by Ian Mann
November 04, 2020
An album that combines ambitious and intelligent writing with some exceptional singing and playing.
Joshua Jaswon Octet
(Ubuntu Music UBU0065)
Joshua Jaswon – alto & soprano saxophone, Anna Serierse – vocals, Marc Doffey – tenor & soprano saxophone, Miguel Gorodi – trumpet & flugelhorn, Jan Landowski – trombone, Johannes Mann – electric guitar, Sidney Werner – double bass, Aaron Castrillo – drums
London born saxophonist and composer Joshua Jaswon graduated from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama with a First Class Honours degree in Jazz Performance. He subsequently completed a Masters at the Jazz Institut in Berlin.
The Brexit result was a significant factor in Jaswon’s decision to stay in Berlin, one of Europe’s most cosmopolitan and artistically creative cities. This has led to collaborations with musicians from Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam and Copenhagen and “Silent Sea” boasts a truly international line up.
A frequent award winner Jaswon recorded his first album, “Ribbons”, following his graduation from the Guildhall. This featured a London based quintet including Freddie Gavita (trumpet & flugel), George Moore (piano), Calum Gourlay (double bass) and Andy Chapman (drums).
“Silent Sea” represents a far more ambitious project, a mix of jazz and poetry, the corner stone of the album being the seven part “Reduce / Reuse / Recycle Suite”.
“The nucleus of the project first took shape when I read a collection of twenty contemporary poems collated by Carol Ann Duffy that were published in The Guardian as part of their 2015 Keep It In The Ground campaign” explains Jaswon. He continues; “The project was an opportunity to engage with themes that have significant meaning for me and move beyond an exercise in abstract music making”.
Each composition in the suite is based on the text of a contemporary British poem and includes words by the writers Jackie Kay, Maura Dooley and Rachael Boast. The themes deal with the issues of climate change and Brexit.
Of the music Jaswon comments;
“One of the challenges in writing for an eight piece group was to utilise the timbral and compositional possibilities afforded by a larger ensemble without losing the intensity that comes from small combo interaction. The group’s rhythm section powerfully shape the music’s narrative and momentum while being able to respond in the moment to its shifting contours. The playing of Miguel Gorodi, Marc Doffey and Jan Landowski shows their exceptional ability as improvisers and ensemble musicians, and the music lives and breathes through Anna Serierse’s outstanding voice”.
As alluded to previously the octet is a truly international outfit; Serierse is from the Netherlands, Doffey, Landowski, Mann and Werner are all German and Castrillo is Spanish, with Jaswon and Gorodi representing the UK.
The elaborate album packaging includes transcripts of the three poems utilised as musical settings, plus comments from the three writers involved. Also worthy of note is the distinctive and evocative artwork by Cecile Bidault and Mat Miller, while music journalist Brian Glasser provides the album liner notes.
The album commences with a performance of the Jaswon composition “Maurice”. This represents a good introduction to the sound of the octet, with Serierse’s wordless vocals weaving their way between the instrumental melody lines and a variety of different rhythms. Rich in terms of dynamic and textural contrasts Jaswon’s writing is full of ideas and the music rarely remains in one place for long. Doffey is the first instrumentalist to feature as a soloist, with his tenor prominent in the tune’s early stages. He’s followed by more conventional jazz solos from the leader on alto and Landowski on trombone. The latter’s offering is particularly impressive, a rousing mix of stridency and fluency.
The mood changes with the first movement of the “Reduce / Reuse / Recycle; Suite”. Taking its title from a line in a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge “Silent Sea” is effectively the title track and includes words by Rachael Boast, addressing the subjects of climate change and pollution. Serierse sings the lyrics to a sparse instrumental backing featuring the sounds of Mann’s guitar, Werner’s bass and Castrillo’s drums. Serierse’s vocals combine emotion with great clarity while Mann’s liquid tones evoke suitably watery imagery.
“Interlude 1” represents a continuation and sees the guitarist soloing, his graceful, fluid lines eventually giving way to the leader’s incisive alto as the momentum of the music increases. A word too for a finely nuanced performance by Castrillo behind the kit, who consistently and impressively adjusts his playing to serve the music throughout each of these sections.
