by Ian Mann
December 28, 2022
A lavishly packaged seven disc box set featuring the Birmingham based electro-improvising duo ELDA performing with an impressive array of guest collaborators.
ELDA – Collaborations 2020 – 2022 Box Set
Andrew Woodhead – pocket piano, analogue synth, electronics
Aaron Diaz – trumpet, electronics
Georgia Denham – modular synth, vocals
Faye MacCalman – tenor saxophone, clarinet, guitar, effects
Chris Mapp – bass, effects
Sam Wooster – trumpet, electronics
Anton Hunter – guitar
John Derek Bishop – electronics
Meesha Fones – analogue synths, effects
ELDA is a Birmingham based electro- improvising duo featuring keyboard player Andrew Woodhead and trumpeter Aaron Diaz. Active for over a decade the duo frequently collaborate with other musicians from both near and far, and in 2019 released the album “Shiny / Things”, a recording made with the Norwegian vocalist Kari Eskild Havenstrom. Review here;
Sheffield born Woodhead is a graduate of the Jazz course at Birmingham Conservatoire and is a significant presence on the city’s music scene as both a musician and as an organiser. Besides ELDA he has also been a member of the trio Snapdragon featuring vocalist Holly Thomas and reeds player Lluis Mather. I’ve also heard his playing in the very different groups of vocalist Anthony Marsden and saxophonist Claude Pietersen (the Zwolfton quintet).
Other musicians with whom he has collaborated include trombonist Richard Foote, bassist Olie Brice and drummer Mark Sanders. Woodhead also organises the regular Fizzle free improvisation sessions held at various Birmingham locations, a series of events that attracts leading improvisers from Birmingham, London and beyond.
Woodhead has also co-organised (with violinist Sarah Farmer) the Midlands based Ideas of Noise Festival, a celebration of contemporary experimental music and was also part of the pool of musicians that featured at the 2021 Stourbridge Festival of Improvised Music.
During lockdown he also performed a series of livestreams with his life partner, saxophonist and clarinettist Alicia Gardener-Trejo.
2021 also saw the release of the album “Pendulums”, sub-titled “Music for Bellringers, Improvisers and Electronics”. This ambitious and unusual work is reviewed here;
There have also been several successful live performances of the project.
Aaron Diaz is also a Birmingham Conservatoire alumnus and has fronted his own Frank Zappa inspired septet Moon Unit. He has also led the jazz/folk quartet Drawlight. Diaz has been a key member of Sid Peacock’s Surge Orchestra and of the anarchic Birmingham based jazz/folk/world/punk crossover outfit The Destroyers. He is also part of the twelve piece jazz/folk crossover ensemble Propeller and of the contemporary folk group Fair Rain (previously The Old Dance School). Diaz has also worked with the Midlands based brass ensembles Young Pilgrims and Bostin’ Brass. He also has strong connections with Manchester and has worked with drummer Johnny Hunter’s quartet and with the band Glowrogues.
Diaz spent some time living in Scandinavia and ELDA takes its name from a Swedish word, variously meaning “fire”, “to electrify” or “to set alight”. A version of the band has been around since at least 2011, the year that I saw Woodhead, Diaz, bassist Chris Mapp and drummer Mike Hurley perform under the name at Birmingham’s much missed Harmonic Festival. Later the same day Diaz collaborated with the Food duo of saxophonist Iain Ballamy and Thomas Stronen, a highly prestigious guest appearance for the trumpeter.
Despite the Diaz’s interest in various folk musics it’s the sound of electronics that defines ELDA’s music with the duo producing electro- improvised soundscapes that draw on the influence of Food, Supersilent, Leverton Fox and the work of Norwegian trumpeter Arve Henriksen, both as a solo artists and in collaboration with others, such as the acclaimed sound artist Jan Bang.
ELDA was a project that was able to continue during the Covid lockdown period and beyond. When the pandemic first struck the duo became involved in a series of remote collaborations, these eventually resulting in the release of this seven disc box set. All of the recordings have previously been released digitally but now appear on CD for the first time in a lavishly packaged box set literally housed in a beautiful wooden box specifically designed and manufactured for the duo by the Digwood company.
The album liner notes describe the circumstances behind the project;
“In the absence of human gathering we reached out to fellow artists near and far to continue our work in spite of, and as a creative response to, the physical restrictions imposed at that time. We sought to recapture the vital spark of communing with listeners, bringing our improbable fireside gatherings into a virtual space”.
The band describe the discs within as falling into two distinct categories.
Three discs were recorded live before the pandemic and subsequently “reworked and reinvented by unreliable narrators”.
Three more were remote collaborations, or “the results of gatherings in a virtual space, messages left, picked up and re-woven by collectror-composers.”
One disc is described as “belonging to neither group; it is an artefact from a time before, whittled and reshaped long after the fact into something which speaks to both our past and future work”.
