by Ian Mann
December 30, 2016
New music that is truly orchestral in its scope. An artistic triumph for Jonathan Silk.
(Stoney Lane Records SLR1977)
The Scottish born drummer and composer Jonathan Silk graduated from the Jazz Course at Birmingham Conservatoire and elected to stay in England’s ‘second city’ becoming a vital and galvanising presence on the Midlands jazz scene.
As well as playing drums in numerous Birmingham based bands Silk was a driving force in the now defunct Cobweb and Blam! musicians’ collectives and has also co-ordinated, in conjunction with his ‘partner in crime’ the trombonist Richard Foote, the hugely successful “Jazz at The Spotted Dog” programme at the pub of the same name in Digbeth. The ‘Dog’ hosts both local and touring musicians with London based bands regularly visiting the venue.
In early 2016 Silk and Foote, the self styled ‘Spotted Bros.’ released “Jazzdosnaygrowontrees”, a compilation album featuring tracks by Birmingham based artists that served as a fund-raiser for Jazz at The Spotted Dog. Silk appeared on tracks by the Birmingham Jazz Orchestra, pianist Toby Boalch, alto saxophonist Chris Young and a piece by his own Jonathan Silk Big Band sourced from his début album “Uncouth”, originally released in 2013.
Currently Silk plays with the Birmingham bands Trope and Young Pilgrims and has toured nationally with saxophonist Soweto Kinch’s trio. He has also performed with vocalist Lianne Carroll and with the saxophonists Stan Sulzmann and Iain Ballamy. Over the years Silk has performed at the Cheltenham and London jazz festivals as well as Birmingham’s own, much missed, Harmonic Festival.
“Fragment” represents Silk’s most ambitious project to date and expands, dramatically, on the success of “Uncouth”. The new work teams Silk’s nineteen piece Big Band with a thirteen piece string ensemble to create new music that is truly orchestral in its scope. The album also features Percy Pursglove as a guest soloist, specialising here on flugelhorn, and with Silk occupying the drum chair the ‘orchestra’ is conducted by his fellow drummer, and fellow Scotsman, Andrew Bain.
Three years in the making the “Fragment” project is a direct result of the financial support offered to Silk by the BBC Performing Arts Fund. This allowed the aspiring composer to study with two of the giants in the field of large ensemble and orchestral jazz, Maria Schneider and Vince Mendoza. Although the resultant music reveals the influence of both these luminaries, particularly Schneider, Silk also acknowledges the inspiration of his Birmingham drum teachers Jeff Williams and the late Tony Levin and of the cutting edge New York musicians drummer Jim Black and saxophonist David Binney.
The music is also influenced by Silk’s Scottish roots and his later world travels with a number of the individual pieces being inspired by the natural world. The album was recorded in London but is released on the new Birmingham based label Stoney Lane Records and features specially commissioned artwork by the artist David Stanley. The album is co-produced by Silk and Birmingham bassist and sound artist Chris Mapp with engineers Steve Price, Jeremy Murphy, Luke Morrish-Thomas, Peter Beckmann and the ubiquitous Alex Bonney all involved at various points in the recording process.
Silk summarises his intentions for the album as follows;
“The music aims to explore a dynamic journey through the large ensemble, taking advantage of the variety of different instrumental forces and framing the unique improvising voices within the ensemble”.
The ‘Orchestra’, comprised of both Birmingham and London based musicians lines up as follows;
Andrew Bain – Conductor
Percy Pursglove – Flugelhorn
Mike Fletcher – Alto sax, flute
Chris Maddock – Alto sax
John Fleming, Joe Wright – Tenor sax
Rob Cope – Baritone sax, bass clarinet
Tom Walsh, Reuben Fowler, Mike Adlington, Matt Gough – Trumpets & flugels
Kieran McLeod, Richard Foote, Yusuf Narcin – Trombones
Andy Johnson -Tuba
Thomas Seminar Ford- Guitar
Andy Bunting, Toby Boalch – Piano, Nord keyboard
Nick Jurd – Acoustic & electric bass
Jonathan Silk – Drums
Tom Chapman – Percussion
Emily Tyrrell – Violin (leader)
Katrina Davies, Sarah Farmer, Ning-Ning Li, Beth Bellis, Kathryn Coleman, Zhivko Georgiev, Pei Ann Yeoh – Violins
Victoria Strudwick, Eileen Smith – Violas
Lucy French, Katy Nagle – Cellos
Ayse Osman – Double bass
The album itself commences, appropriately enough, with “Introduction” which acts as a kind of “two minute overture” and features Silk’s lush, but never cloying, writing for strings, a velvety flugel horn cameo from Pursglove and the composer’s delicately brushed drums. It’s an assured and impressive beginning.
