by Ian Mann
September 25, 2018
A group that has established a signature sound but can’t help experimenting with its own identity, with consistently fascinating results.
Get The Blessing
Originally formed way back in 1999 cult Bristol based outfit Get The Blessing have retained a stable line up throughout their career. Instigated by the group’s rhythm pairing of Jim Barr (electric bass) and Clive Deamer (drums) the band also includes saxophonist Jake McMurchie and trumpeter Pete Judge, both busy and popular presences on the Bristol jazz scene.
Barr and Deamer had already acquired a degree of fame in the rock world thanks to their involvement in the success of trip hop pioneers Portishead. Deamer has also drummed for Robert Plant and Radiohead. Meanwhile McMurchie and Judge brought an air of jazz authenticity to a quartet that have consistently defied classification. Get The Blessing, who take their name from the Ornette Coleman composition “The Blessing”, remain proud of their essentially chordless line up and their commitment to the art of improvisation - but their embrace of rock dynamics and electronics has not always endeared them to jazz purists.
However they have benefited from the musical history of Barr and Deamer with the group’s music also attracting the attention of adventurous rock fans. GTB inhabit that strange hinterland where jazz, rock and electronica meet, but they don’t really fit into any of the individual categories. And they’re certainly not ‘fusion’ in the old fashioned sense either. Instead they have created a distinctive soundworld that is very much their own.
GTB’s recorded début didn’t come about until 2008 when “All Is Yes” created quite a stir by winning the award for Best Album at the BBC Jazz Awards. Loud and brash the début evoked comparisons with Pete Wareham’s Acoustic Ladyland as both groups courted a younger demographic than the average British jazz listener.
GTB have always had an eye for a good hook, a punchy riff, and a powerful groove but, despite accusations to the contrary, they have always been capable of subtlety too. Their 2009 follow up “Bugs In Amber” saw the group expanding their emotional and dynamic range with horn players Judge and McMurchie experimenting with electronics to manipulate the sound of their instruments.
It’s a process that has continued on the group’s subsequent albums as GTB have continued to refine their sound and approach, as evidenced by “OC DC” (2012), “Lope and Antilope” (2014) and “Astronautilus” (2015).
The increasing use of electronics has resulted in their music acquiring a more noirish, filmic quality and this is something that has also expanded into the solo projects of both McMurchie (Michelson Morley) and Judge (Eyebrow). Meanwhile as a producer and studio owner, as well as a musician, Barr has always had a similar fascination with the nature, quality and treatment of sound.
As its title suggests GTB’s sixth album is a tribute to their home city of Bristol. “Sometimes you have to go away to see where you’re from”, they explain.
The album was recorded at Vale Studio in Worcestershire on vintage mics and with the group’s long term associate Tim Allen engineering. The band describe the recording process thus;
“We recorded as we have for the last two albums, dividing the time between prodding and poking at things we’d prepared in advance, and summoning up the spirits of invention from complete unpreparedness, unleashing little soundtracks for imaginary films. After three days we returned back to base camp to pick over the spoils, at which point the process became more like sculpting, Jim wielding the chisel and the rest of us jogging his elbows until we’re left with some beautifully strange shapes”.
It’s an illuminating comment, revealing GTB’s roots in improvisation and describing a process that sounds remarkably similar to the one that producer Teo Macero used to deploy in his work with Miles Davis. The reference to “little soundtracks to imaginary films” also intrigues; GTB’s music has always had a faintly dystopian Blade Runner -ish feel about it. “Bristopia” also features contributions from former Portishead guitarist Adrian Utley and from pedal steel specialist Margarethe Bjorklund, although it’s not easy to distinguish their contributions within the context of the overall sonic framework.
As fate would have it the imaginary soundtracks that the band crafted in the studios of Worcestershire and Bristol did end up becoming a genuine film score. At the time the album was being recorded the Bristol Jazz and Blues Festival approached GTB and their long term visual collaborator John Minton to explore the Bristol photographic archive to create “Bristopolis”, an abstract and poetic audio-visual tribute to the city of Bristol.
The band say of the project;
“We realised that some of the new music is the soundtrack for a real film after all, even stranger than the one in our heads. We get to play these new tunes live at a one-off happening for the Festival with John’s visual creation filling an enormous screen behind us. All begins to make (non)sense.”
