, as will be seen later. With Sirkis deploying brushes this was one of the quartet’s most lyrical pieces with Harrison again adopting an acoustic piano sound for his solo, while Bialas’ emotive singing variously evoked the sounds of the blues, duende and torch song.

Sirkis sourced the title of “Spooky Action In The Distance” from the writings of Albert Einstein, the phrase one that the great physicist used to describe things that even he didn’t understand. Bialas’ unaccompanied playing of the unusual and distinctive waterphone gave the introduction the ‘extra spooky’ quality that Sirkis had promised in his introduction. Bialas variously played the waterphone with a bow and with various lollipop shaped mallets, producing a variously ethereal and resonant sci-fi sound. I’d never seen the instrument played before and, like the rest of the audience, was fascinated by it. Asaf later explained to me that it is mainly used in ‘library’ music and film sound tracks. Bialas’ playing of the waterphone was then supplemented by Sirkis’ dramatic cymbal work, the drummer eventually exchanging mallets for sticks as he and Glasgow eventually established the groove that became the foundation for Harrison’s earthy keyboard solo using a Rhodes sound filtered through the laptop. Meanwhile Bialas eventually put down the waterphone to sing wordless vocal lines that had a distinct horn like quality, reminiscent of a trumpet or saxophone soloist.

The first set concluded with Sirkis’ “Letter To A”, a dedication to his late father. Despite his Jewishness Sirkis Senior was fascinated with the timbres of the church organ, particularly in the works of J.S. Bach and Messiaen, and it was he who introduced Asaf to the sound. Asaf subsequently explored the music of the instrument with the Inner Noise trio as detailed above, either recording on location with a real church organ or with the sound being replicated electronically. The latter proved to be the case tonight, thanks to Harrison’s wonderfully versatile keyboard and computer set up, with the keyboard player producing a convincingly authentic sound on the unaccompanied introduction, his playing subsequently augmented by Sirkis on a set of orchestral crotales, or small tuned cymbals. Sirkis was to use these periodically throughout the evening to add bright shards of colour and texture. With the addition of bass, drums and wordless vocals the music then took on a quality that was evocative of both the blues and sacred music, the Middle East and Europe. Harrison switched to a Rhodes sound for his solo, before changing back to organ as he and Glasgow produced deep sonorities that contrasted effectively with Bialas’ high register wordless vocalising. The composition eventually reconciled itself with a solo church organ outro, bringing the piece full circle.

On the whole the quartet’s music was well received but there were one or two dissenters who thought them to be too loud, particularly Bialas’ vocals. Some adjustments were made for the second half and overall the sound was more balanced for the second set.

This was ushered in by Bialas’ “Nocturnity” which was introduced by Harrison on acoustic piano and featured the sound of crotales and the composer’s singing of her own Polish lyrics. Glasgow took the first instrumental solo on his distinctive, fretted six string electric bass. Also an accomplished guitarist his virtuoso bass playing often includes guitar like timbres and his highly personalised sound has led to work with master saxophonist Tommy Smith among others. The bassist is also part of the trio Preston Glasgow Lowe alongside guitarist David Preston and drummer Laurie Lowe. Preston had visited the Hive the previous month as part of the Citizen quintet led by saxophonist Duncan Eagles. Glasgow’s solo was followed by Harrison on acoustic piano.

“If Pegasus Had One Wing (He Would Fly In Spirals)” commenced with a spoken word introduction from Bialas as she translated her lyrics into English. Musically the piece was distinguished by its complex unison vocal / instrumental melodies and Harrison’s feverish Rhodes solo.

The forthcoming double album is an ambitious work with the two part “Earth Suite” effectively its title track. In his introduction Sirkis promised us examples of music from ‘around the globe’ something borne out by Bialas’ composition “Rooting” which featured her incantatory singing, unaccompanied other than by an electronically generated tambura like drone, as she demonstrated her enormous and highly flexible vocal range. Subsequently her voice soared above the sounds of arpeggiated piano plus drums and bass, eventually making way for instrumental solos from Glasgow and Harrison, the latter still deploying an acoustic piano sound.
In recent years Sirkis has developed a growing fascination with Indian rhythms, something encouraged by his tenure with Garland’s Lighthouse trio. Tonight the return of the tambura triggered a remarkable konnakol set piece from Sirkis, konnakol being the art of Indian vocal percussion.
This proved to be the link into “Our New Earth” which featured the sound of church organ combined with wordless vocals and the bass virtuosity of Glasgow. Bialas’ voice then moved into the realms of Julie Tippetts style extended technique as she entered into a dialogue with Sirkis’ drums and percussion, the singer also supplementing the sound of her voice by picking up the waterphone once more. Matters were eventually resolved with a duet between voice and church organ.

Bialas’ song “Chiaroscuro” boasted an Italian title but Polish lyrics. Bialas always writes and sings in her native tongue but translates the lyrics for English audiences, these spoken or semi sung as part of the introduction. Her words here were typically poetic and beautiful. The song was ushered in by the sounds of Harrison’s keyboard, a combination of acoustic piano with ‘bowed guitar’ textures. He was joined by Bialas’ voice, singing in Polish, then by electric bass and brushed drums. The piece had something of the feel of a jazz standard, a kind of ballad or torch song, with the instrumental honours going to Harrison on acoustic piano.

It was a fairly low key way to end a gig so with the encouragement of Shrewsbury Jazz Network’s Laurie Grey the quartet remained on stage to deliver a deserved encore,  Bialas’ “Picture From A Polish Wood”, a fictional depiction of an altercation between Sirkis and a bear in a Polish forest. Soaring vocals were combined with driving rhythms with solos coming from Harrison on Rhodes and Sirkis with a predictably explosive and virtuosic drum feature. The piece then resolved itself with a dialogue between Bialas’ voice and Harrison’s whistling synth.

IQ’s music represented some of the most ambitious jazz ever heard at The Hive. On the whole it was well received, but it did divide opinion with some finding it too loud or too complex. A strong rock or fusion element has always been an important part of Sirkis’ work and personally I had no problem with the volume and positively praise the group’s adventure and ambition. Admittedly Bialas’ voice, for all its technical excellence, can be something of an acquired taste and in truth even I enjoyed more the quintet that Sirkis brought to this venue in 2015.

But Sirkis is a musician and composer who never stands still. From tonight’s performance, which featured exceptional playing from all four musicians, it’s clear that “Our New Earth” is a highly ambitious piece of work that embraces a huge variety of vocal and instrumental sounds and a similarly broad range of musical styles and influences. It shows both him and Bialas growing in maturity as composers and on this evidence should be well worth hearing on its release.

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