by Ian Mann
May 22, 2019
With its combination of jazz, folk and contemporary classical elements “KnifeAngel” represents an impressive piece of work that manages to be beautiful, disturbing and thought provoking – all at once.
(Lonely Duck Records)
Faith Brackenbury – violin, composer, Martin Speake – alto saxophone, Alex Maguire – piano,
Rob Luft – guitar, Oli Hayhurst – double bass, Will Glaser - drums
Violinist and composer Faith Brackenbury was initially classically trained but has since diversified into the worlds of jazz and folk. She studied jazz at Birmingham Conservatoire and has since collaborated with numerous leading jazz musicians, notably alto saxophonist Martin Speake with whom she formed the improvising duo Zephyr.
Brackenbury also plays viola, piano and hammered dulcimer as part of the long running folk duo Brackenbury & Neilson alongside accordionist John Neilson. The pair released their début album, “Crossings”, on the Monoline record label in 2018.
Her other activities include the multi-media project The Four Susans (the name a Vivaldi pun) and a music and poetry project celebrating the life and work of the war poet Wilfred Owen. “Wilfred & Susan; War and Love” features spoken word and the music of a string trio led by Brackenbury.
She is currently working on “The Birds Suite”, a jazz based work inspired by “The Conference of The Birds” by twelfth-century Sufi poet Farid Ud-Din Attar. The suite is due to be performed by a quintet comprised of Brackenbury and Speake plus pianist Alex Maguire, bassist Calum Gourlay and drummer Dave Storey. Keen eyed readers will recall that “Conference of The Birds” was also the title of a classic ECM album by bassist and composer Dave Holland.
Brackenbury has also performed with the indie/classical artist Tiny Leaves (aka Joel Nathaniel Pike) and appears on his most recent album release “Notes On Belonging” (Pegdoll Records, 2018).
She has also written music for the theatre company Silent Monkey.
In October 2018 Brackenbury collaborated with the Newcastle based band Archipelago as part of their ‘Between Waves’ project geared to promoting women in music. Her pieces “Earth” and “Tidal” can be heard on the “Between Waves” compilation album, which also features works from three other female artists, Rosie Frater-Taylor, Lisette Auton and Fran Bundey.
Turning now to Brackenbury’s “KnifeAngel” project, a four part suite lasting for approximately half an hour that was inspired by Alfie Bradley’s KnifeAngel sculpture of the same name, created from amnesty knives.
Brackenbury’s liner notes shed further light on the inspirations behind the music;
“I came across the KnifeAngel sculpture purely by chance in early 2016 at the British Ironworks Centre near Oswestry, Shropshire. At that point it was still under construction by artist Alfie Bradley and the Save a Life, Surrender Your Knife campaign was in full swing in conjunction with the knife amnesty across UK constabularies. I was amazed at how Alfie had collected, cleaned and blunted each weapon that he used to create the 26ft tall, ten ton, KnifeAngel, then deeply moved to see that messages from relatives to lost loved ones were being engraved onto some of the blades. The sculpture is a symbol of tragic beauty, a message of hope conveyed in ominously dark material. Watching its gradual creation inspired me to compose music which merely touches on the myriad of emotions experienced in such devastating loss of life.”
The music is dedicated to “the memory of knife crime victims and their families” and the project is supporting Birmingham mother Alison Cope’s Joshua Ribera Achievement Awards, established in memory of her late son Joshua, aka Depzman, a charity that helps young people who are excluded from mainstream education to express their musical and artistic talents.
The album cover also includes the following quote from Nelson Mandela;
“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate then they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
The musicians that Brackenbury chose to give voice to her music represent a stellar sextet of players with Brackenbury on violin joined by Martin Speake (alto sax), Alex Maguire (piano), Rob Luft (guitar), Oli Hayhurst (double bass) and Will Glaser (drums).
Brackenbury had previously worked with both Luft and Glaser in Speake’s quartet Mafarowi and this familiarity led to all the music being documented on either the first or second take. Brackenbury is quick to praise the sight reading skills of her colleagues but she also delights in the “raw energy and intuitive performances from all involved”.
The music on “KnifeAngel” is based upon strong melodies, these providing the platform for collective improvising and individual soloing.
“Part I” emerges from Hayhurst’s solo bass introduction, joined by the almost subliminal sound of Brackenbury’s violin and then by Maguire’s piano and Glaser’s mallet rumbles. As the full ensemble gradually become involved this opening section is the aural equivalent of a particularly spectacular and beautiful sunrise, the daylight finally breaking through as a buoyant groove is established and Brackenbury’s folk tinged violin assumes the melodic lead. Subsequent solos come from Speake on alto, Luft on guitar, Maguire on piano and Brackenbury herself on violin. All of these are relaxed and supremely fluent, the overall mood of the piece being lighter than its subject matter might suggest. Out of the knife amnesty and the creativity of Bradley and Brackenbury springs hope.
“Part II” is gentler and more reflective, with the composer describing the piece as a “wistful ballad”. Brackenbury states the initial melodic theme on violin, in conjunction with Maguire at the piano. The fragile mood established by the duo is retained following the introduction of the rest of the ensemble. Brackenbury takes the first solo on slightly mournful sounding violin, her lines subtly answered by Maguire’s beguiling piano counter-melodies. The rapport between these two is excellent throughout. Hayhurst follows with a highly melodic bass solo before Speake and Luft subtly combine in a similar fashion to Brackenbury and Maguire.
The ballad segues into “Part III” which commences with a gently brooding and atmospheric bass and drum dialogue before Hayhurst and Glaser establish a rocky, percolating groove that forms the basis for a lithe, slippery guitar solo from Luft that is answered by the percussive tumbling of Maguire’s piano counterpoint. This is thrilling stuff that embodies the “raw energy and intuitive performances” of which Brackenbury has spoken, with Maguire introducing elements of the freer playing he practises elsewhere. Brackenbury’s violin then restores a modicum of calm, while still embracing an element of wilful dissonance as she saws at the strings. A rousing ensemble climax featuring Glaser’s dynamic drumming also sees Speake’s bitingly incisive alto sax coming to the fore.
The final movement sees Brackenbury and the sextet calming things down once more as “Part IV” is introduced by the gentle, contemplative sounds of unaccompanied piano. It’s all very minimal on a piece that Brackenbury describes as a “cyclical meditation”. The mood of fragile contemplation is maintained as other instruments are added with Brackenbury, Luft and Speak subtly joining the proceedings. Eventually the piece builds to an anthemic grandeur as the ensemble develop Brackenbury’s strong melodic theme.
With its combination of jazz, folk and contemporary classical elements “KnifeAngel” represents an impressive piece of work that manages to be beautiful, disturbing and thought provoking – all at once. Brackenbury’s writing is consistently absorbing and the performances by all six musicians are uniformly excellent, with the playing of Maguire and Luft, in particular, really catching the ear.
It’s actually a shame that there isn’t more of it but nevertheless “KnifeAngel” remains an immersive and important listen. It’s hoped that Brackenbury will be able to take the KnifeAngel ensemble out on tour, which will be well worth catching if it comes off. In the meantime “KnifeAngel” is a work that Brackenbury and her colleagues can be justifiably proud of.
The recording appears on Brackenbury’s own Lonely Duck label and is available at;