by Ian Mann
May 10, 2020
Throughout the recording Montague's approach to composition and improvisation is intelligent and inventive with the trio achieving a broad range of sounds and dynamics.
“Warmer Than Blood”
(Whirlwind Recordings, WR4756)
Chris Montague – guitar, Kit Downes – piano, Ruth Goller – electric bass
“Warmer Than Blood” is the first album release under his own name by the guitarist and composer Chris Montague.
Originally from the North East of England Montague has been featured frequently on the Jazzmann web pages for over a decade since first coming to prominence with the trio Troyka, featuring himself on guitar, Kit Downes on organ and Joshua Blackmore at the drums.
The then young tyros made their début in 2009 for Edition Records with the “Troyka” album exhibiting much promise and attracting considerable critical claim. Troyka were regularly described as a ‘cerebral jam band’ and were routinely compared with Tony Williams’ Lifetime and with Medeski, Martin and Wood. Some of their music was also reminiscent of 70s prog rock, particularly the ‘Canterbury’ strain epitomised by the likes of Egg and Hatfield and The North, though one suspects that this was not a conscious decision, the 80s born trio having found their way to a similar place via a process of musical serendipity.
Troyka continued to hone their approach on the albums “Moxxy” (2012) and “Ornithophobia” (2015), the latter produced by Petter Eldh, the bassist with Downes’ own Enemy piano trio. These two albums both exhibited a greater maturity and variety than the début, with each representing a clear artistic progression.
Even so Troyka’s finest hour arguably came with the creation of Troykestra, which saw the core trio augmented by the Royal Academy of Music Big Band to create a killer large ensemble that played triumphant festival gigs at both London and Cheltenham in 2013. Troykestra performed superlative big band arrangements of tunes from Troyka’s first two albums and these were documented on a live recording of the Cheltenham show that was issued on Impossible Ark Records later in that year. The album brilliantly captured the excitement of the original live performance and the fact that the music of this seemingly ‘one off’ project has been documented on disc is something to celebrate.
Away from Troyka and its offshoots Montague has been a key component in groups led by the saxophonist and composer Trish Clowes and has appeared on several of her recordings.
Recently he has also worked extensively with vocalist / guitarist / songwriter Sarah Gillespie and played an important role on her latest album, the excellent “Wishbones” (2019).
Review here; https://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/sarah-gillespie-wishbones
Gillespie is also an accomplished painter and her artwork adorns the “Warmer Than Blood” cover.
Others with whom Montague has worked include composers Colin Towns (the ensemble Blue Touch Paper) and Django Bates, Irish drummer Kevin Lawlor, and the bands Monocled Man (led by trumpeter Rory Simmons) and Slowly Rolling Camera (led by keyboard player Dave Stapleton).
In 2014 he made a one off guest appearance at Brecon Jazz Festival with the Township Comets, a London based ensemble co-led by trumpeter Chris Batchelor and multi-instrumentalist Adam Glasser that celebrates the legacy of South African jazz.
The following year I saw Montague play his own commission at the EFG London Jazz Festival, an educational project that saw him working with local school children and also presenting a “history of the electric guitar” that took in jazz, rock and blues in the company of Conor Chaplin (acoustic and electric bass), James Maddren (drums) and Michael L Roberts (keyboards, vocals). This was a lunchtime event that took place at the Rich Mix venue in Bethnal Green and which proved to be a highly enjoyable experience.
Montague’s website http://www.chrismontaguemusic.com also reveals that he has collaborated with an impressive array of other musicians including electronic artist Squarepusher and bands led by trumpeter Nick Smart (Trogon), bassist Janek Gwizdala, steel guitarist BJ Cole and drummers Benny Greb (Moving Parts), Shinya Fukomori, and Charlie Watts (yes, that Charlie Watts).
Montague was always the main composing presence in Troyka, the permanently busy Downes always seeming to have half a dozen other projects on the go at any given time. I was fortunate enough to witness a number of live performances by Troyka / Troykestra over the years and Montague always handled the announcements. Although it was always billed as a co-operative one always got the feeling that Troyka was essentially Montague’s band.
His first project as a leader re-unites him with Downes, although the two work frequently together in Sarah Gillespie’s band, but this time with the keyboard player appearing exclusively on acoustic piano. An unusual drummer-less line up also feature’s Downes’ wife, Ruth Goller on electric bass. Goller has been a powerful presence in the groups Acoustic Ladyland, Melt Yourself Down, Vula Viel and Let Spin, her driving bass lines really fuelling the engines of these bands, but as a player she is also capable of considerable subtlety, as her contribution to “Warmer Than Blood” demonstrates.
Montague says of the distinctive line up for his leadership début;
“I love how Ruth and Kit interpret music, they were always going to be my first choice – and writing for a band without drums made us work much harder to create dynamics and shape within each piece. This brought out a whole new dimension in the compositions.”
The album takes its title from a line in the poem “Leviathan”, written by Fiona Sampson, that adorns the album packaging. More on that later. All of the compositions are Montague originals, many of them inspired by family members or life experiences.
