Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


Inner Space Music

Five Animal Dances


by Ian Mann

February 08, 2009


Operating at the interface between composition and improvisation Inner Space Music strike just the right balance. Warm, agile, inventive and technically brilliant

The group is led by London based trumpeter Loz Speyer who also doubles on flugelhorn and is the composer of all the pieces on the record. He is joined in a very interesting front line by the distinctive reeds player Chris Biscoe appearing here on alto sax and the rarely heard alto clarinet. The experienced Biscoe has been an important presence on the UK jazz scene for many years but in many ways remains a criminally underrated figure. Rhythmic duties are undertaken by double bassist Julie Walkington (a most apposite name for a bass player, don’t you think?) and that marvellous drummer Seb Rochford of Polar Bear and Acoustic Ladyland fame (plus more other bands than you can shake a drum stick at). 

Speyer’s music treads a fine line between the composed and the improvised. Certainly the music here is freer than on the other Speyer album I have heard, the cheekily titled but thoroughly enjoyable “Two Kinds Of Blue” (33 Records, 1999). However “Five Animal Dances” is never less than melodic never mind how “free” the playing becomes. Speyer has a way with a tune and the quality of the writing ensures that the music always remains accessible, unlike some of the offerings at the scarier end of the improv spectrum.

Comparisons have been made with Ornette Coleman’s music, particularly his work with Don Cherry but there is a pastoral air and a definite sense of Englishness that distances Speyer’s work from Coleman. The parallels others have drawn with the work of the late John Stevens and with the Chris Batchelor/Steve Buckley quartet are perhaps more accurate.

Speyer and Biscoe form an excellent front line, sometimes gently sparring, at other times blowing more full bloodedly but always playing off each other and always full of ideas. There are both unison and counterpoint passages with Speyer’s bright tone contrasting well with Biscoe’s slippery, occasionally gruff alto lines. The saxophonist is a restlessly inventive player who rarely plays the obvious. Between them the two horn men summon up an impressive range of sounds and textures that keep both the listener and the rhythm section on their toes. 

And what a rhythm section it is. With the steady, sturdy bass of Walkington anchoring the bottom end the brilliant Rochford is given full licence to roam at will around his kit. The master of the floating beat Rochford’s playing is subtly propulsive, delightfully detailed and beautifully nuanced. This must be one of his finest recorded performances, and that of course is saying a lot.

The opening “The Missing Beat” finds the horns trading ideas on an Ornette-ish theme before dropping out for a bass and drum interlude in which Walkington makes a rare appearance in the spotlight. “New Thing” explores similar territory in a more exuberant, free-wheeling fashion.

The next five tracks explore the “Five Animal Dances” of the title and as such form the centre piece of the album. Speyer is a devotee and teacher of the Chinese practise of Qigong which provides the inspiration for these “musical sketches”. One aspect of Qigong is to perform a sequence of movements embodying the qualities and spirit of an animal in order to cultivate the pure Chi energy present in the human practitioner. 

If the opening two tracks featured improvisation around a written theme the “Five Animal Dances” are far less structured and almost skeletal in comparison. It is the ensemble’s collective improvisatory spirit that puts flesh on the animal’s bones and gives each a sharply drawn character. 

The gently exploratory “Bird” is ruminative in feel and features the gloriously woody sound of Biscoe’s alto clarinet and the rounded tones of Speyer’s flugel. It’s loose but compelling. 

By way of contrast “Tiger” features the horns duelling joyously above Walkington’s urgent bass walk and Rochford’s dramatic percussion.

With it’s low,dark timbres “Deer” possesses a fragile beauty, courtesy of clarinet and flugel plus the subtle shadings of Rochford. 

The loping “Bear” features flaring horns including growling, animalistic trumpet. Rather appropriately it doesn’t sound that far removed from some of Rochford’s output with his own outfit Polar Bear.

“Monkey” brings the five themed pieces to a conclusion and has an appropriately playful air about it plus some blistering trumpet from the leader and a garrulous solo from Biscoe. Rochford contributes a couple of volcanic drum breaks, an luxury he rarely allows himself even in his own bands.

“Unusual Fusion” has an air of gentle sprightliness and maintains the high standards of interaction present throughout the album.

“Beet Sloe Thyme” is dedication to Speyer’s one time collaborator Hugh Metcalfe. It’s tricky bop inspired theme makes it a great vehicle to improvise around and the quartet seem to enjoy themselves immensely.

The closing cut “Quinta De Los Molinos” pays homage to Speyer’s love of Cuba and it’s music although the tune itself is not obviously Latin in style. Indeed it is the kind of agile post bop that characterises the album as a whole and is played with great élan by the group. Appropriately everyone gets the chance to shine including bassist Walkington.

As an album"Five Animal Dances” succeeds brilliantly, striking just the right balance between composition and improvisation. It may be a little abstract on occasions but never becomes “difficult”. The playing from all parties is superb throughout, warm, agile, inventive and technically brilliant. Highly recommended. 

Sadly the group’s opportunities to present their music live seem to be rather limited. However you can catch Inner Space Music with Speyer and Biscoe plus Olie Brice (bass) and Graham Fox (drums) at Broomhill Art Hotel, Barnstaple, North Devon on Wednesday April 1st 2009. See for further details.

blog comments powered by Disqus