by Ian Mann
November 08, 2016
Led by guitarist/composer Alex Munk the sound features a mix of electric & acoustic instruments to create a music that honours the past, from jazz to prog rock, but retains a very contemporary edge.
(Pictor Records PIC 001)
Flying Machines is a new quartet led by the young London based guitarist and composer Alex Munk. The group also includes Matt Robinson who is credited with piano, synth and Fender Rhodes, Conor Chaplin who plays both electric and acoustic basses and Dave Hamblett at the drums.
Munk studied at Leeds College of Music and at the Royal Academy of Music in London and he retains close ties to both institutions. It’s these links that have led to a busy career as a highly adaptable and in demand sideman. Munk’s name has already appeared several times on the Jazzmann website on large ensemble recordings by trumpeters Jack Davies and Reuben Fowler and in connection with small group records by Hamblett, multi reed player Sam Rapley, saxophonist Matt Anderson’s Wayne Shorter inspired Wildflower Sextet and the young collaborative Stoop Quintet. A highly versatile musician he has also worked with saxophonists Trish Clowes in her Tangent and Emulsion Ensembles and Stan Sulzmann in his Neon Orchestra. In addition he has recently been recruited by yet another saxophonist, Phil Meadows, for the latter’s latest project.
Others with whom Munk has performed include trumpeter Nick Smart, pianists Ivo Neame and Gwilym Simcock, saxophonist Iain Ballamy, flautist Gareth Lockrane and organist James Taylor.
Equally at home in big bands and small groups the supremely adaptable Munk brings a variety of jazz, rock and other influences to the table. He cites the music of fellow guitarist Wayne Krantz and of the British trio Troyka as significant influences on the sound of Flying Machines as he explains; “I’m drawn to music that combines improvisation with a visceral, head thrashing energy; big, chunky riffs, choppy grooves and the guttural roar of a guitar going full tilt”.
But there’s more to the music of Flying Machines than just raw power as Munk also points to the inspiration of more melodic, lyrical musicians and composers. He continues;
“I also love the melodically driven and through-composed music of Tigran Hamasyan and the lyricism of guitar players such as Pat Metheny and Mike Walker. The album draws upon all these varying influences resulting in plenty of ‘fists in the air’ moments and romantic, sweeping melodies, bringing forth an epic quality that ties it altogether”.
These are heady claims from such a young musician but in general Munk, with the help of his very able colleagues, achieves his objectives in convincing fashion. The guitarist may have a broad range of influences but he is already establishing a strong musical identity of his own.
Flying Machines’ eponymous first album represents Munk’s recording début as a leader. The band’s name draws on the inspiration of the leader’s late father Roger Munk, the man regarded as “the father of the modern technology airship” - or “Hybrid Air Vehicle” as they are now more commonly referred to. Honoured by the Royal Aeronautical Society Roger Munk worked with enormous lighter than air machines “bigger than football pitches and capable of flying at 20,000 ft. for weeks at a time”.
Alex Munk has compared the making of this crowd funded album with his father’s experiments, particularly with regard to the work ethic behind the endeavours of both father and son. With Flying Machines, the band, now successfully taking to the air Alex Munk concludes “making this album has been a trip into his world and in a way I’ve never understood him more”.
The music on Flying Machines’ début is an effective fusion of influences drawn from the realms of jazz, rock, ambient and electronic music. The sound features a mix of electric and acoustic instruments to create a music that honours the past, from jazz to prog rock, but retains a very contemporary edge. It’s an album capable of appealing to fans of a range of jazz and rock genres.
Album opener “Tracks” typifies Flying Machines’ approach. Munk’s writing is melodic and episodic but despite the acknowledged influences of Hamasyan and Metheny there’s no suggestion of mimicry and the sound the group produces is very much its own. Perhaps the closest parallel is with The Impossible Gentlemen, the Trans-Atlantic supergroup co-led by British musicians Mike Walker and Gwilym Simcock. The combination of acoustic piano and electric guitar is certainly reminiscent of TIG with Robinson delivering a sparkling piano solo which contrasts nicely with the soaring intensity of Munk’s guitar feature.
Robinson also impresses on the hard grooving but still innately melodic “Bliss Out” and his close understanding with the leader is again reminiscent of Simcock and Walker. Munk and Robinson never get in one another’s way and they link up superbly on this complex but always accessible piece of writing. Munk takes the first solo and impresses hugely with his improvisational fluency and distinctive individual style – although it’s tempting to play ‘spot the influence’, Walker certainly, a hint of John Scofield, maybe Chris Montague of Troyka or, going right back, even Phil Miller of Hatfield & The North, National Health and other ‘Canterbury Scene’ groups. Robinson then switches to synthesiser for a pithy solo in the latter stages of the piece.
