by Ian Mann
September 14, 2022
Ian Mann enjoys this performance by the duo of violinist / vocalist Faith Brackenbury & drummer Tony Bianco and takes a look at their new album "Wayward Mystic", inspired by Hildegard von Bingen.
Brackenbury Bianco, “Visio Improvisus”, St. Andrew’s Church, Adforton, Herefordshire, 10/09/2022.
Faith Brackenbury – violin, viola, voice, electronics, Tony Bianco – drums, percussion
The improvising duo of violinist / vocalist Faith Brackenbury and drummer Tony Bianco first came together in 2020 and quickly established a strong musical rapport, meeting up on a regular basis to play and to discuss musical and political ideas.
As the country began to emerge from lockdown the début Brackenbury Bianco album was recorded at Bianco’s home during March and April 2021 and contained three lengthy fully improvised pieces. These were subsequently mixed by Martin Archer of Discus Records and released as the album “Rising Up” on the Discus label later in the year. Review here;
“Rising Up” was a challenging but rewarding release and having had my appetite whetted by the recording I subsequently enjoyed a live performance by the duo at the Centrala venue in Birmingham in November 2021. This was a double bill with the John Pope Quintet co-presented by the Fizzle and TDE Promotions organisations. Review here;
Like the album the Brackenbury Bianco performance was pretty ‘full on’ and very much in the free jazz tradition, the milieu in which Bianco has made his name performing with musicians such as saxophonists Paul Dunmall, Elton Dean, Evan Parker, Mark Hanslip and Mike Fletcher, pianists Keith Tippett, Aki Takase and Alexander von Schlippenbach, trombonist Paul Rutherford and bassists Paul Rogers, Marcio Mattos, Colin Somervell and John Edwards.
Bianco was born in New York City but has been based in Europe since the 1990s, firstly in Berlin and later in London, collaborating with many leading UK and European improvisers, such as those mentioned above. I first heard his playing in 1998/9 when he was member of trumpeter Loz Speyer’s Miles Davis inspired “Two Kinds Of Blue” quartet, but overall Bianco is better known as a free jazz player.
His other projects have included a quartet with pianist Zoe Rahman, saxophonist Carlos Lopez Real and bassist Oli Hayhurst which resulted in the album “In A Western Sense”.
There is also the trio douBt, with keyboard player Alex Maguire and Belgian guitarist Michel Delville. This line up recorded the acclaimed 2009 album “Never Pet A Burning Dog”, a title also used by Ronnie Scott as I seem to recall. The album includes guest performances by former Caravan / Hatfield & The North / Camel bassist and vocalist Richard Sinclair.
Decision Dream is a kind of free jazz, power trio featuring Bianco, bassist Jair-Rohm Parker Wells and guitarist Magnus Alexanderson. This line up produced the powerful, wholly improvised “Steam Room Variations” set in 2005.
Brackenbury’s musical background is even more diverse and has embraced the classical, folk and jazz traditions. The following biographical details are sourced from my review of the “Rising Up” album;
Brackenbury’s playing first came to my attention in 2019 with the release of her superb EP (or ‘mini-album’) “KnifeAngel”, a four part suite of around thirty minutes duration inspired by Alfie Bradley’s statue of the same name. This was recorded with a stellar sextet featuring Martin Speake (alto saxophone), Rob Luft (guitar), Alex Maguire (piano), Oli Hayhurst (double bass) and Will Glaser (drums). Review here;
Brackenbury is a highly versatile musician, and sometime instrument maker, who first trained as a classical violinist before branching out into the worlds of folk, jazz and improvised music. She played with the Irish folk band Slainte and also with various ‘Hot Club’ style bands.
