by Ian Mann
November 10, 2020
Combining acoustic and electronic sounds with the human voice and drawing on the world of literature for inspiration the trio have developed a sound and aesthetic that is very much their own.
AMP Music & Records, AT080)
Jonathan Chung – tenor sax, effects, James Kitchman – electric guitar, effects, Corrie Dick – drums
with guests; Sylvia Silas, Ed Begley (vocals), Mike Soper (trumpet)
Glasshopper is a trio led by saxophonist Jonathan Chung and also features the talents of guitarist James Kitchman and drummer Corrie Dick.
In 2017 I was fortunate enough to witness an appearance by Glasshopper at that year’s EFG London Jazz Festival. The trio performed at one of the free lunchtime sessions at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho, coming in as a late replacement for another group, and acquitted themselves superbly. The core trio of Chung, Kitchman and Dick were joined by guests Ed Begley (vocals) and Alex Bonney (electronics) and their blend of contemporary electro-jazz proved to be both compelling and exciting. My account of that performance can be found as part of my Festival coverage here;
At this time Glasshopper had released an EP, which had been recorded in 2016, and which included three of the tracks to be heard on this début album. The digital track, “Tilly”, recorded in 2015, is also available via the trio’s Bandcamp page, as is 2017’s “Amber Hill”, originally recorded for BBC Radio Scotland. I was highly impressed with the EP and have been looking forward to this full length recording for some time.
Most of the pieces on the new album were performed at the Pizza and have been in the trio’s repertoire ever since. The album recording took place at The Old Church in Stoke Newington in February 2019 with the celebrated recording engineer Sonny Johns behind the mixing desk and heading a team that also included Tom Leader (mastering) and Dave Malkin (producer).
Of Chinese / Scottish heritage Chung studied in both Glasgow and Leeds before completing a Jazz Masters at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where his tutors included Pete Churchill and Barak Schmool. It was here that he was re-united with his fellow Scot, Corrie Dick, who in turn introduced him to Kitchman, the three of them forming Glasshopper back in 2014. Chung has also performed with Andrew Linham’s Jazz Orchestra and appears on that ensemble’s excellent 2018 album “Weapons of Mass Distraction”. Review here;
Glasshopper’s music is informed by Chung’s growing fascination with both composition and literature. The astute use of electronics by both Chung and Kitchman has enabled the trio to expand its sonic horizons, a process also enhanced by the shrewd deployment of its three guests. Meanwhile Dick, probably best known to audiences as the drummer with trumpeter Laura Jurd’s Dinosaur group, brings an almost orchestral approach to the drum kit. As a result Glasshopper’s music frequently sounds as if it’s more than the product of a trio.
The album commences with the fifteen minute epic “Letters”, which appeared in a different form on the EP and also featured at that Pizza performance. The music builds in washes and layers from almost subliminal beginnings, with the electronic texturing of Chung and Kitchman central to the sound, while Dick adds additional colour via a range of small percussive devices – shakers, finger cymbals, bells etc. The piece unfolds slowly and unhurriedly with Chung adding long, undulating sax melody lines above the ambient style backdrop. Gradually Chung’s playing becomes more powerful and impassioned and Dick’s drumming more orthodox.
“Letters” unfolds in distinct stages, the second being a little more conventional, with the warm sound of Chung’s tenor underscored by Kitchman’s subtle guitar shadings and the gentle bustle of Dick’s brushed drums. Kitchman’s guitar then comes to the fore, in a gently loping manner that is vaguely reminiscent of Bill Frisell. Chung subsequently asserts himself with some of his most forceful playing thus far as the music gradually gathers momentum. It all makes for a multi-faceted, and highly impressive, introduction.
The core trio also feature on “Jenny”, with Chung’s authoritative tenor swirling above Kitchman’s guitar lope and Dick’s implacable drum grooves. Chung has spoken of his admiration for the music of Acoustic Ladyland, but there’s something of the sound of Ladyland’s close musical relatives Polar Bear here too. The opening section is followed by a more loosely structured episode featuring a dialogue between Chung’s sax and Dick’s drums and percussion, punctuated by Kitchman’s guitar. The latter’s clangorous chording then introduces a hint of dissonance, which is carried into a harsher, more abrasive section featuring the tortured wail of Chung’s tenor and Dick’s tumultuous, but highly inventive drumming. A measure of calm is eventually restored as the track closes much as it began.