After the contemporary fusion sounds of the two opening pieces “As Long As It Lasts” presents a gentler, more reflective side of the band. This tender ballad embraces something of Metheny’s lyricism and also occasionally hints at the Americana of Bill Frisell. Chaplin plays a liquid, high register solo on electric bass that recalls the sound of Steve Swallow while the leader’s thoughtful guitar solo combines lyricism with an understated inventiveness.
As its title might suggest “Emotional Math Metal” finally introduces those promised chunky riffs and choppy grooves as Munk unleashes some power chords and Hamblett relishes the opportunity to really rattle the tubs. However these episodes are punctuated by quieter keyboard dominated interludes incorporating some complex rhythmic ideas that suggest the influence of Steve Reich and other minimalists.
“First Breath” represents another pause for reflection and is essentially a solo guitar performance that sees Munk gradually layering his sound as the piece quietly unfolds. It’s a beautiful piece with a gently mesmeric quality that reminded me of Pat Metheny’s 1979 solo guitar album for ECM “New Chautauqua”, something of an under appreciated gem in the Metheny canon in my opinion.
The title of “Lighter Than Air” seems to be a particularly direct reference to Munk’s late father. Musically the piece finds Chaplin’s electric bass combining with Robinson’s Rhodes to create a subtly funky groove with the keyboard player also soloing briefly. With Hamblett keeping things comparatively simple the buoyant grooves provide the launch pad for Munk’s colourfully spiralling guitar inventions.
Initially “Peace Offering” appears to be floating weightlessly above the clouds but Chaplin and Hamblett eventually establish a more solid foundation for the clean melodic lines of Munk’s solo. This is followed by a darker, heavier ensemble section which eventually fades away to leave the disembodied sound of Munk’s solo guitar.
The title of “Stratosphere” represents another obvious aeronautical reference and is one of the album’s most upbeat tunes with a subtly funky groove that mutates into something far more rock influenced in the tune’s closing section. There’s a more impressionistic episode mid tune where the sound of Munk’s guitar is a little like that of Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour.
The album closes with the gentle Metheny inspired rusticism of the lovely “A Long Walk Home” which incorporates an acoustic piano solo from Robinson and features Chaplin on acoustic bass. Munk himself is at his most Metheny like but I should stress that this remark is not in any way intended as a criticism.
“Flying Machines” represents a highly accomplished leadership début from Alex Munk. The band had played the material in thoroughly during live performances prior to the recording of the album and this shows in the cohesiveness of the playing. All the musicians acquit themselves well but despite the collective group name it’s very much Munk’s album and he impresses with both the quality of his writing and his musicianship.
Despite the open acknowledgement of his various influences Munk has come up with a distinctive personalised sound. His writing is consistently melodic but is full of bright, imaginative ideas and his compositions evolve with an inner logic that allows for plenty of harmonic and rhythmic invention and textural and dynamic contrast. The leader also undertakes the majority of the solos and these are skilfully constructed, richly colourful, consistently inventive and refreshingly cliché free. As an accompanist Munk’s imaginative and intelligent chording consistently brings out the best in his colleagues.
The “Flying Machines” album has been widely acclaimed by the UK jazz press with consistently good reviews, and it’s easy to see why. One suspects that the group will also be an exciting proposition and London audiences will get the chance to check them out at The Green Note in Camden Town on November 20th 2016 as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival. For details please visit http://www.efglondonjazzfestival.org.uk
Flying Machines will also take to the skies, or should that be the motorways, for an extensive UK tour in early 2017. I’d urge you to try and catch them at one of the dates listed below;
ALBUM LAUNCH TOUR - 2017;
12th January 2017 - Jazz Refreshed, Mau Mau’s
10th February - Southbank Foyer, London
12th February - Southhampton Modern Jazz Club
13th February - Pizza Express Jazz Club Soho, London
14th February - The Spotted Dog, Birmingham
15th February - The Lescar, Sheffield
16th February - The Wonder Inn, Manchester
17th February - The Phoenix, York
18th February - Zeffirellis, Ambleside
19th February - Seven Arts, Leeds
21st February - Oxford Uni jazz society
22nd February - Dempseys, Cardiff
23rd February - Future Inns, Bristol
24th February - Leeds College of Music workshop
24th February - Cafe Lento, Leeds
25th/26th February - Liverpool Jazz festival
27th February - Bedford Quarry Theatre
28th February - Jazz NE, Newcastle
1st March - The Jazz Bar, Edinburgh
2nd March - The Blue Lamp, Aberdeen
3rd March - Aberdeen University
2nd April - St Lawrence Chapel, Ashburton
3rd April - The Beaver Inn, Bideford
4th April - St Ives Jazz Club
For further information please visit;
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