Brackenbury’s gravitation towards jazz and improvisation resulted in her studying the music at Birmingham Conservatoire, graduating in 2014. She later established a successful creative alliance with Martin Speake, playing and singing with the saxophonist’s Mafarowi group and working even more closely with him in the improvising duo Zephyr. My review of the début Zephyr recording, first released in 2018 can be found here;
Brackenbury also plays viola, piano and hammered dulcimer as part of the long running folk duo Brackenbury & Neilson alongside accordionist John Neilson. The pair released their début album, “Crossings”, on the Monoline record label in 2018. A review of a 2019 live performance by the pair, part of a double bill with folk instrumentalists Owl Light Trio, can be found here;
Her other activities include the multi-media project The Four Susans (the name a Vivaldi pun) and a music and poetry project celebrating the life and work of the war poet Wilfred Owen. “Wilfred & Susan; War and Love” features spoken word and the music of a string trio led by Brackenbury.
Brackenbury has also performed with the indie/classical artist Tiny Leaves (aka Joel Nathaniel Pike) and appears on his album release “Notes On Belonging” (Pegdoll Records, 2018). She has also written music for the theatre company Silent Monkey.
In October 2018 Brackenbury collaborated with the Newcastle based band Archipelago as part of their ‘Between Waves’ project geared to promoting women in music. Her pieces “Earth” and “Tidal” can be heard on the “Between Waves” compilation album, which also features works from three other female artists, Rosie Frater-Taylor, Lisette Auton and Fran Bundey.
At the time of the “KnifeAngel” release Brackenbury was also working on “The Birds Suite”, a jazz based work inspired by “The Conference of The Birds” by the twelfth-century Sufi poet Farid Ud-Din Attar. The suite was due to be performed by a quintet comprised of Brackenbury and Speake plus pianist Alex Maguire, bassist Calum Gourlay and drummer Dave Storey. I’m not sure whether this project has actually come to fruition, one suspects that the pandemic has probably hindered its progress. Incidentally, keen eyed readers may recall that “Conference of The Birds” was also the title of a classic ECM album from 1972 by bassist and composer Dave Holland.
Since the release of “Rising Up” and that Birmingham live appearance Brackenbury and Bianco have been busy with a new project inspired by the life and music of Saint Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179).
Brackenbury describes the genesis of the project as follows;
“About a year ago I handed Tony a CD of Saint Hildegard von Bingen’s spiritual songs to listen to. The next thing I know is that he has played an entire hour long drum track alongside the recording in one sitting – and that it was SO RIGHT. The sounds of his rolling ‘thunder in the distance’ drumming and the ethereal monophonic vocal lines perfectly complemented each other and my inspiration to try singing some, then add violin / viola layers with pedals and to improvise was ignited. In learning some of these beautiful Latin songs I have found a crossover with John Coltrane and the modal music he was exploring, which gives great scope for improvising. I also continue to learn more about this remarkable 12th century Benedictine abbess, who was the first German mystic, a prophet, herbalist, political moralist, poet, artist, author and composer. I find her life and works very inspiring”.
Between December 2021 and April 2022 the duo continued to explore Hildegard’s music, using eight of her pieces as the basis for a double album subtitled “Improvisations inspired by the music of Hildegard von Bingen”. Released on the Discus label under the title “Wayward Mystic” the recording has been supported by a series of Arts Council supported concerts at sacred spaces in the Welsh Marches, billed as the Visio Improvisus Tour.
Many of the performances have taken place at venues fairly close to me, but the most convenient one for me to attend was at St. Andrew’s Church in the tiny Herefordshire venue of Adforton, about nine miles from my home. My thanks to Faith for placing my wife and I on the guest list for this particular show. Although I live fairly locally this was the first time I had been in St. Andrew’s, a small, well maintained church that doubles as the village hall and was actually surprisingly spacious. It made for a good place to see and hear live music.
Adforton is a tiny village and unfortunately the audience turn out for tonight’s event was pitifully low. It’s possible that the recent death of the Queen may have created a degree of uncertainty as to whether the performance would go ahead and that this may have been a factor.
