by Ian Mann
May 02, 2020
“Configuration” represents one of Law's most satisfying albums to date with its multi-faceted writing allied to a blend of electric and acoustic sounds and a wide range of musical influences.
John Law’s Congregation
(Ubuntu Music UBU0036)
John Law – piano, keyboards, samples, James Mainwaring – saxophones, guitar, electronics
Ashley John Long – double bass, Billy Weir – drums
I’ve been listening to the music of pianist and composer John Law on disc for more than a decade and have also enjoyed a number of live performances at various venues, with Law leading a variety of different line ups.
London born Law was classically trained but later gravitated towards jazz and improvised music and has appeared on around forty recordings since making his début in 1989. His extensive discography has explored several areas of music and has encompassed jazz and free improvisation alongside a still ongoing love of the classical tradition. As Brian Morton observes in his liner notes for this latest release Law’s musical restlessness and his reluctance to be pigeon-holed have probably counted against him in commercial terms, but it has resulted in a rich and consistently interesting and rewarding body of work.
I first encountered Law’s music in 2009 when he appeared with his trio at Black Mountain Jazz in Abergavenny. At that time he had been working on his “Art of Sound” series of albums, all of which were recorded at the famous Artesuono Studio in Italy. Over the years Law has recorded frequently in the solo piano format and the second and third volumes in this series were solo piano recordings. Volumes one and two featured him with a trio featuring bassist Sam Burgess and drummer Asaf Sirkis.
The fourth album in the “Art of Sound” series was released in 2009 and was titled “Congregation”.
This was a more extrovert, hard driving album than the others in the series and featured the trio experimenting with electronics for the first time. As such it represents the precursor of this current project, although Law first resurrected the Congregation name for the ambitious 2014 double set “These Skies In Which We Rust”, credited to John Law’s New Congregation and featuring a new band comprised of saxophonist Josh Arcoleo, bassist Yuri Goloubev and drummer Laurie Lowe.
Law has also continued to record in other formats and with other projects. Among these was the Opt Trio, featuring Goloubev and Sirkis. In this instance the word ‘Opt’ stood for “other people’s tunes” and the music involved radical re-arrangements of ‘outside’ material, including classical pieces, jazz standards and show tunes plus well known pop and rock songs. The Opt Trio never issued a formal release, although Law did sell an “official bootleg” at gigs for a while.
In time the Opt Trio evolved into the “Re-Creations” project with Law officially releasing three volumes of this series. The second of these was a solo piano disc but Volumes One and Three introduced a new quartet featuring tenor saxophonist Sam Crockatt and two young graduates of the Jazz Course at Birmingham Conservatoire, bassist James Agg and drummer Billy Weir. This line up toured widely in the UK, with Weir attracting considerable plaudits from audiences and establishing himself as something of a ‘rising star’.
I was lucky enough to enjoy performances by the Re-Creations quartet on several occasions but by the time of their 2019 performance at the Wall2Wall Jazz Festival in Abergavenny I sensed that Law had perhaps taken this project as far it could go. The pianist has always been a prolific, and consistently interesting composer and in my Festival coverage I suggested that it would be interesting to hear the Re-Creations Quartet performing some of Law’s own material.
The release of this album reveals that Law had already been thinking along the same lines, but instead we hear a new version of the Congregation group with Weir coming into the band alongside bassist Ashley John Long and saxophonist, and sometime guitarist, James Mainwaring.
The addition of Mainwaring, a member of the Mercury nominated Roller Trio, has attracted a good deal of attention, but that shouldn’t be allowed to detract from the contribution of bassist Ashley John Long. Like Law himself the Cardiff based bassist is something of a musical chameleon with a foot in both the jazz and classical camps. A highly versatile musician he is a hugely talented bass soloist, both with and without the bow, who is a great favourite with jazz audiences in South Wales and beyond. Long has been a member of a previous edition of Congregation and his involvement with Law’s group has helped to bring his talents to the attention of a wider public.
