by Ian Mann
September 11, 2023
Byrne has achieved exactly the right balance between composition and improvisation with her intelligent, inventive and often complex themes providing the perfect launch pad for her hand picked group
(Whirlwind Recordings WR4809)
Dee Byrne – alto saxophone, Nick Malcolm – trumpet, Tom Ward – clarinets, Rebecca Nash – acoustic and electric piano, Olie Brice – double bass, Andrew Lisle – drums
“Outlines”, an album title that is surely destined to also become a band name, features a new sextet led by alto saxophonist, composer and improviser Dee Byrne.
The line up includes pianist Rebecca Nash and bassist Olie Brice, both of whom were members of Byrne’s previous five piece group Entropi, with whom she released the albums “New Era” (2015, F-ire Presents) and “Moment Frozen” (2017, Whirlwind). Both of these recordings are reviewed elsewhere on The Jazzmann as are live appearances by Entropi at the 2014 and 2017 London Jazz Festivals.
Byrne is a busy presence on the British jazz and improvised music scene and with fellow saxophonist Cath Roberts heads the Lume organisation, a kind of ‘musicians collective’ that has co-ordinated gigs, residencies and festivals in addition to running its own record label, Luminous.
Lume encourages musical collaboration both within the UK and internationally, and Byrne is currently involved with a dozen different projects, including the Anglo-Swiss sextet MoonMot and its offshoot Motherboard Pinball, plus the international quintet Ydivide, led by the Swiss drummer and composer Clemens Kuratle. The debut albums from all three of these ensembles are reviewed elsewhere on The Jazzmann.
Byrne’s other projects include Deemer, her sax / electronics duo with the Dutch sound artist Merijn Royaards, a line up sometimes augmented by the addition of drummer Johnny Hunter. Byrne and Cath Roberts also play as a duo while Byrne also performs solo shows with her alto supplemented by an array of foot pedals.
Other current projects include membership of the London Improvisers Orchestra, the groove band Atmosfear, trumpeter Loz Speyer’s Inner Space quintet and the Norwich based octet Holding Hands, co-led by Chris Dowding and Rob Milne.
Byrne has also worked with Cath Roberts in the bands Word Of Moth and Favourite Animals and has been a member of the ensembles Saxoctopus and the Madwort Saxophone Quartet, the latter led by Tom Ward.
In her own words Byrne describes the Outlines project thus;
“Outlines is my new project, playing original compositions that evolved out of a creative experiment: introducing visual art into my composition practice. Out of this, short musical sketches emerged that stood alone as artistic statements. These short statements are ‘Outlines’ – a springboard for this dynamic ensemble to go in new, exciting directions every time”.
Of her writing process she adds;
“I decided to peel everything back to the basics of being creative. I started drawing and set rules for myself, retraining my mind to stop criticising - to follow impulse without being attached to outcome! Then I applied the same approach to writing music - they’re genuine musical sketches!”
The album artwork is based on an original visual work by Byrne while the music explores the interface between formal composition and free improvisation, familiar territory for Byrne as she explains here;
“My area of interest is the meeting of structured, composed material with free improvisation. I love freely improvised music as well as contemporary jazz, but for me the magic happens in between, where a composition is given room to breathe and has the potential to go in unexpected directions”.
With regard to her musical partners in the Outlines project Byrne says;
“There are a lot of strong, deep musical and personal relationships in this band - the sort that can’t be fast-tracked. It’s a real band!. All the players in this project are able to really dig into playing tunes, but are also completely confident in being free.”
The majority of the players are bandleaders in their own right and have had their own recording and gigs reviewed on The Jazzmann. As Byrne explains all are skilled explorers of the musical hinterland between composition and improvisation.
The title of album opener “Capsule” seems to hark back to Byrne’s fascination with cosmology, a subject that informed her writing for the Entropi group. It also refers to “a time pod of artefacts launched into space”. The opening written section features the rich blend of horns that characterises this recording, as the leader’s alto combines with Malcolm’s trumpet and Ward’s bass clarinet, the latter representing a particularly distinctive component of the sextet’s music. Nash takes the first solo on electric piano, her explorations shadowed by Brice’s fluid bass lines and Lisle’s increasingly animated drumming. Ward then takes over on bass clarinet, displaying a remarkable fluency on the instrument as the music gradually becomes freer and more abstract. Byrne’s attractive melodic theme eventually returns, including a brief ‘chorale’ passage featuring the horns only.
