by Ian Mann
May 19, 2020
Three discs full of engaging instrumental vignettes, collated over the course of two decades of music making by multi-instrumentalist Felix Jay. Collaborators include Rob Luft and Byron Wallen.
Hermetic Records – Herm 7,8,9)
Don’t be fooled by the title. The word “trio” doesn’t refer to the instrumental configuration or even the number of people in the band. Instead it indicates that this a three CD collection, the package presenting three different projects from the multi-instrumentalist Felix Jay.
Jay was prompted to forward me this multi-faceted example of his work after reading my recent review of trumpeter Byron Wallen’s latest album, the semi-conceptual “Portrait”. Jay and Wallen are long term musical associates and the trumpeter appears on two of the three discs in this collection.
Jay has previously worked with Andrew Heath in the electronic / ambient duo Aqueous, the pair subsequently teaming up with the German electronic musician Hans-Joachim Roedelius for the 2011 album “Meeting the Magus”. Roedelius is famous for his membership of the group Cluster and for his work with Brian Eno, another artist with whom Jay has been associated.
Roedelius was also part of the jazz/ambient trio Aquarella, with whom Jay featured, playing keyboards, on that group’s second album, 1993’s “To Cover The Dark”.
Jay specialised on percussion when recording in a duo format with the Italian saxophonist Nicola Alesini on the album “Other Suns”, a recording that also included a guest appearance from Roedelius.
The three albums that comprise “Trio” were recorded at Jay’s music room at Cress Cottage on the River Eye in the Cotswolds, with the occasional remote recording, such as some of Wallen’s trumpet parts, subsequently stitched into the fabric of the music.
“Trio” features three distinct projects. Disc One, titled “Rivereyeside Recordings” features Jay’s recordings with a variety of collaborators, documented at different improvised sessions over a number of years. His main collaborators are Wallen and guitarist Rob Luft, but the cast also includes Alesini on a variety of reeds and BJ Cole and Susan Alcorn on pedal steel guitars.
Disc Two, “Jazz Gamelan”, explores Jay’s fascination with the rhythms and timbres of Indonesian Gamelan music and again features Wallen and Luft as his primary collaborators, but with Jan Steele (woodwinds) partnering the leader on two of the disc’s twelve pieces.
The third disc, “Prepared / unprepared” is Jay solo, a series of spontaneous improvisations on a prepared Kawai electric grand piano that were recorded during the course of a single day in February 2019.
Let’s take a look at the three recording in turn, beginning with;
Felix Jay – percussion, basses, piano, prepared piano, Rhodes
Rob Luft – guitar
Byron Wallen – trumpet, ngoni
Nicola Alesini – bass clarinet, soprano saxophone
BJ Cole – pedal steel guitar
Susan Alcorn – pedal steel guitar
Jay credits Luft with providing him with the necessary encouragement for completing the “Trio” project, and the guitarist plays a key role on many of the pieces on this first disc.
The other major presence is Wallen, and even though the trumpeter recorded some of his parts at Abbey Wood in London Jay states;
“Everything else was recorded in the music room at Cress Cottage on the River Eye, which eventually meets the Thames via the Windrush, so we’re all connected by water.”
The core trio of Jay, Luft and Wallen appear on the first three tracks, commencing with “Calabash”, which features the whisper of Wallen’s Harmon muted trumpet, sounding very Miles-ian, floating above the ambient soundscapes mapped out by Jay and Luft, with the guitarist making judicious use of his various FX pedals.
The reflective mood continues on the following “Song for Ch(arli)e”, the title an oblique homage, as if you hadn’t guessed, to both Che Guevara and the late , great jazz bassist Charlie Haden. Appropriately Jay features on electric bass, dovetailing with Luft’s melodic guitar arabesques, while Wallen continues his Miles style trumpet meditations.
“Bush of Mists” sees Jay focussing on a range of percussion, both tuned and untuned, giving the piece a more obvious ‘world music’ feel, something encouraged by Wallen’s doubling on ngoni. Luft continues to supply, spacey, ambient guitar textures, interspersed with splashes of twinkling melody. Wallen broods gently on trumpet and the whole piece is possessed of a vaguely unsettling, noirish atmosphere, reflective perhaps of the title.
A new configuration is encountered on “Sacred Flutes” with Jay and Wallen joined by reed player Alesini. Nobody on the recording is actually credited with ‘flute’ but somehow the trio deliver a suitably flute like sound, thanks to the wonders of electronics and live looping. Jay also features on bass and percussion, helping to provide the backdrop for the exchanges between Wallen’s trumpet and the woody, darkly sensuous timbres of Alesini’s bass clarinet.
“Shisya” features the duo of Jay and Luft, with Jay again achieving a flute like sound, which he combines with a clapped rhythm to provide the counterpoint to Luft’s gently needling electric guitar. The overall effect is strangely exotic.
