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Pete Judge

Piano 2

by Ian Mann

June 10, 2020


Each of these sixteen pieces is like a short story, convincingly telling its tale in the space of a few bars. Has the potential to appeal to a wide, cross-genre audience.

Pete Judge

“Piano 2”

(Pete Judge Music pjm002)

Pete Judge – Piano

Pete Judge is probably best known to audiences as the trumpet player with the iconoclastic Bristol based quartet Get The Blessing, a band that have featured on the Jazzmann web pages many times over the course of the last decade or so.

Electronics play an important role in GTB’s music and Judge frequently treats the sound of his horn via a variety of electronic devices. It’s an aspect of his playing that he also explores with Eyebrow, his duo with drummer and multi-instrumentalist Paul Wigens. My review of the 2017 Eyebrow release “Strata” can be read here;

As a trumpeter Judge is also a member of the Bristol based sextet Dakhla Brass, whose most recent album release, the excellent “Murmur” from 2018, is reviewed here;

But Judge is more than just a trumpeter, he is also an accomplished multi-instrumentalist who explores this aspect of his talent as part of the folk trio Three Cane Whale, alongside acoustic guitarist Paul Bradley and mandolin player Alex Vann. I have to admit to having never listened to the band’s music, but after hearing this solo album from one of its members I’d love to check the trio out.

Judge spreads his musical net far and wide as a prolific session and studio musician who has recorded or toured with a variety of artists across a broad range of genres. He has also composed music for theatre, radio and dance productions.

On one evening in October 2017 Judge recorded a series of solo piano pieces in the empty concert hall at St. George’s, Brandon Hill, Bristol, a former church that has been transformed into one of the city’s leading arts venues. The programme featured fifteen short pieces, perhaps best described as ‘miniatures’.

The majority of the tunes had been written with the intention that they would be performed by Three Cane Whale with Judge’s liner note stating;
“Most of the tunes here were originally written for the band Three Cane Whale, and so would not exist without the inspiration of my 3CW fellows, Alex Vann & Paul Bradley. These versions are the bare bones of, or the monochrome templates for, 3CW’s multi-instrumental full-colour renderings”.

I have to admit to not having heard the original “Piano” recording, but in any event Judge’s recording of “bare bones” and “monochrome templates” was warmly received by commentators and audiences alike.

Thus one day in January 2020, a year on from the release of the first “Piano” recording, he found himself back at St. George’s to record a second collection of miniatures, with T.J. Allen again acting as recording engineer, this time with assistance at the mastering stage from Judge’s GTB bandmate Jim Barr.

Again, the majority of the pieces were initially written with Three Cane Whale in mind. The titles of the individual tracks are often highly descriptive and take inspiration from the works of nature and also from the works of poets and artists, among them Robert Frost, William Blake and Vincent Van Gogh.  

Indeed it’s Frost who provides the inspiration for the title of the opening “West-Running Brook”, where Judge’s rippling arpeggios subtly suggest the sound of running water. The pastoral mood evoked sets the template for the album as a whole. Judge is more concerned with establishing an atmosphere than he is with bravado displays of technique. Each of these sixteen pieces is like a short story, convincingly telling its tale in the space of a few bars.

“Stonecrop” is more sparse, but no less beautiful, with Judge evoking a sense of spaciousness and taking full advantage of the wonderful grand piano at St. George’s, an instrument previously played by greats from both the jazz and classical worlds.

The poet Jon Hamp, who has worked with Three Cane Whale, provided the title for the evocative “The Darkening Hills”, a piece that like so many others on the album has a distinct visual quality. The gentle, but slightly sombre, mood suggests dusk falling on a summer’s evening over a range of hills in Judge’s beloved West Country.

Even more reflective in mood is the solemn, slow paced “It Pains The Lips To Think Of Bugles”, with its somewhat funereal air. The title is taken from a line in a work by the poet and artist David Jones (1895-1974), who served in World War 1.

