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by Ian Mann

May 02, 2006


This is a beautiful album. Flawlessly written, arranged, played and produced. A contender for the album of the year.

I first encountered Oriole, the band led by Kendal born guitarist Jonny Phillips at Lichfield Jazz Blues & Real Ale Festival last summer.

The band played two excellent sets in unseasonably chilly weather conditions, but the first thing that struck me was the extensive use of a 12 string acoustic guitar and cello, both unusual instruments in jazz. The combination reminded me of guitarist Ralph Towner’s classic 1979 album “Old Friends, New Friends” which featured cellist David Darling.

Suitably enlivened by the real ale I asked Jonny about the Towner influence between sets. He told me that he had certainly listened to Towner but he wasn’t a major influence, the main inspiration being folk music particularly that of Venezuela.

The first Oriole release “Song For The Sleeping” was an enjoyable album with lots of potential but this new CD is something else again. Phillips has extended his stylistic palette to take in Brazilian, Flamenco, Cuban and African influences, and an extended line-up gives him a wide variety of instrumental sounds to add to his global mix.

It is a sign of his rapidly growing maturity as a composer and arranger that he pulls all the different stylistic and instrumental elements together brilliantly. The attention to detail in the writing reminds me of Pat Metheny. Some other bands operating in this kind of pan cultural area can sound contrived or self consciously eclectic, but Oriole’s music sounds unforced, unhurried and thoroughly organic.

The well-travelled Phillips has assembled a truly international cast for the recording but the nucleus of the band is made up of fellow F-ire Collective members Ingrid Laubrock (saxophones), Ben Davis (cello) and the remarkable Sebastian Rochford on drums. Having Rochford on a record is almost a guarantee of quality. He has appeared on some genuine landmark recordings already with Polar Bear and Acoustic Ladyland and “Migration” deserves to be another one.

Throughout the album Laubrock’s saxophone lines and Davis’ cello improvisations intertwine around each other like snakes. Davis is an incredible musician; I’ve never seen anybody play the cello so brilliantly in a jazz context. Laubrock just gets better and better. Elsewhere on the album she duets beautifully with fellow saxophonist Idris Rahman on “Hymn”. Rahman also adds some fine clarinet to the album especially on “We’re All Angels”.

Rochford’s drumming is restlessly inventive but always sensitive. He may be incredibly dynamic and powerful in Polar Bear or Ladyland but he is also the perfect accompanist. In short if you’re meant to notice him you do, if you’re not - you don’t. It’s this all round ability that makes him the top young drummer in the country - and that’s before you even start on his composing skills.

Rochford is complemented by the percussion of Brazilian Adriano Adewale Itauna, who is excellent throughout, and adds a welcome touch of authentic South American exotica to the recording. Fellow Brazilian Fernando De Marco adds electric bass and atmospheric cavaquinho.

As for Phillips his guitar is at the heart of the arrangements, always rhythmic, always prompting. He is not a flashy soloist and concentrates very much on ensemble playing. He takes a brief and atmospheric acoustic guitar solo on the introduction to “Bate Calado” underpinned by Davis’ cello and Itauna’s shimmering percussion.

The brief “Two Smiles ” is also a gentle acoustic guitar led piece with delightful tuned percussion from Itauna.

Elsewhere the music alternates between the wistful and the joyous. There is a melancholic edge to Davis’ cello that imbues “Forms To Dust” and both “First Flight” and “Last Flight”.

The main body of “Bate Calado” is an outpouring of joy featuring the wordless vocals of Itauna plus guest vocalists Julia Biel (another F-ire alumnus) Okou and Guillermo Rozenthuler. “Migration To The Orange Trees” and especially “Sunshine Continuous” are also wonderfully joyous pieces.

This is a beautiful album, flawlessly written, arranged, played and produced and covering a wide stylistic and emotional range. A joy to listen to and it should be a contender for the album of the year awards. It may be “world jazz” and upset a few purists, but I think it’s magnificent - so there!

Oriole are touring to promote the album. Most of the gigs are double bills with Ingrid Laubrock’s excellent quintet. Ingrid, Ben & Seb are going to be very busy people - they play in both bands.

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