The same duo appear on “Fils de fils de Kilimanjaro” with Jay featuring on bass, keys and percussion. The latter, together with Luft’s darting, melodic guitar motifs, helps to give the music something of the African feel suggested by the title. Keen eyed readers will also spot the allusion to the title of a classic Miles Davis album.
“Cochineal” features a quartet of Jay, Luft, Wallen and pedal steel guitarist BJ Cole, the latter a session veteran, but also an improvising musician who has played with Eno, David Sylvian and the Norwegian group 1982, among others. Jay sets up a steady groove on a combination of electric bass and percussion, a sturdy backbone for the lustrous melodic exchanges of Cole, Luft and Wallen.
The line up is pared back to a duo for “Fatalist” with Jay on a variety of percussion, again both tuned and untuned, providing the foil for Luft’s inventive guitar picking. The atmosphere of the piece is enhanced by the use of sampled voices, giving it something of the feel of a road movie, but perhaps one airlifted from the US to West Africa.
“Where’s Jack?” restores the core trio of Jay, Luft and Wallen and is the album’s most assertive and outgoing track, almost funky at times. Jay doubles on percussion and keys, combining with Luft’s guitar to create an infectious groove that provides the impetus for Wallen’s trumpet doodlings. Luft himself also features as a soloist, a welcome reminder of his all round ability.
Jay has a way with titles and “Su(pe)rman” represents another example of that. Jazz listeners will doubtless spot the tip of the hat to the British reeds virtuoso John Surman. This piece is another duo outing, this time for the pair of Jay, on keyboards plus a forest of percussion, and Alesini on sinuous
The final track, the ten and a half minute “Must it be? It must be!”, introduces a final, as yet unheard, combination of Jay, Alesini and the American pedal steel specialist Susan Alcorn, the presence of the latter on the recording representing quite a coup for Jay. The combination of Alesini’s gently soaring soprano sax and Alcorn’s keening pedal steel is genuinely beautiful, and Jay initially stays out of their way, only joining in on keyboards after an extended duo introduction.
The mood remains subdued and introspective throughout, with Alesini and Alcorn subtly exchanging melodic ideas, aided and abetted by Jay on electric piano. One can almost hear the musicians thinking. Alcorn’s pedal steel brings an unmistakable sense of Americana to the sound and Alesini’s soprano a Garbarek like Nordic quality, notwithstanding the saxophonist’s Italian origins.
“Rivereyeside Recordings” may issue from the Gloucestershire countryside but its takes its listeners on a wide ranging musical voyage taking in Africa, America and beyond. Most of the music is pretty low key, but beneath the surface there are hidden depths, in which lurk plenty of interesting ideas. Jay used his multi-instrumental skills wisely, adopting an ego-less approach designed to make his collaborators sound good, and he succeeds brilliantly. The core trio of Jay, Luft and Wallen all play well and the three ‘guest’ musicians all make distinctive and telling contributions.
I assume that all these pieces were wholly improvised, but they cohere very convincingly and cover an impressively diverse stylistic range, while still retaining an overall sense of oneness.
Felix Jay – percussion, bass, piano, prepared piano
Rob Luft – guitar
Byron Wallen – trumpet
Jan Steele – clarinet, soprano recorder
Disc Two continues the ‘World Tour’, steering us in the direction of Indonesia and the Gamelan tradition. It again features the nucleus of Jay, Luft and Warren, although this time round the three never actually perform together as a trio. There are a number of duets between Jay and Luft and between Jay and Wallen, plus a number of solo performances by Jay. The leader also combines twice with Steele.
The Miles Davis references continue with the opening “In a slendro way”, a duet between Jay and Luft with the leader doubling on keys and tuned percussion. The gently chiming sounds that he produces are as much a homage to Joe Zawinul, actually the composer of “In A Silent Way”, as they are to Davis.
“Ganggeng kanyut” features the pairing of Jay and Wallen, the latter’s jazzy, open horn trumpet improvisations gently propelled by a combination of tuned and untuned percussion, the Gamelan instruments including a range of metallophones, gongs, chimes etc.
Jay multi-tracks himself (I assume) on the solo episodes “Jasmine”, “Batel” and the slower “Kempuls”, weaving intricate percussive patterns, featuring a fascinating range of sounds on a variety of instruments, both tuned and untuned. It’s apparent from these pieces just how profound an influence the music of Indonesian Gamelan has been on minimalist composers such as Steve Reich, an influence that Reich himself would be the first to acknowledge.
“Ripples” teams more of Jay’s tuned percussive sounds with the delicate guitar tracery of Luft in an intricate, but highly effective dialogue. On this second disc the guitarist occasionally sounds a little like Bill Frisell, due mainly to his pristine tone and subtle, but atmospheric use, of a variety of effects.
“Samburan” introduces the new team of Jay and Steele, the latter on airy clarinet and with Jay deploying acoustic and prepared piano sounds in an intimate duet that sounds closer to contemporary European classical music than Gamelan, but still keeping well within the aesthetic of the album as a whole.