With Congregation the focus is almost entirely on Law’s original writing and this latest release strives to bring the many aspects of his music together as the pianist explains in his own liner notes;
“Configuration is the culmination of so much work: touring, writing and study. In the writing it brings together so many different strands in my musical journey up till now, mixing together contemporary jazz, some elements from rock and electronics, with more than a hint of classical music in the aesthetic way in which the compositions are structured. In the playing there are now references to the more open-ended, freely improvised music I was heavily involved with throughout the 90s. Basically I try, with Congregation, to present each composition as a new picture, a different visual world (people often describe the tunes as being rather like film music), each piece with a unique texture compared to the other tunes. I hope this jigsaw approach does, however, come together to form an interesting configuration, one that represents some of the current strands in creative music today, as well as the different influences in my own musical life thus far.”
To these ears Law succeeds brilliantly and “Configuration” represents one of his most satisfying albums to date with its multi-faceted writing allied to a blend of electric and acoustic sounds and that wide range of musical influences of which he speaks. The music was recorded in April 2018 and two years later still sounds as fresh and vibrant as the day it was created. Law credits mixing engineer Roshan ‘Tosh’ Wijetunge for his work in shaping the compositions during the production stage. Mainwaring and Law’s son, Jasper, are also credited with providing additional electronics on selected tracks. “Configuration” features eleven new, largely lengthy compositions and clocks in at around seventy minutes, but there’s no filler here, it’s high quality music making all the way.
The album commences with “The Kiss”, which combines the pulsing and shimmering of minimalism with a powerful, rock influenced drum groove, Mainwaring’s long sax melody lines and a sparkling acoustic piano solo from the leader. It’s an invigorating and attention grabbing opener that crams a lot of information into its near four minute duration.
“And Them” credits both Mainwaring and Jasper Law with ‘additional electronics’ and the piece combines further minimalist style electronica with a hip hop style drum groove to create a vaguely dystopian soundscape. Mainwaring appears on electric guitar and Law on electric piano, with the leader soloing on the latter before later switching to acoustic and merging the two sounds. As the piece progresses the mood lightens perceptibly, before darkening again before the close on another typically multi-faceted composition.
Mainwaring reverts to saxophone for “Configuration” itself, the title suggested by Law’s daughter, Holly. There’s no let up in the energy levels with Law’s pounding acoustic piano teamed with the staccato blasting of Mainwaring’s sax. The impressive Weir rarely deploys stock jazz rhythms, instead delivering beats and grooves with their roots in rock, but again without resorting to the obvious. He responds to the demands of Law’s often complex writing with aplomb, while still delivering an impressive rhythmic drive. This piece also offers the listener the first opportunity to appreciate Long’s capabilities as a soloist as he delivers a dexterous pizzicato solo before handing over to Law for a more expansive excursion on acoustic piano. Mainwaring then stretches out on tenor, initially accompanied only by Weir’s dynamic and colourful drumming. There’s also something of a feature for Weir towards the close, on a track that represents something of a tour de force for him.
“Scandinavian Lullaby” is introduced by an electronic soundscape that shimmers like the Northern Lights, this joined by Weir’s muffled drum tattoo and Mainwaring’s long, drifting sax melody lines. Possibly inspired by Jan Garbarek’s “Brother Wind March” (from his Twelve Moons” album) the piece also features a crystalline acoustic piano solo from Law and eerie, high pitched saxophone soloing from Mainwaring that again evokes those Garbarek comparisons. But whatever the inspirations and influences behind the piece it’s still an impressive and convincing piece of work.
“Processional” teams Law’s bright, arpeggiated piano with Weir’s crisp percussion, with the multi-talented Long then adding a beguiling arco bass melody line over the top, a reminder of his alternative career as a player of baroque double bass in classical ensembles. Weir’s drumming takes on the kind of martial feel suggested by the title as Mainwaring cuts in with a powerful sax solo, with Jasper Law adding a soupçon of electronica towards the close.
“Jazzshh…” commences with the chatter of a jazz club audience, out of which emerges a synthesised bass pulse and a groove that oscillates between the swinging and the funky. Mainwaring blows sweet sax melody lines over the top before the groove becomes more fractured, before eventually moving back to something more conventional as Law solos on acoustic piano, with Mainwaring then taking over once more. “Playfulness may not be the first characteristic you associate with John Law and his music” writes Morton, but there’s a discernible ‘tongue in cheek’ element about this piece, it’s almost as if Law is sending himself, and jazz itself, up. Not that this detracts from the writing or the playing, which is as fine as anywhere else on this excellent album.