Kicking off with the rousing “If It Can It Will” the new album is unmistakably a Get The Blessing record. Deamer and Barr unite to provide an unstoppable rumbling groove above which the horns combine to punchy, powerful effect. The ‘sculpting’ process adds layers of counterpoint as McMurchie solos gruffly on what sounds like baritone sax. Critics will cite that it’s “more of the same” but I can live with that. I’ve seen GTB perform live on several occasions and can vouch for them being a hugely exciting, and often very humorous, live act. This barnstorming opener is surely destined to become something of a live favourite.
Barr’s melodic electric bass steers “Cococloud” with its long, layered horn melody lines and splashes of dubby echo. Trumpet and tenor sax intertwine atmospherically, their sounds subtly distorted and manipulated.
“Cellophant” ups the energy levels once more with barking baritone sax and some suitably elephantine bellowing, the providence of which is uncertain, although the guitar of old Portishead mate Adrian Utley may well be in there somewhere. This a brief, but thrilling, squall of punk jazz violence with Barr wielding the proverbial chisel with great aplomb.
“Sunwise” begins with Deamer’s drums setting up a motorik groove with Barr locking in as Judge’s trumpet improvises around the insistent rhythmic patterns. There’s some pure jazz playing from Judge, plus a splash of vibraphone, but once again the overall sound of the piece is subtly and creatively mutated via Barr’s production processes. GTB’s music is a lot less predictable than some critics might have you believe.
It’s McMurchie’s turn to ride the groove on “Not With Standing”, his breezy sax underpinned by skittering brushed drums, melodic electric bass and a modicum of atmospheric sonic manipulation.
GTB have always had a great way with titles. The lively “Recorded For Training And Quality Purposes” recalls the forceful opener with its propulsive bass and drum grooves and punchy horn charts. Organ like sounds swirl in and out of the mix and Judge delivers one of his best solos of the set, his subtly vocalised trumpet soaring above the rhythmic ferment bubbling beneath.
Title track “Bristopia” commences with a threatening drum and electric bass duel that sounds positively dystopian, and that air of unease continues throughout. Utley’s guitar and McMurchie’s baleful sax add to the atmosphere of disquiet on a piece that suggests the edgy nature of 21st century Bristol.
Similarly “Rule Of Thumb” which recalls the trip hop experiments of fellow Bristolians Portishead, Massive Attack, Tricky and Roni Size as sax and trumpet screech around echoing, dubby grooves.
“The Second Third” is a pleasingly quirky, multi-faceted piece whose circling, interlocking motifs suggest the influence of minimalism. But there’s a sweeping ‘epic’ quality about the music too, with McMurchie the featured soloist.
“Tuathal” combines similar qualities with a more hard edged rhythmic backdrop that again hints at the trip hop past of Barr and Deamer. It’s not overt, but the trip hop sound is etched into the musical DNA of both Get The Blessing and their home city. Meanwhile the horns of McMurchie and Judge add an incisive jazz edge to the proceedings.
“The Grand Scheme Of Things” concludes the album on an atmospheric notes with the horns whispering among ambient, electronically generated drones. It’s close in spirit to some of the output of Eyebrow, Judge’s electro-jazz duo with drummer Paul Wigens.
I’ve been following GTB for ten years and have seen the group make small, but progressive, artistic steps with the release of each album. The only one I haven’t heard is “Astronautilus”, which somehow slipped the reviewing net.
Thus, for me, “Bristopia” is the deepest that the group have pushed into the world of electronically generated sounds and post production techniques. Working from essentially acoustic building blocks Barr and his colleagues have skilfully sculpted their compositions and improvisations into music that is multi-layered, multi-faceted and continuously interesting. It’s still instantly recognisable as GTB; this is a group that has established a signature sound but can’t help experimenting with its own identity, with consistently fascinating results.
As the title suggests there’s a filmic quality about the music, allied to a subtle acknowledgement of Bristol’s musical past, elements of which were created by members of the group.
I appreciate that GTB won’t be to everyone’s taste but fans of the band, such as myself, will find much to enjoy in the music of “Bristopia” and will be fascinated to listen to the band’s latest port of call on their ongoing voyage of musical discovery.
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