At the Pizza Chung spoke of how the tunes he was writing found him imagining “words and meanings in my head”. Besides utilising his own lyrics his pieces also find him skilfully deploying the words of others. An example of the latter occurs on “Sky Circle”, which features lyrics sourced from lines by the 13th century Persian poet and mystic Rumi, his words sung by guest artiste Sylvia Silas. Her pure, fragile vocals are complemented by the sensitive colourations provided by the instrumentalists, a subtle mix of sax, guitar and percussion shadings.Musically the piece draws inspiration from the Paul Motian Trio, featuring saxophonist Joe Lovano and guitarist Bill Frisell.
“Clydesdale” appeared on the 2016 EP as “The Clydesdale”. This current incarnation is an extended version of the original tune and features the trumpet of guest musician Mike Soper. Evolving from a droning, layered, highly atmospheric and vaguely ominous intro the piece appears to have taken on a darker edge since the Pizza performance. However the mood remains largely contemplative, with Chung and Soper exchanging ideas, accompanied by Kitchman’s subtle guitar chording and the rustle of Dick’s brushed drums and percussion. Kitchman’s guitar meanders briefly into the spotlight as the piece continues to unfold, regaining something of the pastoral mood that I recall from the Pizza. There is also a solo percussive interlude from Dick, arguably the trio’s most distinctive instrumentalist.
The more obviously aggressive “Birdwing” takes its musical inspiration from Acoustic Ladyland and from Jimi Hendrix. Meanwhile the title is the second one to be sourced from the writings of Rumi. Chung has said of the piece;
“The purpose of the tune comes from a want to unleash some unfiltered energy during our live sets, with no restraints to form or melody. I enjoy setting up this premise of a casual/free-wheeling rock attitude, to then blow into the barrage of sounds…mixes things up a bit”
This is certainly borne out in a piece that combines baleful, echoed Pete Wareham style tenor sax with a fluid groove to create a wall of sound, that literally does feel as it it could go anywhere. At the Pizza I recall both Begley, on piano, and Bonney on electronics performing alongside the core trio on an immensely powerful version of the tune. An ‘extended cut’ of this piece is available as a digital single via Glasshopper’s Bandcamp page.
Begley joins the trio to sing the words of the brief “Ember”, a relatively conventional song featuring Chung’s own lyrics, telling the story of the end of a love affair. Propelled by a percolating groove the performance also finds room for a brief saxophone solo from the leader.
I recall Begley singing the lyrics of “Build A Bridge” at the Pizza, but here the vocal duties are taken over by German vocalist Silas. The words are adapted from playwright Tom Stoppard’s “Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” and are delivered by Silas with suitable gravitas above textured guitar and a subtly stuttering drum pattern. Silas’ wordless vocals become part of the backdrop for Chung’s gently ruminative tenor solo. Kitchman also solos, his guitar meanderings supported by Dick’s still stuttering drum groove. Finally Silas returns with a reprise of the lyrics.
Finally we hear the trio’s ‘signature’ tune “Glasshopper”, the composition that gave its name to the band. Sax and guitar combine to state the opening theme above a flexible groove before Chung stretches out with a fluent and powerful solo, buoyed by Dick’s consistently inventive drumming. A quieter, more impressionistic episode follows, incorporating a ruminative dialogue between Kitchman and Dick. After this pause for breath the trio ramp up the energy levels once more with the leader’s tenor taking flight.
Released on the Oslo based AMP label “Fortune Rules” represents an impressive statement from Glasshopper. Combining acoustic and electronic sounds with the human voice and drawing on the world of literature for inspiration the trio have developed a sound and aesthetic that is very much their own and which explores a variety of musical genres and other artistic disciplines. With tenor saxophone as its lead instrument and with the focus remaining on improvisation it’s recognisably a jazz record, but one which reaches out into other areas. It’s probably a little too esoteric to enjoy mass appeal, but nevertheless it’s an album capable of appealing to broad listenership, particularly curious rock fans intrigued by the electronic elements.
Less derivative than many young saxophonists Chung is a talent to watch out for in the future. It will be interesting to see which direction he and Glasshopper take next.blog comments powered by Disqus