by Ian Mann
May 12, 2020
Wickham’s updating of the spiritual jazz tradition makes for highly enjoyable listening. The playing is excellent throughout and it makes a refreshing change to hear the flute as a lead instrument.
“Blue To Red”
“Lovemonk Records LMNK66CD)
Chip Wickham – flute, alto flute, Dan ‘JD 73’ Goldman – keyboards, Simon ‘Sneaky’ Houghton – double bass, cello, Amanda Whiting – harp, Jon Scott- drums, Rick Weedon – percussion.
Flautist, saxophonist and composer Chip Wickham was born in Brighton but moved to Manchester to attend college.
He quickly became involved in the Manchester music scene, performing with such artists as Andy Votel and the bands Nightmares On Wax and funk specialists The New Mastersounds. He has continued to perform across a range of musical genres, with the focus on funk and soul, and has collaborated with Snowboy, Dwight Trible, Allysha Joy, Badly Drawn Boy, Roy Ayers, Craig Charles and the groups Fingathing, The Sorcerers, Scrimshire, James Taylor Quartet and The Pharcyde, and many more.
As a solo artist Wickham’s career has been shaped by his involvement in Manchester’s “spiritual jazz” scene, and particularly by his associations with the two principal figures of that movement, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and saxophonist Nat Birchall. The founder of the influential Gondwana record label Halsall is effectively the instigator of a musical sub genre, let’s call it ‘British Spiritual Jazz’, of which Wickham is effectively a part.
That said Wickham is an artist who has travelled widely, having lived in Madrid for a decade between 2007 and 2017, and then spending time in Doha, Qatar.
Wickham’s first album as a solo artist didn’t appear until 2017 with the release of “La Sombra”, recorded in Madrid with a Spanish quartet. Also recorded in the Spanish capital 2018’s follow up, “Shamal Wind”, featured an Anglo-Spanish line up and included a guest appearance from Halsall on trumpet. I have heard and enjoyed “Shamal Wind” but somehow the album managed to slip through the net in terms of actual reviews. Apologies for the oversight.
Recorded in the UK “Blue To Red” finds Wickham specialising on flute and leading an all British band, including several old musical associates. Wickham previously worked with Goldman in Nightmares On Wax and with Houghton in Fingathing. Whiting played harp with Halsall’s Gondwana Orchestra and Scott is one of the most in demand drummers in the country, a key figure on both the London and Manchester jazz scenes.
Away from the Mancunian spiritual jazz circuit Wickham’s wider musical influences include Yusef Lateef and Alice Coltrane, and this latest recording draws particular inspiration from both of these. Wickham has previously cited fellow flautist Harold McNair and the extraordinary multi-reed player Roland Kirk as other seminal influences, and there’s certainly something of McNair’s style about some of Wickham’s playing on this latest release.
In addition to modal and spiritual jazz influences Wickham’s music is also informed by the funk and soul of his youth and by hip hop and electronic dance music, plus the flamenco and Arabic influences absorbed during his time away from the UK.
The title of Wickham’s latest album reflects his environmental concerns as his liner note explains;
“When life started four billion years ago Mars was a blue planet. It lost its atmosphere, and ever since then it’s been red and dead. It’s through our own senselessness that we’re pushing our own planet in the same direction. It’s a culture crisis rather than a climate crisis, one that only be solved if we go right to the core of how we live as human beings. Jazz has always had a big spiritual connection with life and our place in the cosmos, searching for answers and finding meaning above us, but now we need to stop looking up and look around before it’s too late, and blue becomes red”.
“Blue To Red” features six substantial original compositions from Wickham, with the scene set by the opening title track. Propelled by Scott’s gently rolling grooves and Weedon’s atmospheric and effective use of percussion the piece features the rich, deep sound of Wickham’s alto flute, cushioned by string sounds, possibly a combination of cello and string synth, and the ethereal shimmer of Whiting’s harp. As Wickham’s flute continues to probe gently there’s the sense of a planet orbiting and softly floating through space.
“Route One” has a more urgent groove and features Wickham on regular flute, again featuring as the leading melodic instrument. Wickham subsequently exchanges solos with Goldman, the latter playing a Fender Rhodes Mk2 Custom electric piano. Both soloists play with imagination and invention, encouraged by Scott’s crisp and propulsive drumming.
There’s a suitably spacey ambience about “Interstellar”, this allied to a sturdy backbeat, courtesy of Scott. Wickham features prominently on flute, but there’s also an extended solo from Goldman on keys, his other keyboard being a Korg Minilogue XD. Whiting’s harp adds shimmering clouds of cosmic fairy-dust.
The eleven minute magnum opus “The Cosmos” continues the stellar theme, with the spacey echo of Goldman’s keyboards introducing the piece. There’s a feeling of drifting weightlessly in deep space, a quality enhanced by the ethereal combination of Wickham’s high register flute and Whiting’s harp. The rhythms are languid, with Scott’s finely detailed cymbal work enhancing the other-wordly atmosphere. Goldman’s spacey keyboards and Whiting’s celestial harp continue to beguile as they combine with the leader’s flute, underpinned by Scott’s cymbals and Houghton’s underlying bass pulse.
“Double Cross” raises the energy levels once more with an insistent, funk style groove and with Wickham deploying a vocalised sound on flute, reminiscent of Roland Kirk, or even Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson. Goldman unleashes some filthy, funky keyboard sounds and the rhythm section lay down some highly infectious grooves. It’s terrific fun, and a piece that harks back to Wickham’s time in the clubs of Manchester. If a jazz piece can ever be described as a ‘floor filler’, this surely must be it.
The final track pays homage to one of Wickham’s musical idols, Yusef Lateef. “Mighty Yusef” echoes the relaxed atmosphere of the opening title track, and effectively these two pieces bookend the album. The warm sound of Wickham’s flute is gently bolstered by softly undulating grooves, with Goldman and Whiting sprinkling a little of their aural magic into the arrangement.
Wickham’s updating of the spiritual jazz tradition makes for highly enjoyable listening. The playing is excellent throughout, particularly from Wickham himself, and it makes a refreshing change to hear the flute as the lead instrument in a jazz context. The writing and playing are embellished by a pinpoint production that enhances many of the finer details of the arrangements. Credit here is due to producer Wickham and his engineering team of Simon ‘Stingray’ Davies, Pete Maher and Warren Hunter.
It could be argued that the music is somewhat derivative and occasionally a little bloodless, but overall the positives greatly outweigh the negatives and it would be curmudgeonly in the extreme to deny that this is a highly enjoyable album.
One suspects that Wickham’s music would also translate very easily to live performance, whether to the more formal environs of the seated jazz concert or to the standing only spaces of the clubs in which Wickham initially honed his trade. This is music with the potential to appeal to a wide audience, including younger listeners outside the usual jazz demographic.
Wickham had intended to tour the album in the UK during April 2020, but all dates were cancelled due to the Covid-19 crisis. It is now hoped to re-schedule the tour for October 2020, with one date confirmed thus far at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in Soho, London on October 31st. Please visit http://www.chipwickham.com for updates.
Meanwhile “Blue To Red” is available via Wickham’s Bandcamp page here;
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