by Ian Mann
March 02, 2020
A genuinely impressive piece of work that combines its various elements subtly and effectively.
“Pale Blue Dot”
(Northern Contemporary nc004)
Johnny Hunter – drums, Mark Hanslip – double bass, Seth Bennett – double bass, Gemma Bass – violin, Aby Vulliamy – viola, Michael Bardon - cello
Manchester based drummer and composer Johnny Hunter has been a regular presence on the Jazzmann web pages, often as a member of the various bands led by, or associated with, saxophonist, composer and improviser Cath Roberts, these including Sloth Racket, Favourite Animals, Word of Moth and the new Anglo-Swiss sextet MoonMot.
The drummer has also worked extensively with his brother, guitarist Anton Hunter, appearing with Anton’s trio and with Anton’s large ensemble Article XI. The brothers also team up with saxophonist and bassoonist Mick Beck in the improvising trio Beck Hunters. They are also part of the jazz/ska/dub sextet Skamel.
Johnny Hunter is also part of the improvising trio Fragments, alongside pianist Adam Fairhall and bassist Seth Bennett. The trio’s eponymous début album was released by Northern Contemporary in March 2019.
Other artists with whom Hunter has collaborated include vocalist Nishla Smith, bassist Gavin Barras, saxophonists Nat Birchall, Pete Lyons and Martin Archer and pianists Misha Gray, John Donegan and Laura Cole. Hunter has recorded with Cole’s Metamorphic Group, appearing on the recent album “The Two Fridas” (2018). He has also drummed for the large ensemble the Manchester Jazz Collective.
He has collaborated and recorded with Liverpudlian musicians in the bands Blind Monk Trio and Marley Chingus and has recorded albums with both.
As can be seen from his CV Hunter is a highly versatile musician who also leads his own projects, notably his own chordless post bop quartet featuring Bennett, saxophonist Mark Hanslip and trumpeter Graham South. Inspired by similar groups led by saxophonists Ornette Coleman, Joe Henderson, John Zorn and Chris Speed the Hunter Quartet has released the albums “Appropriations” (2013) and “While We Still Can” (2015), both for Efpi Records.
The “Pale Blue Dot” project finds Hunter expanding his regular group with the addition of three string players to form a highly interactive sextet, far more than just ‘jazz group plus strings’. The inspiration for the project initially came when the improvising duo of Hunter and Hanslip shared a double bill with Bennett’s En Bas Quartet, featuring violinist Gemma Bass, violist Aby Vulliamy and cellist Alice Eldridge at NQ Jazz in Manchester. Hunter wrote music to be performed by all six performers, this becoming “Pale Blue Dot”.
The music on the new group’s début recording is a four part suite inspired by a speech made by the celebrated cosmologist Carl Sagan in 1994. Sagan’s words were inspired by a photograph of the earth taken from a distance of six billion miles away by the Voyager 1 space probe in February 1990.
Sagan’s speech is reproduced as part of the album packaging. His description of the earth seen from space, and set against the vastness of the universe, as “the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known” has become even more pertinent as general awareness of the climate change emergency increases. Hunter’s music is inspired by the philosophical questions raised by Sagan’s observations and the titles of the four movements are sourced from individual lines or phrases within the speech.
Issued on the fledgling Northern Contemporary label the music of “Pale Blue Dot” was documented at a live performance at Jazz at the Lescar in Sheffield in July 2018. The live recording was made by Anton Hunter and the finished album was subsequently mixed and mastered, with a musician’s ear, by Alex Bonney.
On a personal note it was particularly pleasing to read the album liner notes, written by my good friend Jez Matthews, the enterprising and tireless promoter of Jazz at the Lescar. A pianist himself Jez is a great champion of the music and the programme at the Lescar is always exciting, imaginative and richly varied, with the focus very much on emerging talent and original music.
“Pale Blue Dot” fits this adventurous ethos perfectly.
