by Ian Mann
November 09, 2011
The music is full of sophisticated rhythmic patterns and rich and intriguing textures.This is a worthy follow up to Robson's previous solo recordings.
“The Immeasurable Code”
(Whirlwind Recordings WR4620)
In January 2011 guitarist Phil Robson undertook a UK tour with a hand picked group of musicians to perform a series of compositions based on the theme of “communication, ancient and modern” commissioned by Derby Jazz (incidentally Robson’s home town). I saw the Birmingham date of the tour, a curious affair that proved to be part concert, part educational forum and an account of that evening can be found elsewhere on this site. Although the Birmingham show proved to be a little frustrating (we got to hear less than half of the pieces that make up this album) the potential of Robson’s group and of the music was obvious and the second of the group’s two appearances at London’s Vortex was recorded and was transmitted on BBC Radio’s “Jazz on 3” before subsequently finding it’s way on to this album.
Having been commissioned by Derby Jazz Robson set about writing for a specific combination of musicians, many of them long established associates. Bassist and Whirlwind label owner Michael Janisch featured Robson on his own solo album “Purpose Built” but for many listeners the big draw will be the presence of American saxophonist Mark Turner, a musician who first worked with Robson on singer Christine Tobin’s “Deepsong” album (1998). Turner is considered to be one of the world’s leading saxophonist and is perhaps best known as a member of the trio Fly (with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard) and for a series of acclaimed solo albums. Joining Turner in an unusual front line is Britain’s leading jazz flautist Gareth Lockrane with Cuban emigre Ernesto Simpson completing the group on drums. Simpson is Robson’s most recent acquaintance but his playing seems to fit this all star line up perfectly.
The album opens with a brief “Intro” credited to Janisch and Robson which I suspect is largely improvised. It’s essentially a piece for solo bass that leads into the first composition proper, the lengthy “Nassarius Beads”. The title is derived from the discovery of ancient shell ornaments in a cave in Morocco. These have been dated to 82,000 years ago and are believed to be the earliest example of human art. Musically the piece is full of sophisticated rhythmic patterns and rich and intriguing textures, particularly the blend of flute and tenor saxophone. Lockrane delivers the first solo followed by the always eloquent Robson. Turner’s tenor solo is an excellent example of his unique sound, often playing in the instrument’s altissimo register in an updating of the style of one of his influences, the late Warne Marsh.
The atmospheric sounds of Lockrane’s alto flute combine with Janisch’s arco bass on the introduction to the dramatic and episodic “Telepathy and Transmission”. There’s a brooding quality to the combination of flute and tenor before Turner produces one of his most powerful solos of the set. He’s followed by Robson’s fuzzed up, rock influenced guitar, a reminder of the composer’s dual life with jazz rock supremos Partisans.
The ballad “The Telegram” takes its title from the use of the telegram as a narrative device in all the best romantic films. An attractive Robson theme provides the framework for the lush woodwind textures of Lockrane and Turner as flute and tenor entwine around each other like the lovers inherent in the title. Robson’s coolly elegant guitar solo adds a pleasingly personal note to the proceedings.
The complexities of the “The Instant Message” sometimes recall Robson’s Partisans work particularly in the blend of guitar and tenor saxophone. It’s also a tune that allows plenty of room for blowing with both Robson and Turner producing marathon solos spurred on by Janisch’s propulsive bass work and Simpson’s colourful, neatly energetic drumming. Lockrane also cuts loose on flute with Robson’s sophisticated chording supplementing the work of the rhythm team. There’s also a series of drum flourishes from Simpson in a number that proved to be enormously popular with the Vortex audience.
The title track is based on the rhythms of Morse Code and at Birmingham was described by Robson as being the most complex piece on the album. It’s also highly thrilling with Lockrane’s piccolo approximating the tapping of telegraph keys in counterpoint to Turner, here making a rare appearance on soprano saxophone. Turner’s soprano solo is followed by Robson on guitar and Lockrane on flute as the music gets ever more complex before signing off with the sound of a genuine telegraph triggered by Robson’s foot pedals. Exhilarating stuff.
The brief “The Net” then features guitar generated electronica and can be seen a natural successor to “The Immeasurable Code”. It concludes with a powerful blast of skronk from the entire band.
“A Serenade” is effectively the album’s second ballad, a piece that unfolds slowly and deliberately with the emphasis on mood and texture. Lockrane’s flute, Turner’s tenor and Robson’s guitar blend beautifully above a backdrop of delicately brushed drums.
“The Fire and the Drum” begins with a passage of solo percussion from Simpson before exploding into life via solos from Robson, Turner (again on soprano) and Lockrane. Simpson and Janisch maintain a propulsive odd meter groove throughout and there’s some brilliant interplay between the horns as Robson alternates between front and back line duties. Even when not soloing the guitarist is an important presence throughout the album filling the accompanists’ role with skill and aplomb.
Robson’s brief but quirky arrangement of Richard Rogers’ “Happy Talk” (the theme is “communication” remember) ends the album on an upbeat note. The piece fades out rather abruptly suggesting that it was actually much longer at the live event and has been rather brutally edited. This is a shame as the sound quality throughout the rest of the recording (courtesy of engineer Chris Lewis) is excellent.
It’s good that Robson has been able to make this music available on CD especially with a line up that is unlikely to be a regular fixture. “The Invisible Code” is a worthy follow up to his previous solo recordings “Impish”, “Screenwash” and “Six Strings and The Beat”.
Phil Robson’s IMS Quintet (it stands for Instant Messaging Service) featuring Mark Turner will appear at the 2011 London Jazz Festival. They are scheduled to play the Purcell Room at the South bank centre on Tuesday November 15th. For more details visit http://www.londonjazzfestival.org.uk