Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019

by Ian Mann

September 02, 2015


Immaculately sung and played and the writing contains plenty of good ideas.

The Sirkis / Bialas International Quartet

“Come To Me”

This is an album that has been sitting in the ‘to do’ file for far too long but with Asaf Sirkis due to undertake an extensive bout of touring during the Autumn of 2015 now seems like a good time to finally take a look at it.

The Israeli born, London based drummer Asaf Sirkis first came to my attention well over a decade ago as part of saxophonist Gilad Atzmon’s band, the Orient House Ensemble.  Always a superb technician he has since developed into a hugely in demand sideman as well as the leader of his own groups including Inner Noise, an unusual trio featuring the high powered electric guitar of Mike Outram and the distinctive church organ sounds of Steve Lodder.  More recently Sirkis has led a slightly more conventional trio featuring guitarist Tassos Spiliotopoulos and bassist Yaron Stavi. His many sideman credits have included recordings with pianists John Law, Alex Hutton and Geoff Eales, guitarists Maciek Pysz, Eyal Maoz and Nicolas Meier plus saxophonist Tim Garland’s high profile Lighthouse Trio.

It has been fascinating to watch Sirkis’ development as a composer over the years, indeed his most recent albums with Spiliotopoulos and Stavi “Letting Go” (2010) and “Shepherd’s Stories” (2013) have featured the best writing of his career. The latter features a particularly strong set of themes and is almost cinematic in its scope, a quality enhanced by the judicious addition of guest musicians, among them Gareth Lockrane (flute) and John Turville (keyboards). Perhaps more significantly the album also includes an appearance from the Polish singer Sylwia Bialas who adds a soaring wordless vocal to the tune “Traveller”, a performance that may well have sown the seed for this latest project.

Prior to working with Bialas Sirkis had once been part of Sarah Gillespie’s band but nevertheless “Come To Me” still represents an unexpected change of direction as the master drummer and percussionist explores song based writing for the first time as a leader. The album features the writing of Sirkis and Bialas exclusively, sometimes individually, sometimes collaboratively. The group is completed by two musicians with whom Sirkis has worked extensively, the OHE’s Frank Harrison on piano and keyboards plus Patrick Bettison on electric bass. Bettison, who has frequently depped for Yaron Stavi in Sirkis’ trio also expands the group sound by adding the distinctive tones of the chromatic harmonica on four of the album’s ten tracks. Bettison’s ability to double on bass and harmonica helps to add colour and variety to any group that he plays in and ensures that he continues to be a highly sought after musician.

The album commences with the title track, with music by Sirkis and Polish lyrics by Bialas. Her pure but emotive and sensual vocals are well complemented by Harrison’s lyrical acoustic piano and the neatly understated rhythm work of Bettison and Sirkis. There’s an expansive, flowing piano solo from Harrison and the piece also includes the tasteful multi-tracking of Bilas’ voice to create an effective example of “overtone singing”.

Also with music by Sirkis and lyrics by Bialas “Dreams Dreams” explores similar territory. The album packaging includes English translations of Bialas’ words by the singer in conjunction with her compatriot Monika Jakubowska. In the main the lyrics are poetic and sensuous and focus on human relationships as a sensory and philosophical experience. Here the sound of Bialas’ voice is complemented by a liquidly lyrical electric bass solo from Bettison, economic but lyrical piano from Harrison and the detailed sensitivity of Sirkis’ drumming.

“Vortex” is a piece composed solely by Bialas which finds the singer deploying her voice wordlessly, elegantly soaring and scatting above the springy, subtly funky grooves of Bettison’s electric bass and Sirkis’ nimble drum and cymbal work. There’s a joyously sparkling acoustic piano solo from Harrison before another passage of wordless vocalising presages a lively drum feature from Sirkis above Bettison’s vibrant electric bass vamp. A highly popular live item I would imagine.

The evocative ballad “Ismael” features the words and music of Bialas who here becomes reminiscent of a Polish Norma Winstone as she delivers a stunning and haunting vocal performance. She is sympathetically supported by Harrison who solos beautifully on acoustic piano with Bettison eventually adding adding the distinctive and effective sound of harmonica for the first time. Sirkis’ drum and cymbal work is delicately nuanced and immaculately detailed throughout.

“A Hymn” features the music of Sirkis exclusively. It’s another piece where Bialas deploys her voice wordlessly as the music circles and swells dramatically in something of the manner suggested by the title. There’s a splendid acoustic piano solo from Harrison mid tune before Bialas’ increasingly rousing vocalising evokes a correspondingly busy response from Sirkis.