This leads us to “Buchaille” which is named for “Buchaille Etiv Mor”, a mountain in the Glencoe region of Scotland that represents the first ‘Munro’ to be climbed by Silk and his late father. The music captures something of the grandeur of the Scottish landscape with Fletcher’s flute adding a folk element to the arrangement. The music rises and falls, the dynamic contrasts reflecting the ever changing moods of the Highland weather, with solos for trombone and baritone sax. The latter is definitely Rob Cope but it’s unfortunate that the lavish album packaging doesn’t list the individual soloists, therefore I’m unable to be as specific with regard to the trombonist. But overall it’s the ensemble sound that counts. Silk has clearly learned well from Schneider and Mendoza and his writing and arranging are truly impressive as he blends the sounds of horns and strings seamlessly and effectively with the latter deploying both pizzicato and arco techniques.
“First Light” is also inspired by the Scottish mountainscapes, this time in winter as Silk and his friends, warmed by whisky, await the 6am snow report. Rich, colourful string textures set the scene before Jurd’s acoustic bass and Silk’s brushed drums ruffle the air of serenity. Piano is also added to the mix as the music gradually begins to build with Pursglove’s elegant and eloquent flugelhorn the featured solo instrument. Both Pursglove and Silk have been recipients of Fellowship Awards from the Birmingham based Jazzlines association and on the evidence of this piece it’s easy to see why. As musicians and composers each just gets better and better with the passing of the years.
It’s strange to find a piece titled “Prelude” at number four in the running order. This turns out to be a punchy piece of writing featuring the massed power of the horns allied to Silk’s forceful drumming. A more freely structured section features alternately squalling and brooding tenor sax but again it’s not possible to specify the soloist.
However it’s true that the piece does act as a prelude as the music segues directly into “Barefeet”, a composition inspired by Silk’s time spent walking in the Tugela Falls area of the Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa. Seminar Ford’s guitar features prominently in the earlier stages of the piece, the ‘foothills’ if you will, before the band strikes out for the summit with a blazing alto solo, most probably by Fletcher, leading the way.
The aptly named “Reflection” represents something of a pause for breath, a serene interlude featuring gently layered strings and lyrical acoustic piano.
Piano also introduces “In Thought”, an unaccompanied, classically influenced, passage leading into one of Silk’s loveliest compositions. A showcase for Pursglove’s mellifluous flugelhorn plus strings and rhythm it also features a passage of solo violin, presumably played by leader Tyrrell.
Following two relatively peaceful interludes the title track raises the energy levels once more with punchy, racing horn lines and propulsive drum and electric bass grooves. Spacey keyboard sounds give way to a sparkling acoustic piano solo, this followed by some uncredited sax duelling and finally some soaring, high octane electric guitar from Seminar Ford. There’s even something of a feature for the leader’s drums. Reviewing the album for his Jazz Breakfast website Peter Bacon remarked that this piece sounded something like the theme to a sci-fi serial, something I can relate to, although, for me, the sheer urgency and energy of the piece suggests a futuristic cop show.
“Withdrawal” is another of the gentler ‘interlude’ pieces that punctuate the album and features the combination of Seminar Ford’s guitar, in gentler more acoustic mood here, and Fletcher’s flute, these augmented by sumptuous strings and horns.
At a little under eleven minutes “Fool’s Paradise” is the lengthiest composition on the album, an episodic piece that passes through many moods and sections. It begins in rousing fashion with fan-faring horns and swirling Hammond style sounds from the keyboard players, with the leader’s powerful drumming driving the whole thing along. A gentler middle passage finds Pursglove in an intimate duet with one of the pianists before the band returns for an anthemic closing section featuring an uncredited sax soloist alongside the soaring fluency of Pursglove’s flugel.
The closing “Last Light” is inspired by the tranquillity of a small Scottish island harbour. Silk’s drums feature prominently, his mallet rumbles representing the gentle knocking together of boats in the waves as the string and brass arrangement seeks to convey a message of “restfulness and hope”.
“Fragment” is an extremely impressive piece of work and, for me, Silk achieves his objectives brilliantly. Although he has clearly learned much from his mentors his music never sounds like that of Schneider or Mendoza, it is very much an expression of Silk’s own musical vision. It’s a remarkably mature piece of work with the strings fully integrated into the music and with the overall sound feeling wholly natural and organic. Pursglove is an inspired soloist but every individual in the ensemble performs well on an album that represents something of an artistic triumph for Jonathan Silk. Peter Bacon cites a lack of memorable melodies but there doesn’t sound to be very much wrong with “Fragment” to me.
Unfortunately I missed the recent live performance of the album at the CBSO Centre in Birmingham (Peter also reviewed this for the Jazz Breakfast) and at the time of writing no other concerts are planned. However let’s hope that this music will be heard live again in the future. This is music that deserves to reach a wider audience, perhaps the Cheltenham or London Jazz Festivals would be suitable forums for Silk to get this music ‘out there’.
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