The music commences with “Irish Handcuffs (Introduction)”, a near two and a half minute solo guitar improvisation in which Montague changes one note at a time to create a “rolling, waterfall effect”. It’s a simple idea, skilfully and effectively executed. Influenced by minimalism it sounds at first as if live looping technology is being deployed, but on reflection I suspect that the desired effect is realised purely via Montague’s musical vision and the agility and dexterity of his fingers.
The opening improvisation segues into “Irish Handcuffs” itself, the title a jocular reference to Irish hospitality and the presence of “a Guinness in one hand and a whiskey in the other”. Downes and Goller join the guitarist at this point as the trio make use of the hocketting technique to develop an intricate lattice of interlocking melodies and rhythms, these punctuated by a more abstract and impressionistic episode mid tune. Downes’ use of dampened strings and prepared piano techniques give his piano playing a percussive style attack above which Montague’s guitar is given room to soar, the style of his playing and the controlled intensity of his attack sometimes reminiscent of Robert Fripp.
The Fiona Sampson poem that helps to provide the title track with its name describes a fearsome dragon like creature, seemingly living inside a hill. The opening stages of “Warmer Than Blood” are surprisingly delicate and lyrical, with Downes’ acoustic piano taking the lead. Goller’s gently strummed electric bass rhythms then combine with Montague’s cool, slippery lead guitar lines. Downes then takes over again at the piano, subtly darkening the harmonies of the piece as it progresses, referencing the hidden threat of the sleeping dragon, the danger always implied rather then overtly expressed. The piece plays out in understated fashion through Montague and Goller and represents an excellent example of the close rapport between the members of the trio and their masterful control of atmosphere and dynamics.
“FTM” is named for Montague’s young son, Finlay, with the composer describing the piece as “a beautiful ballad that morphs into a kind of horror show!”. The introduction is unexpectedly abstract and atmospheric, featuring dampened piano strings and ambient guitar soundscaping. This is followed by a passage characterised by its rhythmic playfulness, particularly from Downes at the piano. It takes a while for the ballad aspect of the piece to appear, but when it does it sounds thoroughly beguiling. But this is tantalisingly brief, quickly metamorphosing into a more frenetic closing passage that expands upon that earlier rhythmic interplay to produce a vibrant and colourful “horror show” that never loses sight of the joyousness of its initial inspiration.
The title of “C Squad” refers to the Chesham neighbourhood where all the members of the trio currently reside. It pays tribute to their creative relationship in playful but abstract fashion as quirky rhythms merge with ambient soundscaping to compelling effect, before the three musicians coalesce around a typically serpentine melody.
“Not My Usual Type” features Montague deploying a more orthodox jazz guitar sound on a more conventional composition that deploys a written melody and chord changes. It features the guitarist and Downes in melodic dialogue and also exchanging lyrical solos, all subtly underpinned by Goller’s subtle and gentle bass prompting.
By way of contrast “The Internet” is deliberately glitchy and unsettled in feel, the composition a reflection of Montague’s ambivalence about the subject in question and the whole notion of global inter-connectivity. A disarmingly gentle start soon leads into something more urgent, staccato and disjointed, with the three musicians exchanging darting, fidgety melodic motifs, these subsequently expanded upon by Montague and Downes, with Goller’s agile bass lines a galvanising presence throughout.
“Moira” is a solo guitar improvisation inspired by Montague’s grandmother. Hushed, spacious and subtly ambient, it represents the diametric opposite of the opening “Irish Handcuffs” intro.
The album concludes with “Rendered”, a piece with an unusual and peculiar genesis. It started life as a commission written for the public opening of Jimi Hendrix’s flat at Handel House and the score was initially created by rubbing manuscript onto the wood-chipped wallpaper of the 60s icon’s abode, a process that Montague describes as “an aleatory approach” and as an experience that was both “challenging and liberating”. In the hands of this trio the piece takes on a gently lyrical, folk like quality, hardly your typical Hendrix homage.
Montague describes this piece as being representative of the album as a whole;
“It’s a theme for the whole album – me learning to embrace the improvised and the unknown. It doesn’t sound like anyone else’s music, and that’s what I’m most proud of”.
Montague certainly has a point. By dispensing with drums entirely he has created an album that sounds very different to a typical guitar led record. Throughout the recording his approach to composition and improvisation is intelligent and inventive with the trio achieving a broad range of sounds and dynamics despite the apparent limitations of the ‘chamber jazz’ instrumentation.
Montague’s choice of two old friends as his partners in this project is more than justified by the excellent contributions made by both Downes and Goller. But ultimately the triumph is Montague’s with the creation of an album that is intelligent, distinctive, and very much his own, although Warmer Than Blood is increasingly being utilised as a band name by journalists, promoters and others.
I had hoped to catch the trio’s appearance at the Hermon Chapel Arts Centre in Oswestry next week, part of a UK tour to promote the album, but like all other live music performances in this time of Corona Virus the event has sadly had to be cancelled. This is a great shame as the trio’s intimate music would have been particularly suitable to the surroundings of that atmospheric venue. Let us hope that Montague is able to take this project out on the road at some point in the future.
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