Bialas’ tune “Mandragora” matches her wordless vocals with Bettison’s harmonica as the pair exchange melodic ideas. At times I was vaguely reminded of the Pat Metheny Group although that impression proved to be somewhat fleeting with Bettison subsequently switching his attention to the trademark liquid sound of electric bass. Harrison later takes over with a flowingly expansive piano solo before Bialas’ soaring vocals evoke comparisons with the Metheny Group once more.

“The One” is another Bialas song with both music and lyrics by the singer. Essentially it’s a ballad and features more delightfully crystalline piano from the excellent Harrison alongside an assured vocal performance from the composer allied to impeccable bass and drum support.

The lively “Magnolia” is another Bialas ‘instrumental’ featuring her soaring wordless vocal lines and the sound of Bettison doubling on both bass and harmonica. The piece ends with a dramatic feature for Sirkis above a circling voice and piano vamp.

“Orbs” features the music of Sirkis and the words of Bialas. It’s an intimate performance that initially features just voice and piano before Sirkis adds some exquisitely detailed brushed cymbal work to enhance Harrison’s sparse but lyrical pianism. Bettison later adds some haunting harmonica, he’s a highly effective player on his ‘second instrument’, comparisons to Toots Thielemans and particularly Gregoire Maret are not that far fetched.

The album concludes with the Sirkis composed “Orgon” which features wordless vocals and Harrison playing electric keyboards for the first time, there’s definitely a hint of 70s UK prog of the type purveyed by National Health or Hatfield & The North here. Bettison takes the first solo on electric bass which then steers the music more in the direction of Weather Report and he’s followed by Harrison on electric piano whose sparklingly expansive solo makes things sound rather British once more. We end up in the kind of extra-terrestrial territory once explored by Inner Noise as electric keyboards combine with Bialas’ extreme vocals (possibly treated) and Sirkis’ thunderous drums. 

“Come To Me” certainly represents a radical departure for Asaf Sirkis. It’s immaculately sung and played and the writing contains plenty of good ideas. I particularly enjoyed Harrison’s contribution , I love his contribution to the OHE but it’s good to hear his playing in a different context from time to time. Meanwhile Bettison’s harmonica work also adds a different dimension to the music. Credit is also due to engineer Andrew Tulloch for an excellent mix.

Both of the co-leaders acquit themselves well, Bialas is an adventurous singer with considerable technical ability who is equally effective whether singing lyrics or producing wordless vocal lines of the type pioneered by Norma Winstone. Even for Anglophone listeners the the presence of the Polish lyrics in no way detracts from the quality or enjoyment of the music. Sirkis’ drumming is excellent throughout, immaculately detailed and always sympathetic to the group aesthetic. He has become a superb accompanist and has totally jettisoned the bombastic tendencies that sometimes marred his early performances. In recent years he has very much earned himself the title of ‘percussionist’ although he pretty much limits himself to kit drums here.

Overall I probably enjoyed this album less than either “Letting Go” or “Shepherd’s Stories” but that’s largely a matter of personal choice and an individual preference for instrumental rather than vocal jazz. “Come To Me” has much to recommend it and the Sirkis / Bialas International Quartet should be well worth seeing live when they tour in the UK in the coming months. Forthcoming tour dates for Asaf Sirkis are show below;     

The Sirkis/Bialas International Quartet UK tour featuring:

Asaf Sirkis - drums
Sylwia Bialas - vocals
Frank Harrison - piano/keyboards
Kevin Glasgow - bass

September 16th, 8.15pm
Cross Keys TW , Tunbridge Wells

September 18th, 7pm
Hot Numbers Coffee, Cambridge

September 20th, 8pm
Best Western Royal Clifton Hotel and Spa, Southport

October 6th, 7pm (workshop 4:30)
Chapel of the Ascension, University of Chichester, Chichester

October 22nd, 8pm
Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton

October 23rd, 8pm (workshop 4pm)
Burdall`s Yard, Bath Spa University, Bath

October 24th, 8pm
The Bear, Luton

October 27th, 9pm
Dempsey’s, Cardiff

October 28th, 9pm
The Queens Head, Monmouth

October 29th, 9pm
The Spin, Oxford

October 30th, 8:30pm
The Blue Lounge, Floral Pavilion, New Brighton

November 5th, 1.10pm
The Shaw Library, 6th floor, London School of Economics, London

Asaf Sirkis Trio UK/China tour featuring:

Asaf Sirkis - drums
Tassos Spiliotopoulos - guitar
Kevin Glasgow - bass

October 9th, 8pm (Workshop 5pm)
Planet Drum School (Holloway, London)

October 10th, 8pm
The Hive, Shrewsbury

October 11th to 21st
China tour including Shanghai Jazz Festival, October Loft Jazz Festival and many more!!/asafsirkis

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