by Ian Mann
May 04, 2012
A well structured album full of intelligent, colourful writing with each tune telling a story and with an excellent standard of musicianship throughout.
Simcock, Garland, Sirkis
(ACT Music + Vision ACT 9525-2)
The Lighthouse project initially came about as the result of saxophonist and composer Tim Garland’s album “If The Sea Replied” (2005), a solo project recorded inside St. Mary’s Lighthouse near Whitley Bay in the North east of England. Garland wished to take advantage of the building’s unique acoustics and the success of the resultant album led to him convening the Lighthouse Trio to perform the music live. He enlisted the help of pianist Gwilym Simcock, his colleague in the group Acoustic Triangle, and Israeli born, London based drummer and percussionist Asaf Sirkis.
The trio have worked together regularly ever since, fitting Lighthouse in around their numerous other projects, and in 2009 released the ambitious double album “Libra” which also included contributions from, among others, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, American jazz guitarist Paul Bollenback and Acoustic Triangle’s Malcolm Creese on double bass. Around the time of the album’s release I also saw the core trio give a brilliant live performance at The Edge Arts Centre in Much Wenlock, Shropshire. Reviews of this live appearance plus the “Libra” album can be found elsewhere on this site.
The discovery of Simcock by ACT’s Siggi Loch has led first to Simcock’s Mercury nominated solo piano album “Good Days At Schloss Elmau” and now to this excellent new album by the Lighthouse Trio. Although the project was initially Garland’s the new album sees Simcock taking a greater part in the writing process and it’s interesting to speculate whether this is due to him being Loch’s protégé or whether the group is simply more democratic these days. In any event the proof of the pudding is in the hearing and Lighthouse, as they hereafter will be collectively known, have come up with a damn fine album and one that takes the trio further away from their classical and chamber jazz roots. On this recording the trio produce a remarkably full sound with a greater emphasis on the exotic rhythmic qualities that Sirkis brings to the group via his customised set up of kit drums, ethnic frame drums (riq, bandir etc.), clay pots (ghatam, udu) and the hang drum, the latter instrument initially made familiar to UK audiences by the Portico Quartet.
The two composers provide brief but helpful notes regarding the inspiration and background of some of the pieces. The music of Simcock’s opener “Space Junk” has seemingly unlikely disco roots and is inspired by Simcock’s work with Ibiza DJ’s Carl Cox and Yousef and features Sirkis’ hip hop influenced grooves alongside the distinctive sound of Simcock’s dampened piano strings. Garland’s sinuous saxes dance above the increasingly complex rhythms and Simcock’s melodica adds another layer of exotica. It’s bright, lively and joyous, devoid of stuffiness, and is an exuberant and attention grabbing way of starting the album. The title itself comes from a 2011 news story about the disintegration of a space satellite, the debris falling to earth in “fridge sized pieces”.
“Weathergirls” is quoted as being “an idea of Tim’s that morphed into a rewrite”. Jointly credited to all three members of the group the tune is also described as being “breezy, bright but with occasional stormy patches” which is a neat encapsulation of the music’s virtues. Sirkis makes use of the hang but his other percussive devices also give the music a considerable rhythmic drive. The “stormy” elements come from Garland’s tempestuous sax squalls. Simcock is at the heart of the ensemble and also provides a balancing lyricism. An intelligent, highly descriptive piece of writing there’s a more than appropriate hint of Weather Report here too.
Garland’s beautiful ballad “One Morning” varies the pace, its pared down lyricism a homage in memory of “those we have loved”. Tender tenor sax and delicately lyrical piano are underscored by the gentle patter of Sirkis’ percussion.
Also by Garland “Above The Sun” is intended as a “kind of reply” to Libra’s “Bajo Del Sol”. Like its predecessor the tune has “a touch of flamenco in its blood”. It’s another lively tune that the trio clearly enjoy playing with Garland giving a virtuoso performance on both bass clarinet and soprano sax above Sirkis’ percolating rhythms and there’s a typically sparkling performance from Simcock too. The trio regard the piece as something of a flagship and rightly so.
Garland’s final contribution with the pen is the wistful “The Wind On The Water” , a piece inspired by midnight walks on a Northumberland beach. There’s a yearning, lyrical quality to the music that contrasts nicely with the energy of the previous piece. Garland’s keening saxophone captures the
Four Simcock pieces scheduled back to back complete the album. “King Barolo” salutes Acoustic Triangle founder Malcolm Creese and his love of fine wine. The mood is appropriately celebratory with the percolations of Sirkis’ hang drum permeating the piece. Garland’s gutsy, exuberant tenor enlivens the performance and Simcock turns in a characteristically brilliant solo as well as anchoring the tune as a whole.
“Wax Lyrical” pays tribute to a British jazz institution, saxophonist and composer Stan Sulzmann with whom Simcock worked as part of the Neon Trio. Something of a “gentle giant” Sulzmann brings a profoundly lyrical approach to his playing which Simcock honours beautifully here. Garland fills Sulzmann’s role with aplomb, capturing something of Stan’s gentle whimsicality. Simcock’s own solo is also charmingly idiosyncratic with Sirkis adding understated but sympathetic support.
After the spaciousness of “Wax Lyrical” the next piece, “Devilled”, comes as a total contrast as Simcock and his colleagues initially appear to endeavour to fill every available space. Busy and feverish the piece honours veteran jazz/rock drummer Bill Bruford with whom both Simcock and Garland both worked as part of Bruford’s long running group Earthworks. It’s busyness captures something of Bruford’s relentlessly inquisitive musical personality but there are also occasional moments of calm plus a couple of highly appropriate percussion breaks from Sirkis.
I believe that the title for the piece is sourced from the recently retired Bruford’s “The Autobiography”, a brilliantly written work that name checks Simcock, Garland AND Sirkis. It’s a highly perceptive and intelligent book that offers a fascinating insight into the workings of the music business. I’d urge anybody who might be reading this to go out and buy it.
If you’re worn out after listening to “Devilled” then “Tawel Nawr” (or “Quiet Now”) comes as a delightful surprise. The title honours Simcock’s Welsh heritage and the composer describes the piece as “a little bedtime story”. It’s very simple but also very beautiful and closes the album on a delightfully elegiac note. Garland’s tenor whispers and caresses, Simcock’s touch is gentle and lyrical and Sirkis’ percussion sparse but sympathetic.
“Lighthouse” represents a triumph for the trio. It’s a well structured album full of intelligent, colourful writing with each tune telling a story and the standard of musicianship is excellent throughout.. The group’s pan-cultural approach with its ethnic and Celtic references has similarities to that of the American group Oregon yet the two bands sound completely different. As Lighthouse have pointed out the album is an attempt to capture the group’s live sound on record, Simcock’s melodica on the opening track is the only evidence of overdubbing. There is thus a focussed energy about these performances that transcends the trio’s “chamber jazz” origins and makes the prospect of forthcoming live appearances very exciting. Without a bass player Simcock shoulders some of the rhythmic functions of the music and has spoken of his delight at being able to use “all of the piano”.
The move to ACT will bring the trio to international attention. Simcock and Garland (who has worked with Chick Corea) already have international profiles but I’m particularly pleased to see Sirkis getting some increased exposure, he makes an enormous contribution to the success of the album with his rhythmic, colourful playing.