As the music continues to grow in intensity it segues into the next movement, “Extinction”, with a lyric by Jackie Kay, CBE. The Edinburgh born poet is currently the ‘Makar’, or national poet laureate of Scotland. She is also the Professor of Creative Writing at Newcastle University. It represents a pretty impressive coup for Jaswon to have her on board.
“Extinction” is Kay’s response to the Brexit vote and her satirical verse, lampooning small minded British nationalism, is often laugh out loud funny, but also disturbingly pertinent. It’s a real tongue twister of a lyric, delivered by Serierse with great assurance, her singing underpinned by an insistent, almost funky groove and fluent, fiery instrumental solos by Gorodi on trumpet, Doffey on more thoughtful tenor sax and Jaswon on alto. There’s also something of a vocal set piece for Serierse which allows her flexible voice to soar wordlessly, in between her interpretations of Kay’s lyrics. “It’s a pleasure for a poet to have their words so thoughtfully put to music. I’m delighted with the result”, remarks Kay.
A brief “Interlude 2””, effectively still part of “Extinction” provides the link to Still Life With Sea Pinks And High Tide”, which is itself divided into two parts.
“Part One” begins in reflective fashion with the liquidly lyrical sound of Gorodi’s flugelhorn. Serierse’s staccato delivery of Maura Dooley’s words above fragmented rhythms adds an element of unease, the lyrics a succinct warning against complacency with regard to climate change. There’s also a delightfully woozy trombone solo from the excellent Landowski.
Meanwhile “Part 2” builds from Castrillo’s fractured, hip hop style drum grooves to embrace jagged horn stabs, with Jaswon’s alto eventually emerging as the principal solo voice. It’s urgent and fidgety, reminiscent of the sound of New York as much as London or Berlin.
Dooley is another poet to be delighted with Jaswon’s setting of her words, “I’m so happy to think of the poem reaching new listeners in a new way”, she enthuses.
The Suite concludes with a reprise of “Silent Sea”, similar in feel to its previous incarnation, but with greater input from the horns, who collectively provide additional colour and texture. The mood is ultimately more gentle, and the arrangement more lush. The message, however, remains uncompromisingly stark.
The album is bolstered by a number of alternative takes on some of the pieces, which Jaswon describes as “Single Versions”.
First up is another look at “Extinction”, with the concluding “Interlude 2” section now placed first, before the band launch into the body of the song. The soloing order is unchanged, with Gorodi going first on trumpet, followed by Doffey on tenor and Jaswon on alto, plus the vocal feature for Serierse. The “Interlude 2” section then turns up again at the end. Essentially it’s the same song as before, with minimal adjustments other than the ‘new’ introduction.
“Still Life With Sea Pinks And High Tide” is performed as a single thirteen and a half minute entity with Gorodi’s flugel once more prominent in the early stages. Following Serierse’s delivery of the lyrics Landowski is again featured on trombone. A short solo drum passage from Castrillo leads the way into the second half of the performance as he establishes that familiar fragmented groove. If anything there’s a greater degree of instrumental interplay this time round, but with Jaswon still emerging as the dominant figure.
Finally we hear a third version of “Silent Sea”, the song still continuing to exude an air of fragile beauty.
The “Silent Sea” album represents an impressive piece of work from Jaswon. It’s an ambitious recording that on the whole succeeds brilliantly. Its blending of music and poetry is reminiscent of the work of the late, great Michael Garrick, and Serierse’s vocals sometimes recall those of Norma Winstone, whose singing graced many of Garrick’s recordings.
I’m reminded too of guitarist Moss Freed’s Moss Project, which also combined music with literature. Here, the music was composed in response to a series of short stories written by eminent novelists, with the authors becoming significantly involved in the project, as the three poets are here.
Jaswon’s writing is intelligent and explores a variety of musical styles. The playing by a highly talented young, international group is excellent throughout and the clarity of the mix, courtesy of engineers Gert Muller and Peter Beckmann, serves the musicians well.
“Silent Sea” makes many salient environmental and political points, but the message in no way overshadows the quality of the music.
Jaswon’s music may prove to have limited appeal to fans of purely straight-ahead jazz, but most adventurous listeners should find much to enjoy on an album that combines ambitious and intelligent writing with some exceptional singing and playing.
In the years to come I expect to hear a lot more from the young musicians featured on this album, and from Jaswon in particular.
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