The gently rippling arpeggios of the brief “Frond 3” are fleetingly suggestive of vegetation waving in the breeze, a field of barley, perhaps. Companion pieces “Frond 1” and “Frond 2” appeared on the earlier “Piano” album.

At a little over five and a half minutes duration “Cruc” is the lengthiest item on the album and although it gives Judge the opportunity to stretch out more comprehensively he remains true to the overall aesthetic of the album. Melody and mood building remain his primary concerns and the piece explores a variety of styles and dynamics, but with the overall mood remaining pensive and reflective, with Judge again making effective use of the spaces between the notes.

At a little over four minutes “Brute Angels” is another of the album’s more substantial pieces and is possessed of a strong narrative flow, thanks to its contrasting combination of gentle melodies and sharply defined rhythms.

None of the remaining nine pieces extends beyond three minutes, commencing with “Spoor”, a piece named by the poet, novelist and librettist Philip Gross. Here the briefly darting motifs suggesting the scurrying of a small,  furtive animal.

The title of “The Lost Traveller’s Dream Under The Hill” comes from no less a luminary than William Blake. It’s a delightfully melodic and lyrical piece, its pastoral mood perhaps intended to channel the spirit of Blake’s ‘Lost Albion’.

Although he’s not mentioned by name I’d like to think that the pensive “Gurney’s Oak”, which follows, might represent a homage to the Gloucester born poet and composer Ivor Gurney. A glance at the Three Cane Whale website confirms that this is indeed the case, while the title also honours a former pub of the same name in rural South Herefordshire.

The appropriately concise “Sprig” maintains the bucolic mood, as does “Red Bank”, named for a quiet stretch of the River Wye near Holme Lacy, just south of Hereford. The gently lapping arpeggios represent another convincing example of ‘musical water imagery’.

The sparse chording of the gentle “Purr” suggests a cat, probably fat, dozing peacefully in the sun, as ours is doing as I write.

The introduction to “Prospect Stile” continues the tranquil mood, before injecting a degree of comparative urgency with a series of rapid, minimalist inspired arpeggios. Nevertheless the overall mood remains contemplative and lyrical as a typically charming melody gradually emerges and gently asserts itself.

“Wheatfield with Crows” is titled after the Van Gogh painting of the same name and the artist’s evocative imagery inspires a piece that initially stops and starts before taking flight on a thermal undercurrent of undulating arpeggios.

Named after a work by the French poet Jacques Dupin (1927-2012) “Song of Rescue” closes the album on a gently elegiac note.

Judge has received a compelling degree of critical acclaim for his two “Piano” recordings. Volume One drew praise from Stuart Maconie of BBC 6Music and Sarah Walker of BBC Radio 3, giving some idea of the broad appeal of this music.

Meanwhile the esteemed Richard Williams, writing on his Blue Moment website, compared “Piano 2” with Keith Jarrett’s album “The Melody At Night With You”, which is praise indeed.

Williams’ comments refer to the way in which Judge maintains a mood or aesthetic throughout the entire album, subtly drawing in the listener. The creation of an atmosphere is paramount, more important than technical prowess or demonstrations of virtuosity.

Walker perhaps expresses it best when she suggests that the music will hold appeal to listeners of composers and artists such as Erik Satie and Michael Nyman, and even Cornelius Cardew. I’d add Chopin and Debussy to that list and she absolutely nails it with the comment;
“will appeal to anyone who loves intimate, contemplative piano music”.

It’s also been suggested that Judge’s piano music is “New Age”, but as this term has taken on a pejorative edge in recent years I’ll steer well away from that. “Ambient” might be a more appropriate description, in that a specific ambience is established and maintained throughout. However,  this is an “ambient” that is completely divorced from the electronica that has increasingly come to define the genre.

Judge’s piano music is indeed “soothing” as Maconie has commented, and could be effectively used as background listening. The mood is predominately calm and the folk inspired melodies instantly accessible, but the music also has depth and a certain gravitas.

This is music that has the potential to appeal to a wide audience, including listeners of jazz, folk and contemporary classical music. Not bad for a musician notionally performing on his ‘second instrument’.

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