Time and space prevents me from giving a track by track description as I might do for a single album release. Nevertheless I hope that I can provide a general impression of the box set as a whole and of each individual disc.
The seven discs are presented in roughly the chronological order in which they were digitally released so I will tackle them in the same sequence beginning with;
“Live AT BEAST”
First released digitally on 1st May 2020This features the ELDA duo in collaboration with Georgia Denham, who adds modular synthesiser and vocals.
As its title suggest this is a work that was recorded live and subsequently reworked. It features a single twenty one and a half minute track simply titled “Trio”, a title that also lives up to its name during an intense three way exchange of ideas within an electro-improvisatory context.
In this dense, sometimes unsettling soundscape electronic sounds predominate with the sounds of the instruments and of Denham’s voice being manipulated to create something new and distinctive. There are few conventional instrumental or vocal sounds, and although the timbres of Diaz’s trumpet are sometimes discernible, these too are subject to wholesale manipulation.
It’s a disc that is very much in the spirit of the Punkt Festival, founded in 2005 by Jan Bang and Erik Honore and which takes place annually in Kristiansand, Norway. All the concerts at Punkt are remixed live, and the audience gets to hear the remixes immediately after each concert. In many cases, the remixers also invite musicians to interact with the remixes, making them a vehicle for continuous innovation and improvisation.
There have also been Punkt events held in other countries and one was scheduled to have taken place in Birmingham. I think I’m correct in believing that this had to be cancelled because of the pandemic but it’s an event that Woodhead and Diaz would almost certainly be aware of and one suspects that any Birmingham event would involve their participation.
First released on 6th August 2020 this is the first of the remote collaborations and features the ELDA duo in conjunction with the Tyneside based saxophonist and clarinettist Faye MacCalman.
MacCalman is probably best known for her work with the electro-jazz trio Archipelago, a group that also features bassist John Pope and drummer Christian Alderson. MacCalman also plays in Pope’s quintet as well as working as a solo artist. She also collaborated with visual artist Rhian Cooke and sound artist Nikki Sheth on “Invisible Real”, a multi-media installation at the 2022 Cheltenham Jazz Festival.
“Hippocampinae” features three pieces, “Tentaculata”, “Gracilissima” and “Patagonicus”, two of the titles suggesting an underwater theme that is reflected in the ‘aquatic’ nature of the electronically shaped soundscapes realised by this particular trio.
MacCalman is also a singer and although she is not credited with vocals here her various horns still manage to bring a vocal quality to the music. Her use of unaccompanied clarinet on the introduction to the closing “Patagonicus”, arguably this particular disc’s stand out track, adds a particularly welcome humanising touch to the music.
“a different name for the same river”
First issued on 1st October 2020 this is the ‘archive’ release that doesn’t fall into the duo’s self described main categories.
Bassist Chris Mapp and trumpeter Sam Wooster are both well established figures on the Birmingham jazz and improvised music scene and although the date of the original performance from which this current work was “whittled and reshaped” remains unspecified it’s possible that it was quite some time ago.
Mapp and Wooster are members of the bassist’s own improvising group Gonimoblast, a quintet that also includes keyboard player Dan Nicholls, drummer Mark Sanders and sound artist Leafcutter John. The group has also collaborated with Arve Henriksen and with experimental vocalist Maja SK Ratkje. Mapp is also part of the trio Stillefelt, alongside trumpeter Percy Pursglove and guitarist Thomas Seminar Ford.
ELDA and Gonimoblast explore broadly similar musical areas and it comes as no surprise to find that this Birmingham based quartet, all surely familiar with each other’s playing, is such as well balanced unit.
This disc features half a dozen shorter pieces, the titles all in lower case and all highly poetic and descriptive and sharing a nature based theme. The music varies from the driftingly ambient to the harsh and unsettling, always rich in terms of atmosphere and very much in keeping with the ‘nature / river’ theme, an entity that can be both beautiful and savage.
It’s impossible to distinguish between the two trumpeters, and in any case the nature of the music is largely electronic, with Mapp’s bass deployed as a textural rather than rhythmic device – his solo shows have habitually featured a forest of foot pedals and, like Woodhead, he’s a musician who clearly loves to experiment with sound itself.
“I find myself increasingly drawn more to the art / sound of the spectrum in what I do these days” explained Woodhead to AJ Dehany in a recent interview regarding this box set for London Jazz News.
Released on 19th November 2021 “Metal Built” is the duo’s remote collaboration with the Manchester based guitarist, composer, improviser and bandleader Anton Hunter.
In addition to leading his own groups, including the large ensemble Article XI, Hunter is also well known for his membership of the Beats & Pieces Big Band. He has also featured extensively in bands led by saxophonist Cath Roberts, many of which have also featured his brother, drummer, composer, improviser and bandleader Johnny Hunter.
