Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


by Ian Mann

July 22, 2015


A fine album in its own right and one that may well increase the group's audience overall.

Eyes of a Blue Dog


“Hamartia"is the second album by the Anglo-Norwegian trio Eyes of a Blue Dog, an ensemble featuring the collective talents of British trumpeter Rory Simmons, Norwegian drummer and soundscape artist Terje Evensen and the Norwegian born, UK based vocalist and lyricist Elisabeth Nygaard.

The three first worked together as members of Simmons’ now sadly defunct large ensemble Fringe Magnetic and whilst Eyes of a Blue Dog adopts something of Fringe Magnetic’s art song approach the trio’s pieces are generally shorter and more obviously rooted in pop, rock and electronica.

Eyes of a Blue Dog’s excellent début album “Rise” was released on the Babel label in 2012 and features atmospherically brooding instrumentals alongside avant pop songs featuring Nygaard’s Bjork like vocals and intelligent and perceptive English language lyrics. It is patently not a pure jazz album but it is a compelling, sometimes chilling, often beautiful piece of work.

The trio take their name from a short story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and all three individual members have impressive musical pedigrees.
Simmons has been the leader of the much missed Fringe Magnetic and has also fronted his own small groups, these including the excellent Monocled Man, as well as being the trumpeter of choice for Jamie Cullum.
In addition her role as a vocalist and lyricist for Fringe Magnetic Nygaard has also sung with the Norwegian tentet Extended Corner (led by trumpeter and composer Didrik Ingvaldsen) and the small group MooV led by British pianist and composer Colin Riley.
Evensen’s soundscapes have formed a significant component of the music of drummer Martin France’s electro-jazz group Spin Marvel and more recently he has been part of Puul, an electro-improvising duo that also features the British bass player Tim Harries. Puul’s eponymous début album was released in January 2015. 

The band’s website describes “Hamartia” as being an album about “sin and flaw” with the title being derived from an ancient Greek word meaning “error of judgement” or “moral mistake”.
It is more song based than its predecessor but with the subject matter dealing with notions of “hedonism, morality, debauchery and pleasure” it is also darker in tone with the trio citing Massive Attack, Little Dragon and Portishead as key inspirations this time around. Previously they have spoken of the influence of Supersilent, Humcrush, Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada. The album also includes guest appearances from a number of musicians including Tim Harries on bass, Paloma Deike on violin and former Fringe Magnetic member Natalie Rozario on cello. Guillemots front man Fyfe Dangerfield joins Nygaard in a superb vocal duet on the track “Before The Night Ends”.

Bjork seemed to be a key influence on “Rise”, particularly with regard to Nygaard’s vocal stylings. On this album it’s Portishead that I’m most reminded of beginning with the broken beats of the opening “Spin Me” where Nygaard’s provocative lyrics and sensual vocals evoke all those qualities and conundrums of “hedonism, morality, debauchery and pleasure” that the band speak of. Musically the piece is based around electro-acoustic sounds and rhythms with guest Harries’ bass adding extra depth and propulsion to the grooves.

“Closer” has been issued as a single but although it’s a fine song it’s probably a bit too sophisticated to be likely to hit commercial pay-dirt. The lyrics appear to tell a tale of romantic obsession and it’s a pity that Nygaard’s words are not included in the album packaging - they certainly don’t appear on my promo copy. A dense arrangement includes driving rhythms and an arresting chorus bolstered by multi-tracked vocals and soaring strings from Deike and Rozario. Simmons’ closing trumpet solo is perfectly judged as it emerges and breaks away from the main body of the song.

“Desire” is another obsessive tale and features an engaging melody, Nygaard’s Bjork like vocals, and a rich panoply of electronic sounds and rhythms. These include a closing sequence that one reviewer has suggested was produced by means of a vintage ARP synthesiser. 

“Vicario Square”, the track that gives the band’s record label its name, features the sound of Simmons’ multi-layered trumpet above a diaphanous electronic soundwash. Nils Petter Molvaer, Evensen’s colleague in Spin Marvel, and Arve Henriksen are obvious reference points here - although Simmons brings much of himself to this engaging and often beautiful instrumental.

The glitchy grooves return for “Unhappy Mondays” (great title) a Portishead style slow burner with yet another arresting melody and a soulful vocal performance from Nygaard. It’s a kind of 21st century torch song with lyrics that seem to make (very) oblique references to the jazz standards “Autumn Leaves” and “All of Me”.

The title track combines pop melody and initially jittery, then subsequently more hard driving grooves, all of this seasoned by the jazz flavourings of Simmons’ trumpet.

“Drug I Can’t Deny” is darker in tone but no less engaging with Nygaard delivering a strong vocal performance on a song that steadily gathers momentum courtesy of swirling synths, Simmons’ dark hued trumpet and Evensen’s driving beats..

“Luminescence” represents the album’s second instrumental interlude with Simmons’ stately trumpet sound gradually emerging from Evensen’s glitches and scratches and taking elegant flight above a mechanical groove prior to a more ambient coda. It’s short, sweet and effective and acts as a kind of introduction or overture to “Before The Night Ends” the duet between Nygaard and Dangerfield that could perhaps be argued to be the centrepiece of the album. Both singers perform sensuously on this chronicle of a developing sexual relationship. The instrumentation is kept deliberately sparse and simple and the piece ends with a languidly ambient instrumental coda. However it’s the superb vocal performances that really command one’s attention here, there’s a real sense of chemistry between the two singers.

“Blow” features contributions from the other three guests with the strings adding a humanising element to Evensen’s trip-hop style grooves. There’s a touch of Portishead about this song which combines a strong melody with a lascivious lyric to produce one of the album’s strongest offerings.

The album concludes with the brief instrumental “Macondo”, the title a nod to Marquez and the name of the location where many of his works, including “One Hundred Years of Solitude” were set. Organ drones combine with snatches of synthesised melody in this haunting little vignette.

Approaching this album as a jazz listener I have to say that I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as its predecessor “Rise”. Primarily this is because there are fewer instrumentals and consequently less opportunities for improvisation. Not that “Hamartia” is in any way a bad album, it’s merely that Eyes of a Blue Dog have shifted their focus to concentrate more fully on songs and hence Nygaard has become even more of an integrated presence within the band. As on “Rise” her vocal performance is excellent and the duet with Dangerfield is a real stand out. In general the songs are engaging and intelligent and the instrumental arrangements innovative and imaginative. It’s a more conceptual affair than its predecessor and as such fulfils its aims admirably. It’s less obviously a “jazz” record than its predecessor which is less appealing to me on a personal level but its still a fine album in its own right and one that may well increase the group’s audience overall.

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