Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019

Review

Byron Wallen

Portrait : Reflections On Belonging


by Ian Mann

March 20, 2020

/ ALBUM

A very personal work for Wallen who has invested much of himself in the project and who plays superbly throughout.

Byron Wallen

“Portrait ; Reflections On Belonging”

(Twilight Jaguar Productions TJCD3)

Byron Wallen – trumpet, flugelhorn, shells, piano, percussion
Rob Luft – guitar, Paul Michael – bass guitar, Rod Youngs – drums
Richard ‘Olatunde’ Baker – congas and talking drums (tracks 2,4,10)
Pupils of Plumcroft Primary School – vocals (tracks 8,9,11)


Released in February 2020 on his own Twilight Jaguar record label “Portrait” is the latest album as a leader from the trumpeter and composer Byron Wallen (born 1969).

It follows “Sound Advice” (1995), “Earth Roots” (1997) and “Indigo” (2002).  In 2007 Wallen released the well received “Meeting Ground”,  gaining nominations in that year’s BBC Jazz Awards and MOBO Awards.

Although Wallen’s own music has been relatively sparsely documented on disc he has been a leading figure on the British jazz scene for many years playing with such luminaries as saxophonists Courtney Pine, Jean Toussaint, Tony Kofi, Ed Jones and Denys Baptiste, bassist Gary Crosby, pianist Bruno Heinen, multi-instrumentalist Adam Glasser and vocalists Emily Saunders and Cleveland Watkiss. He has collaborated with the Black Top duo featuring vibraphonist Orphy Robinson and keyboard player Pat Thomas and also worked with the Ethiopian vibraphonist and bandleader Mulatu Astatke, the acknowledged pioneer of Ethio-Jazz.

Others with whom he has performed include guitarist/vocalist George Benson, pianist Andrew Hill, trumpeter Hugh Masekela and vocalist Chaka Khan. Heavyweight company indeed.

Besides his work as a leader and sideman Wallen has travelled widely and is also an acclaimed educator. His travels have taken him to all corners of the African continent and also to Indonesia and to his parents’ homeland of Belize. The sounds of these various locations are reflected in his own music, including this latest album. He collaborated with African musicians on the 1997 album “Automatic Original”, credited to the group Bambaraka. He has also worked with King Sunny Ade.

As a composer Wallen has written commissioned pieces for various music festivals and has also written extensively for theatre and film. Among these works are 1994’s “Tarot Suite” and 2004’s “The Trumpet Kings”,  the latter commissioned by Birmingham Arts and performed at the CBSO Centre in Birmingham, the Royal Festival Hall, London and the Cheltenham International Jazz Festival.

Wallen is also an acclaimed educator who has taught and brought music to all types of schools and age groups. He has written music specifically for educational projects and his studies in cognitive psychology have allowed him to utilise music as a medium for healing.

Jazz fans such as myself, who know Wallen primarily as a dependable sideman and a skilled trumpet soloist in other people’s groups, may be unaware of the sheer scale and variety of his musical accomplishments and achievements. There’s far more to Byron Wallen than might first meet the eye and readers are encouraged to visit his website at http://www.byronwallen.co.uk to get a full overview of his diverse musical existence.

Turning now to this latest work which began as a PRS For Music Foundation commission titled “Anthem For Woolwich”, which forms the basis for the album.

London born Wallen was raised in Tottenham and is the brother of the celebrated classical composer Errolyn Wallen. He now lives in Woolwich and explains the rationale behind the concept of this latest work in his album liner notes as follows;
“This album was conceived whilst sitting in the central square in Woolwich, an area of South East London. I was struck by the community around me with its mixture of cultures and nationalities, from Nepalese elders to young Nigerian men, Somali mother with their children, a new Eastern European contingent and descendants of families who used to work in the docks and at the Arsenal. Music paved my way to travel and see the world, meeting people from all different cultures and walks of life. The study of music and the process of striving to become a better musician furnished me with a deeper knowledge of self and a gift I could share on so many different levels. In ‘Portrait’ I am meditating on identity, culture and what it means to belong. The compositions, workshops, performances and social interaction born out of this project deepened my artistic and personal relationships with the people in my neighbourhood. The album pays tribute to the heart, soul and vibrant provenance of the community I call my home”.

Indeed the album was originally intended to be a community project involving a variety of musicians from the Woolwich area but the logistics of this proved to be too difficult to administer. Instead the work is centred around Wallen’s regular group, the Four Corners band featuring Rob Luft on guitar, Paul Michael on electric bass and Rod Youngs at the drums. However there is still a strong sense of community involvement with the children of Plumcroft Primary School adding their voices to three of the album’s twelve tracks.

Wallen’s notes also provide insights into the inspirations behind individual pieces.

Somewhat perversely the album commences with “Anthem (Epilogue)”, an atmospheric introduction featuring Wallen’s trumpet whispers, sampled voices and almost subliminal guitar and bass. In effect it acts as a kind of overture.

“Each for All and All For Each” takes its title from the motto of the Royal Arsenal Co-Operative Society, which was founded in Woolwich in 1868. The RACS ran food shops and other local services and supported the campaign for working class political representation. Musically the piece is a more upbeat affair and features the percussion of guest Richard ‘Olatunde’ Baker, his contribution helping to give the piece an authentic African feel. However there are moments of reflection within the music too as Wallen’s trumpet solo builds gradually, progressing through a range of moods, meditative and exultant by turns. Luft’s love of African timbres is reflected in his contribution, and particularly in a typically imaginative and distinctive solo.

“Alert” was written for the workers at the Royal Arsenal and is a short but evocative piece that simulates the sounds of muffled foghorns on the river and the lapping of waves. Wallen conjures up an intriguing range of sounds that also seem to emulate the flapping of sails and the clatter of rigging.