The disc features nine short pieces with electronics again playing a substantial part in the resultant music. Opener “Head Down” and the closing “Hardwood” feature almost exclusively electronically generated sounds, Hunter has always been a guitarist with a shrewd command of a variety of effects. “Hardwood” also includes electronically generated rhythms, a component that is also deployed elsewhere on this disc, and generates a near anthemic power.
Elsewhere more conventional guitar timbres are heard, but even here Hunter explores a range of extended techniques, and the influence of minimalist composers can periodically be heard in his use of arpeggiated patterns.
I have long been a fan of Hunter’s playing making this disc a particularly interesting one for me personally.
This pares the personnel down to the core duo of Woodhead and Diaz, but this is no bad thing as it takes one’s attention away from the guest artists and allows one to focus on the skill of the duo members as they sculpt the group’s sound.
Conventional keyboard sounds are hardly heard at all on this box set and Woodhead’s function is almost exclusively that of an electronic musician or ‘sound artist’, a role that he is becoming increasingly comfortable with.
Electronics have always been part of Diaz’s soundworld too and his trumpet sound references Henriksen, Nils Petter Molvaer, Cuong Vu, Rory Simmons the late Jon Hassel and, of course, Miles Davis. But he also shapes his sound electronically and can also be considered a ‘sound artist’.
Here the core members of ELDA apply their talents to seven relatively short pieces embracing, pulsing, twinkling electronica to more ambient, atmospheric soundscapes.
“Primary / Secondary / Tertiary”
Released on 27th May 2022 this disc breaks with the chronological timeline, the final disc “Hello Spirit” having actually been issued in March.
It’s the last of the remote collaborations and pushes the electronic envelope even further as Woodhead and Diaz team up with electronic musician John Derek Bishop on a short series of pieces named after colours, “Purple”, “Red” and Blue”. None exceeds five minutes and essentially this is an EP rather than an album.
Nevertheless it’s an engaging offering with the sound of Diaz’s trumpet a welcome humanising element among the electronics.
Actually first released on 25th March 2022 this final disc features ELDA in a live (but subsequently reworked) collaboration with the Birmingham based analogue synth specialist Meesha Fones. Again the individual pieces are relatively short and the titles have a maritime / environmental theme.
This disc also includes spoken word samples – is that the voice of Greta Thunberg on the dramatic and richly atmospheric opener “Icebreaker”?
This segues into the dark, pulsing “Fathomer”, which evokes images of the ocean depths. Again there’s a segue into “Wine Dark”, which features Diaz’s trumpet in a prominent role. Indeed there’s a sense here that this is a single work based around a single unifying concept, a kind of suite if you will.
In this sense it’s the most distinctive and coherent work of the entire set, consistent with and yet subtly removed from ELDA’s usual soundworld, with Fones arguably the box set’s most distinctive and individual collaborator.
The sea imagery, both above and below the waves, continues throughout the following ‘movements’, among them the epic ten and a half minute “Beacon”, which also diverts into the realms of glitchy and abrasive electronica.
Spoken word returns on “Fair Winds” and also on “Following Seas” and the closing “Ashore”.
Meanwhile Diaz’s ‘whale song’ style trumpet is suitably evocative on the suitably named “Leviathan”, which also incorporates the crashes and rumbles of electronic percussion.
The sumptuously packaged “Collaborations” represents a challenging but rewarding listening experience. Each of the seven discs presents something of interest but listening to the whole package end to end would be a demanding experience for many listeners, although a necessary undertaking for your reviewer.
Over the years ELDA have developed a distinctive electro-acoustic soundworld into which the majority of their guests have immersed themselves, each one offering something a little bit different. The music is immersive but sometimes challenging, softly ambient and violently glitchy and abrasive by turns, with the emphasis on full blooded improvising. It’s not primarily relaxing listening, but there’s nothing wrong with that.
ELDA’s determination to carry on creating during lockdown is wholly admirable and the results well worth hearing, although not necessarily all at once. Nevertheless one could imagine individual pieces working well on “Late Junction”, Unclassified” or “Night Tracks” - not to mention one of the “Wire Tapper” compilations.
Some of my my favourite moments come on the MacCalman, Mapp/Wooster and Hunter discs, but the pick is probably the final “Hello Spirit” recorded with Meesha Fones and the most focussed performance of the set.
Taken overall “Compilations” also documents the development of Woodhead and Diaz in their chosen electro-acoustic field, an area that they have become increasingly at home in as they continue to hone and develop their sound.
In December 2022 ELDA undertook a short tour of the UK with each date featuring a guest musician, the majority of them featuring artists heard on this recording. Thus Denham was featured at Cambridge, MacCalman in Newcastle and Hunter in Manchester. Dan Nicholls stepped in in London while the Birmingham date featured sounds sampled from the CNC Router machine at Digwood that manufactured the wooden boxes containing the seven discs.
My apologies to Andrew and Aaron for not getting this review posted before the tour, although The Jazzmann did advertise the dates. Hope it was all a great success.
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