The title of “On What Corner?” represents another oblique Miles Davis reference and restores the partnership of Jay and Wallen with the leader doubling on bass and percussion, providing the gently propulsive groove necessary for Wallen’s trumpet to soar.
Jay and Wallen combine once more on “Cantik” with the trumpeter musing pensively above the gently percolating sounds of various items of tuned percussion. The overall effect is charmingly exotic.
Jay and Luft then re-unite for “Ripples 2”, which achieves a similar effect with the guitarist conjuring a sitar like tone from his instrument, accompanied by the bell-like shimmer of Jay’s percussion.
These two remain together for the more impressionistic “Lull”, which sees the return of flute like sounds together with the rustle of percussion and the gentle scurrying of Luft’s melodic guitar motifs.
The disc closes with “In a suling way”, the title a second nod towards Davis and Zawinul, this time with Jay teamed with Steele, the latter playing soprano recorder. Steele’s suitably high pitched recorder floats shakuhachi like above the Undulating, gently percolating layers of tuned percussion to create an exotic, authentically South East Asian atmosphere. There’s a serene, zen like quality about this final performance that concludes this second album on a suitably calming and meditative note.
PREPARED / UNPREPARED
Felix Jay – Prepared Kawai electric grand piano
The recordings on Discs One and Two are assembled from a number of recording sessions spanning a twenty year period, from 1999 to 2019. As alluded to previously, it was the enthusiasm and prompting of Luft that finally persuaded Jay to collect and collate them and to make them commercially available.
However the final work of the “Trio” series features Jay solo, with a series of seven spontaneous improvisations recorded on February 14th 2019 in the music room at Cress Cottage. These explorations on a prepared Kawai electric grand piano are not exactly your usual schmaltzy, romantic Valentine’s Day listening.
With a narrower sound palette and with Jay having no other musicians to bounce ideas off this is the most austere and challenging disc of the three. Nevertheless it retains similarities with its companions, the use of prepared piano techniques to generate percussive effects enabling Jay to produce rhythms and sonorities not entirely dissimilar to those heard on the other two discs, and particularly “Jazz Gamelan”.
The brief “Interlude”, which actually occurs at the beginning of the recording, offers a brief introduction into this new soundworld, a combination of relatively conventional piano sounds, with the Kawai on an ‘acoustic’ setting, combined with dampened strings and other prepared piano techniques.
“Blue in Bronze” takes things a stage further, with dampening, plucking and the audible placement of objects on the strings all among the techniques involved. Some of the effects are percussive in nature, often approximating the Gamelan sounds of the second disc.
The title of the lengthy “Ritual Dances in the Court of the Shadow King” may possibly be a reference to King Crimson. Again Jay coaxes a fascinating mix of pianistic and percussive sounds from the Kawai in an atmospheric improvisation that evolves slowly and organically over the course of almost thirteen minutes. Among the noises produced are sounds akin to those of kalimbas and music boxes, an interesting addition to the more familiar ‘Gamelan’ and ‘classic
prepared piano’ sounds.
Hats off to Jay for another great title, “Les Fleurs du Mal Waldron”, which manages to homage both the American jazz pianist and the French poet Charles Baudelaire. There’s a more orthodox jazz feel to this, albeit one tempered with the use of prepared piano techniques alongside more conventional ‘acoustic’ piano sounds.
The ten minute “Harpy” offers the now familiar mix of ‘acoustic’ piano and percussion sounds, with hints of kalimba, Gamelan, and maybe even the harp that presumably gives the piece its title.
“Opportunity Rover Blues” toys with conventional jazz and blues forms, while largely eschewing prepared piano techniques, and as such represents the most orthodox performance of the set.
The album is bookended by the brief, but engagingly quirky, “Outerlude” (which at least explains the title of the opener), which makes more extensive, and highly effective, use of prepared piano techniques.
Interestingly I’m writing this review at the time of the 2020 Corona Virus lockdown and “Prepared/unprepared” sounds like the kind of solo project that many musicians may be experimenting with under the present circumstances. Jay clearly got there a year early.
To be honest it’s a less engaging listen than the first two discs, there’s less sonic variation and the vital spark of mutual co-operation is missing. That’s not to say that Jay doesn’t explore a lot of interesting ideas and deliver an impressive range of sounds from the resources available to him.
But I can’t see myself coming back to this third disc as often as I am to the others, which are packed full of engaging instrumental vignettes collated over the course of two decades of music making.
“Trio” is currently available directly from Felix Jay via ebay. Link here;
At a tenner for three full length albums comprising of nearly three hours of music it represents something of a bargain. If the solo prepared piano disc can come across as a bit of an indulgence there’s more than enough good music on the first two discs to compensate, and as such the solo disc can be regarded as a bit of a bonus.
Fans of rising guitar star Luft should find much to enjoy about his contributions here, while Wallen and the various guest musicians also impress. Taking everything into account the overall package is well worthy of investigation.
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