Turning now to the performance which commences with the near ten and a half minute opening movement “Everyone You Love”. Tenor sax and strings sail serenely above Hunter’s gently rolling drum pulses and there’s a real sense of floating in space as the strings alone take on the melody. Subsequently the music becomes more loosely structured, “altogether more urgent and questioning”, as Matthews’ liner notes put it. The music now sounds more obviously improvised with the instruments engaged in a six way musical conversation, albeit considered musical discourse rather than an improvised free for all. The strings deploy both arco and pizzicato techniques but ultimately Hanslip’s tenor eventually emerges as the dominant voice, subtly badgering and probing as Hunter’s drums chatter and rumble around him. The strings maintain their presence throughout these exchanges, thoroughly at home in this improvised environment and superbly integrated into the sound of the group as a whole. Cellist Bardon is also a highly accomplished jazz and improv double bassist while Bass operates in both the classical and jazz/improv worlds. Violist Vulliamy is even more versatile having worked right across the musical spectrum from classical to jazz to folk to rock.
Eventually the music subsides to leave only the sound of Hunter’s drums, with the leader in colourist mode, underscored only by an almost imperceptible string drone, giving the impression of the Voyager probe disappearing into deep space. Eventually Hunter gradually increases the volume once more to instigate a reprise of the opening theme, again featuring the sounds of strings and tenor sax.
It’s the leader drums that introduce the thirteen minute second movement, “Endless Cruelties”, combining with Bennett’s bass to create a rolling groove that forms the basis for Hanslip’s tenor sax explorations, initially sharp and incisive, but later more gentle and ruminative as bass and drums drop out to leave the sounds of slightly plaintive sounding tenor sax and strings. The return of the rhythm section then prompts a more assertive passage of soloing from Hanslip as the ensemble switches into classic saxophone trio mode with Hunter’s rolling, polyrhythmic flow driving the music. Eventually the music subsides once more, the energy dissipating with the advent of a second, soothing tenor with strings passage. This then provides the link into a more spiky, freely improvised section featuring the percolating sounds of pizzicato strings and the rustle of drums and percussion. A brief theme restatement featuring the entire sextet then provides resolution and a sense of completeness.
Hunter’s filigree cymbal work, allied to eerie string sounds, introduces the eleven minute “Momentary Masters of a Fraction of a Dot”, the title a reflection on the temporary nature of Earth’s various empires. Given its theme the piece is surprisingly reflective, yet remains atmospheric and unsettling. Violence is implied via the subtle but wilful dissonance of the strings rather then by screaming saxes or bludgeoning drums. Bennett plays with the bow, combining effectively with Bass, Vulliamy and Bardon. Hanslip’s tenor gradually worms its way into the music, accompanied by the furtive rustling and shuffling of the leader’s drums, gradually asserting a greater dominance in this musical depiction of the ebb and flow of conquest, before themselves eventually fading away.
The closing “Save Us From Ourselves” emerges out of deep string resonances, presumably generated by cello and double bass, to incorporate the rustle of percussion and the whispering of tenor sax. The overall effect is ethereal and strangely beautiful, particularly when violin and viola are also added to the mix. Hanslip’s sax continues to whisper and flutter, sounding almost flute like at times, above a bed of cushioning strings and the shimmer of Hunter’s cymbals. Once again the impression is one of floating in deep space, which is effectively what our “Pale Blue Dot” is doing as we all live out our daily battles. Finally there’s a low key reprise of the melodic theme that occurs in the first movement and which re-emerges periodically throughout the album. This helps to conclude the work on a gently optimistic note.
“Pale Blue Dot”, the title also appears to have become a band name, is a genuinely impressive piece of work that combines its various elements subtly and effectively. This is a fully integrated ensemble that fully obliterates the boundaries between ‘jazz’ and ‘classical’ music. Under Hunter’s expert guidance the sextet becomes a single entity dedicated to the pursuit of a single goal, the creation of beautiful and worthwhile music.
It’s pleasing that Hunter has had the opportunity to document this music and to make it available on disc and Jez Matthews is to be praised for allowing this live recording to be made at his venue. Credit is also due to Anton Hunter and Alex Bonney for an excellent mix that captures all the subtleties and nuances of the writing and the playing.
Jez Matthews describes the work as “a low volume, expressive, fragile masterpiece from six wonderful, creative musicians”. Whilst thoroughly endorsing this summation I’d also like to emphasise that although it is frequently very beautiful there is nothing bland or wishy washy about the music of “Pale Blue Dot”. Within the compositional framework there’s plenty of the kind of improvisational rigour that one has come to expect from musicians of this calibre and pedigree – and of course the subject matter itself offers plenty of food for thought. My only disappointment is that I couldn’t be there to see this album being created, but hopefully Hunter may be able to take this music out on the road at some point in the future.
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