Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


by Ian Mann

June 28, 2023


One of the best freely improvised recordings that I’ve heard for some time. The standard of the playing and the level of interaction is outstanding throughout.

Dunmall / Brackenbury / Bianco / Pope

“Sentient Beings”

(Off Record Label OU1006)

Paul Dunmall – tenor saxophone, Faith Brackenbury – violin, viola, Tony Bianco – drums, percussion, John Pope – double bass

“Sentient Beings” brings together four leading improvisers from different parts of the UK for a session of spontaneous music making.

Recorded over the course of a single day the album is released on the Belgian record label Off Records.

Brackenbury’s album liner notes set the scene;
“On 23rd September 2022, anniversary of John Coltrane’s birthday, we got together in a hilltop studio in rural Shropshire to record. It was our first meeting as this quartet. Tony came up with the title ‘Sentient Beings’ because of the camaraderie around our meeting and he and Paul haven’t been able to meet up for a few years. The unreserved outpouring of spontaneous music was full of fire, sensitivity and passion.” 

Dunmall and Bianco have worked together regularly over the years, both as a sax / drums duo and as part of larger ensembles featuring other musicians, among them bassist Paul Rogers and guitarist Philip Gibbs.

In recent years Bianco and Brackenbury have been playing as a duo, releasing the very different albums “Rising Up” (2021) and “Wayward Mystic” (2022), the latter subtitled subtitled “Improvisations inspired by the music of Hildegard von Bingen”. Both of these releases are examined elsewhere on The Jazzmann, in addition to two live performances by the duo.

Newcastle based musician John Pope first worked with Brackenbury in 2018 when she was one of a number of female musicians to collaborate with the electro-jazz trio Archipelago (Pope, saxophonist Faye MacAlman and drummer Christian Alderson)  on the compilation album “Between Waves”. Pope also leads his own Ornette Coleman inspired quintet and performs in a duo with violinist John Garner. In 2021 I was lucky enough to attend a double bill featuring the Brackenbury Bianco Duo opposite the John Pope Quintet in Birmingham, an event that is reviewed here;

Despite the links between the individual band members this was the first time that the four musicians had played together as a collective. The material on “Sentient Beings” features three substantial improvisations, the first two clocking in at just under twenty minutes each and the third at seventeen and a half. The linked titles were presumably bestowed upon the pieces after the event.

Opener “As it was…” commences with the gently intertwining lines of Dunmall and Brackenbury, with Bianco subsequently joining in to add brushed drum commentary.
The sax and string exchanges then become more animated and the exploratory spirit of Coltrane is an influence in Dunmall’s playing. The burly sound of the tenor sax might be expected to overwhelm the violin but Brackenbury more than holds her own, her darting melodic lines filling the spaces between the tenor and Bianco’s increasingly energetic drumming. For a musician with a classical and folk background Brackenbury has adapted quickly and brilliantly to the rough and tumble of free improvisation, as she demonstrates here and on the two earlier Brackenbury Bianco duo releases. This first item incorporates solo features too, with Dunmall going first, busily shadowed by drums and bass and with Brackenbury soon fashioning a response. There’s a joy and energy about the quartet’s improvising the validates Brackenbury’s liner note remarks. Pope then comes into his own in a dialogue with Bianco that subsequently draws in Dunmall and Brackenbury. The rapport established between the two front line instrumentalists is remarkable, especially for such an unusual configuration. The saxophonist and violinist never get in each other’s way and their ongoing dialogue is consistently absorbing. Brackenbury gets to take a solo of her own prior to a further dialogue between Bianco and Pope, more subdued and atmospheric this time, with the bassist making effective use of the bow. Dunmall and Brackenbury subsequently join the debate, gradually beginning to assert themselves once more, with Dunmall assuming the lead as this opening improvisation moves towards its conclusion.

Bianco ushers in the second piece, “Is Now….”, making effective use of various items of small percussion. Brackenbury, on viola at a guess, offers spiky counterpoint, and one is reminded of their duo collaboration, particularly the first album. Pope’s bass is somewhere in there too and Dunmall eventually joins the conversation, his tenor subsequently taking the lead with Bianco again his shadow and prompter. The chemistry between these two old friends and sparring partners is apparent throughout the album, and particularly here as Dunmall stretches out forcefully and expansively, with Brackenbury also chipping into the conversation. The music becomes less frantic as Brackenbury and Bianco resume their conversation, eventually upping the energy levels once more. Brackenbury also makes judicious use of the pizzicato technique as Dunmall returns to the fray, coaxing some extraordinary high register sounds from his tenor. Bianco’s drums temporarily assume the lead before underpinning a sinister sounding section featuring the drones of viola and bowed bass, this leading to an even more spooky, abstract passage featuring the use of extended techniques. Dunmall and Brackenbury then pick up the energy levels once more with a series of increasingly feisty exchanges before the improvisation eventually resolves itself.

Bianco’s drums introduce “And ever shall be…”, swiftly joined by Dunmall at his most Coltrane like for a series of JC/ Rashied Ali type exchanges. Brackenbury eventually joins to add increasingly incisive bowing to the mix, it’s intense, powerful stuff. She subsequently assumes the lead, soaring impressively above Bianco’s restless drum barrage. The still belligerent Dunmall then returns to take over the soloing, still supported by Bianco’s unstoppable polyrhythmic flow. The headlong rush continues with Bianco’s drums still setting the pace and Brackenbury delivering some astonishingly rapid bowing as she works in tandem with Dunmall. Drums and bass then take over a while with Pope coming to the fore for pretty much the first time. The energy dissipates a little before Brackenbury returns with a probing solo, eventually superseded by Dunmall on tenor. Sax and strings then continue their dialogue as Bianco continues to stoke the fires. Eventually the energy dissipates and the improvisation concludes with the muted sounds of bass and drums.

“Sentient Beings” is one of the best freely improvised recordings that I’ve heard for some time. The already familiar chemistry between Brackenbury and Bianco is apparent throughout but it’s the remarkable rapport between Dunmall, an improv veteran, and Brackenbury, a relative newcomer, that really catches the ear. Their creative flames are further sparked by Bianco’s consistently inventive drumming. Pope largely fulfils a supporting role and as a fan of his playing I’d like to have heard a little bit more from him, but this is a fairly small quibble in the context of the album as a whole.

There’s an energy and sheer joie de vivre about these performances that lifts “Sentient Beings” above most free improv albums and the standard of the playing and the level of interaction is outstanding throughout. One can sense the joy and fulfilment that the musicians derived from these performances and credit is also due to engineer Barney Philbrick for capturing these qualities on disc.

A follow up, or maybe a series of live dates, would be something to be welcomed.

I appreciate that this strand of jazz will only appeal to a certain type of listener but this is an album that can be recommended to all fans of spontaneously improvised music.

“Sentient Beings” is available here;



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