“Disfigured Bass” begins with a sample, the grandiose organ introduction lifted from a performance of Bach’s “Organ Prelude in F minor” played by Massimo Pinarello. An electronic bass groove then takes over, with the sound of Long’s bass electronically treated by Jasper Law. Drums, sax and acoustic piano subsequently join the fray to give the composition more of a conventional jazz feel, although allusions to the Bach piece continue throughout the performance, alongside elements drawn from the worlds of rock and electronica. In this sense the work could equally be titled “Configuration”. There’s an almost Gothic power about this piece, with Law’s acoustic piano solo followed by a particularly belligerent sax onslaught from Mainwaring. The combination of his wailing sax and Law’s thunderous and dissonant piano chording reminded me of the instrumental section in Van Der Graaf Generator’s “Killer”. Indeed there are many moments during this album where the ghost of prog rock hovers in the wings. Maybe that’s why I like it so much.
“Through A Glass Darkly” commences with the eerie, juddering sounds of Long’s harshly bowed bass, this time a reminder of his previous excursions into the world of free improv with the likes of saxophonist Paul Dunmall. Mainwaring’s electronics also play a key role here as he creates a shimmering, pulsating soundscape which forms the backdrop for his haunting sax melodies, Law’s doomy piano chording and Long’s sombre bowed bass. There’s a dystopian atmosphere about the music here that has led other commentators to compare it with the soundtrack of a sci-fi movie.
Sampled traffic noise introduces “Complex City” with its jagged, pounding grooves replicating the relentlessness and busyness of contemporary city life. Law moves between electric and acoustic keyboards while Mainwaring’s urgent sax soloing picks up on the traffic horns heard in the intro. The sampled traffic noises resurface periodically throughout the piece and the voices of the musicians themselves are also subjected to the sampling and treatment processes.
As a contrast with the urban jungle depicted by “Complex City” the next piece, “These Rolling Clouds”, offers something far more bucolic. Very much the calm after the storm this piece features Law on lyrical acoustic piano in an extended introductory solo passage. The pastoral mood is continued even after the introduction of Mainwaring’s gently piping saxophone, and finally the low key backing of simpatico bass and drums. After the madness of the modern city the overall effect is pleasingly restful, and somehow intrinsically British.
The album concludes with a brief reprise of the opening track, here subtitled “Memory of a Kiss”, with the focus centred on the minimalist elements of the earlier piece.
With “Configuration” Law fully realises the objectives he sets out for himself in his album liner notes. The eleven pieces represent a successful and convincing synthesis of the many elements that Law has brought to the project, these, in turn, representing the many facets of a long and consistently interesting musical career. The writing is multi-faceted and each piece is possessed of a strong narrative quality, with its own distinct characteristics. In this respect each piece represents the “new pictures” of which Law speaks and much of the music also possesses the cinematic quality to which he also refers.
The strength of the writing is matched by the quality of the playing with all four musicians at the top of their respective games and making substantial contributions, with the young Weir showing an impressive maturity.
There’s a brightness and vitality about the playing that is matched by the skill of the production with the acoustic and electric elements being skilfully stitched together as the various elements of the jigsaw are pieced together to create a convincing sonic picture.
To these ears “Configuration” represents the most satisfying and complete John Law album since that first “Congregation” recording back in 2009 and as such is a good candidate for his ‘best ever’.
As such it is highly recommended, although I appreciate that some straight-ahead jazz fans may be deterred by the electronic elements.
However, to counter that, I’d suggest that it’s also an album that might hold some appeal for adventurous rock listeners, perhaps those drawn towards jazz by the likes of Pat Metheny and E.S.T.
From Martin Hummel via email;
Thank you so much for the wonderful review of John Law’s latest.
It’s clear that you know John and his music. It’s also a pleasure to read a review that has depth and substance.
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