However the poor attendance did not affect the quality of the music and for those present it often felt that Brackenbury and Bianco were playing ‘just for them’, such was the intimacy of the venue and the immersive quality of the music.
David, the genial Churchwarden, presided over the event and it was decided that as a mark of respect for Her Majesty the evening would start with a two minute silence followed by the duo playing the national anthem with the audience singing the words. Brackenbury picked out the familiar melody on violin, subtly underscored by the delicate rumble of Bianco’s mallets. I have to admit to just listening to the playing, which established the template for what was to follow.
Hildegard’s music is profoundly spiritual and she wrote many liturgical songs which were collected into the cycle “Symphonia Armoniae Celestium Revelationum”. The duo describe the songs as being “monophonic, set to her own text, and ranging from antiphons, hymns and sequences to responseries”.
It’s the spiritual nature of the music, inspired by Hildegard’s divine “Scivias” or visions, that creates the link with Coltrane, whose later work was also inspired by his Christian faith. Although created centuries apart the music of both Hildegard and Coltrane has that same spiritual, immersive quality and the parallels that the duo draw between the two make perfect sense.
The music to be heard on “Wayward Mystic” is very different to that of “Rising Up”, which was more fiery and confrontational and more obviously rooted in the free jazz tradition. Instead it is softer and more contemplative, but no less absorbing. Indeed if anything it’s easier for the listener to become totally wrapped up in the music.
Tonight’s performance commenced with Bianco speaking a few words about Hildegard’s music, particularly its melodic qualities and its modal structures, making it a perfect vehicle for improvisation and emphasising that link with John Coltrane. He also spoke of the spiritual and contemplative nature of the music and of the contrast between the softness of the violin and the power of the drums.
The musical performance began with “Hymn of Hildegard”, the opening track on the “Wayward Mystic” album. This is an untitled work by Hildegard that has been named and expanded by the duo with Brackenbury sketching the folk like melodies on violin, underscored by the gentle polyrhythmic rumble of Bianco’s drums. Bianco played with soft headed mallets all night rather than conventional drum sticks, this helping to establish and maintain the intimate, spiritual quality of the music. The bass drum was also integral to his playing with three pedals being deployed, allowing him to play in a variety of complex time signatures. In his album notes for “Wayward Mystic” Bianco notes “my way of playing the drums is like playing the tabla, kind of reminding me of Indian spiritual music, but applied here to Hildegard”. Interestingly I’d also noted the resemblance to Indian ragas, and of course Coltrane was also fascinated by Indian music, establishing yet another link. Elvin Jones, the drummer in Coltrane’s classic quartet borrowed elements from the Indian tradition to create his unique polyrhythmic sound that has been so influential on generations of jazz drummers, among them Bianco who readily acknowledges Jones’ profound influence.
Another difference between “Rising Up” and “Wayward Mystic” is Brackenbury’s use of voice and electronics on the new album. “O Frodens Virga” saw her making use of live looping techniques, first establishing a violin drone above which she both sang and played violin melodies. As the duo stretched out, moving further away from Hildegard’s original melody, they embarked on an extended improvised passage of violin / drum dialogues before reeling things in again towards the end of the piece with the return of Brackenbury’s vocals.
In common with so may other jazz performers Brackenbury and Bianco have already moved on from the album they’re actually promoting. They have, however, continued to focus on the Hildegard repertoire and the next piece was “O Eterne Deus”, a work that doesn’t actually appear on the “Wayward Mystic” album. This featured Brackenbury on viola and also saw her deploying the pizzicato technique for the first time. Plucked phrases were live looped, as was an arco drone, inviting a response from Bianco at the drums. The performance saw Brackenbury continuing to mix arco and pizzicato techniques and also featured her vocals, as she sang and played simultaneously.