Lisle’s dynamic drumming introduces “Flow State”, named for “the ideal state of creation”. A quirky written theme then emerges, again featuring that beguiling blend of horns, before the leader cuts loose with a scorching alto solo, underscored by increasingly clangorous acoustic piano and Lisle’s busy, vigorous drumming. As the music becomes freer the other horns join Byrne in a series of squalls, before the initial theme returns, now infused with greater energy and momentum.
Arrow Of Time” commences with a loosely structured intro before Brice’s bass and Ward’s bass clarinet take up the theme, but with the music quickly veering off into something more abstract as Nash’s acoustic piano and Lisle’s drums take over. The music continues to evolve, moving almost imperceptibly between composition and improvisation and incorporating significant solo statements from Malcolm on trumpet and Brice on double bass. The latter plays an extended unaccompanied passage. “Olie Brice is so versatile and such a great musician. He gives so much”, enthuses Byrne, who also explains that she often builds her compositions from the bass up.
Nash’s ethereal unaccompanied electric piano introduces “On The Other Side”. A more muscular theme then emerges that provides the platform for Ward’s bass clarinet explorations and Byrne’s alto sax shredding, with Lisle’s drums eventually punching through for an extended solo.
In Byrne’s words the title of “Immersion” refers to “fully committing to something and jumping in and seeing what happens”, which is a good analogy for the album as a whole. Exceptional ensemble playing frames a fluent and imaginative solo from Malcolm on trumpet. This is followed by a short horn chorale before the main theme emerges once more, only to morph into something much freer.
“Liberation” is another piece with a title that could be seen as analogous to the band’s playing. It might also be viewed as a tip of the hat to Charlie Haden, a likely influence on the music, alongside Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy. A gently lyrical introduction features the sound of Nash’s unaccompanied acoustic piano. Bass and drums are added, then finally horns on one of the album’s most melodic and uplifting compositions. Nash’s piano continues play a prominent role in the arrangement and Ward emerges as the soloist on clarinet, swooping and soaring with an avian grace.
By way of contrast, and as its title suggests, “We Are Experiencing Turbulence” is a much more unsettling and vigorous affair, ushered in by the eerie sounds of Brice’s bowed bass and various horn vocalisations. The grainy sounds of the introduction eventually develop into a jagged melodic theme followed by a skittering free jazz episode, again featuring the sound of Brice with the bow. Nash’s increasingly insistent acoustic piano explorations edge increasingly towards the avant garde, in the manner of a British Myra Melford, before the carousing horns eventually take over as Malcolm’s trumpet and Ward’s bass clarinet combine with the leader’s alto. Lisle’s drums eventually drop out as the turbulence subsides and the piece resolves itself with a gentle, but still unsettling coda.
The powerful “Don’t Mess With Me” is as forthright as its title might suggest, with Lisle’s drums driving the horns, with both trumpet and bass clarinet prominent in the arrangement until Byrne emerges as the featured soloist on belligerent alto sax. Nash’s electric piano adds a kind of cerebral funkiness to the music as Byrne’s sax wails, lashed on on by Lisle’s powerful drumming.
The album concludes with “The Dance”, ushered in by the sounds of woody bass clarinet and decorous acoustic piano. There’s an almost classical, fugue like quality about a piece that mixes five intertwining melody lines as Byrne seeks to create a “kaleidoscope of sound”. It’s a superb ensemble performance, paced by Lisle’s metronomic drumming, and closing as it began, with the sounds of bass clarinet and piano.
Released in June 2023 “Outlines” has won considerable critical acclaim and rightly so. Byrne has achieved exactly the right balance between composition and improvisation with her intelligent, inventive and often complex themes providing the perfect launch pad for her hand picked group of improvisers. These are rich, colourful compositions, much more than mere ‘sketches’, packed with plenty of twists and turns that provide the musicians with ample opportunities for self expression. It’s a brilliantly realised blend of discipline and freedom.
The musicians all perform brilliantly as individuals but they are equally convincing as an ensemble and it’s fair to say that Byrne has chosen the perfect collaborators for this project. As the producer of the album she is also well served by the engineering team of Alex Bonney and Peter Beckmann, two masters of their trade, and the recorded sound is superb throughout and captures both the subtlety and the rawness of the music.
The music was recorded as long ago as October 2021 at Sansom Studios in Birmingham and it’s taken a while for the album to get ‘out there’, but it’s been well worth the wait. This is a recording that will offer fresh insights with each listening, but audiences will have to wait until 2024 to the Outlines sextet on stage again.
Quotes sourced from http://www.deebyrnemusic.com and https://deebyrne-whirlwind.bandcamp.com/album/outlinesblog comments powered by Disqus