The piece also seems to serve as an introduction to “No Moons, No Stars”, a darker edged piece inspired by “a phrase coined by Darcus Howe, the presenter and polemicist in a programme for Channel 4 describing the atmosphere in Woolwich and the racial tensions prevalent at the time”.
Baker again joins the group and there’s an urgency and energy about Wallen’s own playing that reflects the subject matter of the piece. But it’s not all sound and fury, there’s a delightful airy quality about Luft’s lustrous solo. The young guitarist is one of the most gifted and original instrumentalists to have emerged in recent years and his presence is an asset to any recording.

The sounds of thunder / explosives at the end of “No Moons No Stars” seem to act as the trigger for   “Warren To Arsenal”, a virtuoso passage of solo drumming from Youngs.

Wallen describes the ballad “Fundamental” as “a meditation on what it is to be human”. Evocative, atmospheric and poignant the piece features Wallen at his most tender and lyrical, his musings shadowed by Luft’s ambient, Frisell-like guitar FX and Youngs’ cymbal shimmers. The piece evolves slowly and naturally, with Wallen’s meditations at the heart of the delicate interplay between the musicians. As the music gradually gathers momentum Luft’s playing takes on a harder edge while Wallen’s becomes more abstract, before the piece eventually resolves itself in more serene fashion.

“Ferry Shell” was written for the Woolwich Free Ferry Service, opened in 1889 and still running to this day. It’s a vibrant, rhythmic, percussion driven piece, a little over two minutes in duration that also features the beguiling sounds of Wallen blowing conch shells.

“Spirit Of The Ancestors” is the first of the tunes that Wallen wrote for Plumcroft Primary School.
Wallen explains;
“we examined the roles of ancestors in our lives and encouraged the children to bring in personal family stories. In this way music had a direct effect on the children’s self esteem, respect for their own and others’ cultures and helped the identify life goals.”
It’s an upbeat piece with the children singing “Spirit, can you hear it?” and “Spirit of the Ancestors is calling / is here”. Driven by a powerful electric bass groove the piece also includes the sound of Wallen’s vocalised muted trumpet, also summoning up those spirits.

“Banana Man” was written with the children of Bannockburn Primary but it’s the kids from Plumcroft who get to sing on the record. This is a song written about the importance of street markets, and opens with the sound of traders advertising their wares. The children sound as if they are having a great time as Wallen’s trumpet and Luft’s guitar dance nimbly about their chanted phrases, all propelled by the chatter of Youngs’ drums.

The Four Corners band, augmented by Baker, then get the chance to stretch out fully on the seven minute “Holler”, with its infectious African and Cuban rhythms. There’s some excellent interplay between the musicians with Wallen himself in particularly ebullient form. The excellent Luft makes a strong and distinctive contribution as the piece ebbs and flows, there’s plenty of subtlety in here too.  Paul Michael is also given the chance to shine with a liquid and lyrical electric bass solo, presaging a rousing closing section centred around Luft’s circling guitar motif and featuring Wallen’s virtuoso trumpeting.

“Voice Of The Ancestors” is a brief reprise of the earlier “Spirit Of The Ancestors”, again featuring the voices of Classes 3G and 3H at Plumcroft Primary School.

Confusingly the album concludes with “Anthem (Prologue)”, a shorter piece in exactly the same vein as its opening counterpart “Anthem (Epilogue)”.

Essentially “Portrait” has the feeling of a suite, with full length movements punctuated by shorter pieces that acts as ‘scene setters’ and ‘palette cleansers’. It’s conceptual air gives the whole album the feel of a single piece of work, although major pieces like “Each For All”, “No Moon No Stars”, “Fundamental” and “Holler” are all capable of standing on their own merits and could be enjoyed individually out of context.

“Portrait” is obviously a very personal work for Wallen who has invested much of himself in the project and who plays superbly throughout. The presence of the consistently inventive Luft is a huge plus while Michael and Youngs offer excellent support. Baker adds a distinctive presence to the tracks on which he appears, but one suspects that the sound of the school choir may become cloying after repeated listenings. Nevertheless education is an extremely important aspect of Wallen’s work and would it be churlish to carp too much about this aspect of the recording. Indeed the critical reception thus far to “Portrait” has been overwhelmingly positive, with most reviewers agreeing that it’s been far too long since Wallen’s last solo release.

Wallen is currently due to be touring this material with dates as scheduled below. Sadly due to the Corona Virus outbreak it’s likely that many of these will be postponed or cancelled. Please check before purchasing tickets or travelling.


2020 Tour Dates:

TUE 24th MARCH     East Side Jazz           Leytonstone

THU 26th MARCH     Modern Jazz @ CUC Wine Bar   Cambridge

SAT 4th APRIL       The Verdict           Brighton

SUN 5th APRIL       Herts Jazz Club         St Albans

FRI 1st MAY       Calstock Arts Centre       Calstock
SAT 2nd MAY       Tinners Moon Festival       Ashburton

SUN 17th MAY       Legends Festival         Birmingham


WED 10th June       National Centre for Early Music   York

THU 11th JUNE       Bonington Theatre     Nottingham

SAT 12th SEPTEMBER     Shrewsbury Jazz Network, The Hive Music & Media Centre, Shrewsbury

THU 17th SEPTEMBER     Jazz at Future Inn       Bristol

SAT 19th SEPTEMBER     The [email protected] George     South Molton

WED 23rd SEPTEMBER   Dorchester Arts         Dorchester

FRI 2nd OCTOBER     Bracknell Jazz           Bracknell

TUE 6th OCTOBER     Jazz Hastings           Hastings

WED 14th OCTOBER     The Lescar           Sheffield

blog comments powered by Disqus