A return to the album repertoire for “O Quam Mirabilis”, which was introduced by a passage of unaccompanied, but innately musical drumming from the hugely impressive Bianco. He was then joined by Brackenbury on violin, who again made use of live looping techniques to layer her sound, looping both drones and melodies before singing over the top. Her subsequent violin solo seemed to soar heavenwards, lifted by Bianco’s increasingly propulsive drumming, which added dramatic cymbal splashes and crashes to the now familiar mallet driven rumble. Bianco played with a controlled power throughout, in perpetual motion yet strangely calm and serene.
Between numbers Brackenbury told us something of Hildegard’s life, of how she had experienced visions from early childhood and subsequently became an oblate to the Benedictine Monastery at Disibodenberg at the age of fourteen, eventually rising to become the Abbess. In “Scivias”, her book of visions, she wrote of being instructed by God to “play what you see and hear”, something that applied to both her music and her visual art. One of her original artworks appears on the cover of the “Wayward Mystic” album. As a composer Hildegard was prolific and there are more surviving chants by her than by any other composer from the Middle Ages,
A shorter second set, perhaps curtailed due to the sparse attendance, commenced with a performance of “O Virtu Sapienti”, another Hildegard composition that does not feature on the album. This featured synchronised violin and vocals plus the looping of both plucked and bowed violin phrases. Brackenbury’s astute and impressive use of electronics often made the music sound as if it was the work of a bigger unit than a duo, particularly when she also looped her voice. She also mixed the duo’s sound in an impressive feat of multi-tasking worthy of Hildegard herself.
Finally we heard “O Cruor Sanguinis”, introduced by a passage of solo drums and percussion that saw Bianco wielding shakers to approximate the sound of church bells. Brackenbury was featured on pizzicato viola and vocals, singing Hildegard’s Latin lyrics, and later utilising her array of effects pedals to create a wah wah sound on the viola when she eventually picked up the bow. Live looping was again deployed with pizzicato lines looped to form the backdrop for Brackenbury’s bowed improvisations.
Despite the sparse attendance this was a fascinating and absorbing musical experience, with Brackenbury and Bianco drawing the listener into their Hidegard inspired soundworld.
My thanks to them for talking with me afterwards and answering some of my questions about the project. I’d wondered if they’d drawn any inspiration from saxophonist Jan Garbarek’s or trumpeter Arve Henriksen’s interpretations of mediaeval music, but apparently not, it’s Elvin that’s Bianco’s drum hero rather than Jon Christensen. That said “Wayward Music” is likely to hold some appeal for listeners who have enjoyed Garbarek’s collaborations with the Hilliard Ensemble or Henriksen’s with Trio Medieval.
The “Wayward Mystic” album is a double set that contains several of the pieces that were heard tonight and like the concert represents an absorbing listening experience and as such is highly recommended, although I realise it won’t be for everybody. It also features Bianco, a talented multi-instrumentalist, playing keyboards.
The full track listing is;
Hymn of Hildegard 11.44
O Frondens Virga 15.56
O Quam Mirabilis 15.29
Placement and Resolve 20.32
O Pastor Animarum 12.18
Churubim’s Sword 21.40
O Cruor Sanguinis 14.36
The Visio Improvisus Tour concludes in my home town of Leominster at 7.00 pm on Saturday September 17th at the Priory Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. I can’t attend myself as I’m covering a performance by vocalist Brigitte Beraha and her Lucid Dreamers group in Shrewsbury, hence my decision to attend the Adforton event. I do hope the people of Leominster will turn out to support this event and to enjoy what will be a unique musical experience.
2022 TOUR TICKETS www.ticketsource.co.uk/visio-improvisus
Meanwhile London based readers will get the opportunity to see Brackenbury Bianco when they appear at a Daylight Music event at St. John’s, Leytonstone on the afternoon of November 5th 2022.
5 November: Guido Spannocchi Quartet, Clarice Jensen + Brackenbury Bianco, St John’s Leytonstone
Full details and ticket link at;
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