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Sentient Beings

Sentient Beings,  Bishop’s Castle Town Hall, Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire, 03/02/2024.

by Ian Mann

February 07, 2024


An evening of intense but immersive music making with a strong sense of spirituality and a real and uncompromising sense of purpose. The standard of the musicianship was superb throughout.

Sentient Beings, Bishop’s Castle Town Hall, Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire, 03/02/2023.

Faith Brackenbury – violin, viola, John O’Gallagher – alto saxophone, John Pope – double bass, Tony Bianco – drums, percussion

Released on the Belgian label Off Records in 2023 the album “Sentient Beings” was one of the best freely improvised recordings that I have heard in a long time.

It featured the quartet of Faith Brackenbury (violin, viola), John Pope (double bass), Tony Bianco (drums, percussion) and the great Paul Dunmall (tenor saxophone). Review here;

Towards the end of my review of the album I observed;
“A follow up, or maybe a series of live dates, would be something to be welcomed”.

In the light of this I’m delighted to say that the second of these wishes has now been fulfilled with Brackenbury, Bianco and Pope adopting Sentient Beings as a band name and embarking on a short UK tour during January and February 2024. With Dunmall reluctant to commit to a tour the remaining trio invited alto saxophonist John O’Gallagher to join them. An American musician based in the UK O’Gallagher leads his own groups and has also been a regular presence in bands led by another ex-pat American, the drummer, composer and improviser Jeff Williams.  With Bianco also originally hailing from the US it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to refer to the touring edition of Sentient Beings as an Anglo-American group, even after allowing for the fact that both Bianco and O’Gallagher have been based in the UK for many years.

The “Sentient Beings” recording brought together four musicians with close individual links, but it was the first time that the members of the ensemble had actually worked together as a quartet.

In recent years Bianco and Brackenbury have been playing as a duo, releasing the very different albums “Rising Up” (2021) and “Wayward Mystic” (2022), the latter subtitled subtitled “Improvisations inspired by the music of Hildegard von Bingen”. Both of these releases are examined elsewhere on The Jazzmann, in addition to two live performances by the duo.

Newcastle based musician John Pope first worked with Brackenbury in 2018 when she was one of a number of female musicians to collaborate with the electro-jazz trio Archipelago (Pope, saxophonist Faye MacCalman and drummer Christian Alderson)  on the compilation album “Between Waves”. Amongst other projects Pope also leads his own Ornette Coleman inspired quintet and performs in a duo with violinist John Garner. In 2021 I was lucky enough to attend a double bill featuring the Brackenbury Bianco Duo opposite the John Pope Quintet in Birmingham, an event that is reviewed here;

Paul Dunmall (born 1953) is a giant of the UK jazz and improvised scene who has appeared on literally dozens of recordings, both as leader and sideman,  and who remains a positively formidable creative force. He worked regularly with Bianco in the early 2000s but the “Sentient Beings” recording represented their first musical meeting for many years,  as Brackenbury’s liner notes for the album explained;

“On 23rd September 2022, anniversary of John Coltrane’s birthday, we got together in a hilltop studio in rural Shropshire to record. It was our first meeting as this quartet. Tony came up with the title ‘Sentient Beings’ because of the camaraderie around our meeting and he and Paul haven’t been able to meet up for a few years. The unreserved outpouring of spontaneous music was full of fire, sensitivity and passion.” 

The Coltrane connection is significant. Although entirely improvised tonight’s performance embodied something of Coltrane’s spirit, with the music taking on a certain spiritual quality and expressing a sense of “the search”. Playing wholly improvised music is a way of life, with the musicians always reaching towards something indefinable, endeavouring to create something that is simultaneously eternal and ‘in the moment’. It’s an intense and immersive experience for both musicians and listeners and tonight the four members of Sentient Beings played with total conviction, reaching for the stars and inviting their small but attentive audience to join them on their journey.

As the musicians took to the stage Bianco briefly addressed the audience, promising that the quartet would seek to “invoke a vibe of truth”, a phrase borrowed from one of Coltrane’s former bass players.

The first half featured two substantial improvisations, the first clocking in at around twenty five minutes, the second around fifteen.

The first was ushered in by Bianco at the kit, the patter of his hand drummed rhythmic figures combining with the splash of cymbals. His mallet rumbles were then augmented by the sounds of Pope’s bowed bass and O’Gallagher’s alto sax incantations. Although positioned at the front of the stage the saxophonist remained a shadowy figure, thanks to the atmospheric lighting. However there was nothing soft or shadowy about O’Gallagher’s playing, although performing entirely without amplification his sound was still powerful and incisive. Brackenbury, even with her violin linked up to a Marshall amp, struggled to match O’Gallagher’s volume, even when she turned up her amp. However as her duo performances with Bianco have revealed Brackenbury is no shrinking violet when it comes to improvised music, despite being a relative late comer to the genre in comparison to the other three. She was later heard to better effect during a violin, bass and drums episode that saw her bringing a freewheeling intensity to her bowing that again recalled the spirit of Coltrane. A series of gentle violin and alto sax exchanges were accompanied by the sounds of brushed drums and bowed bass, but the intensity was ramped up once more as Pope put down the bow to engage in a fierce debate with Bianco’s drums, the latter deploying a combination of sticks and mallets to create an all encompassing polyrhythmic rumble. Such gaps as remained were filled by pizzicato violin, while O’Gallagher stood stock still, as if entranced by the sounds that his colleagues were creating. Brackenbury flourished the bow once more to deliver some dramatic playing, soaring above the sounds of Pope’s muscular bass and Bianco’s ever evolving drum barrage. O’Gallagher finally took up his sax once more to solo with a searing intensity above the sounds of pumping bass and crashing cymbals. Eventually the piece resolved itself as it began with the sound of Bianco, alone at the drums.

The second improvisation was introduced by Pope alone at the bass, playing pizzicato and with much of his work taking place below the bridge. Bianco then picked up a shaker while O’Gallagher blew rushes of air through his sax. This freely structured intro continued with Brackenbury switching to viola and Pope deploying the body of his bass as a form of percussion. Momentum began to build as Bianco began to lay down a martial rhythm at the drums while Brackenbury added snatches of melody on the viola. The almost conventional rhythms provided the launch pad for O’Gallagher’s powerful alto sax blasting, with Brackenbury’s viola filling in the spaces between the sax phrases. This pattern was continued, but with O’Gallagher’s powerful sax soloing occasionally punctuated by quieter, more reflective episodes.

The second set was comprised of a single forty minute improvisation that O’Gallagher, fully buying in to the Coltrane / Spiritual Jazz theme dubbed “Unlimited Bliss, Exuberance and Light”. This was introduced by the sounds of small percussion and bowed bass, these subsequently augmented by intertwining alto sax and violin melody lines. O’Gallagher’s sax solo was followed by a quieter episode featuring violin, bass and drums, with Pope subsequently picking up the bow as he embarked on a dialogue with Bianco’s drums. Arco bass and powerful drumming then underpinned O’Gallagher’s emotive sax soloing, this followed by a gentler sax / violin / drum trio episode with Pope sitting out and Bianco deploying a mix of sticks and mallets. O’Gallagher and Brackenbury continued to exchange ideas, now underscored by the sounds of Bianco’s polyrhythmic rumble and Poe’s grounding pizzicato bass. The music became increasingly intense as sax and violin continued to intertwine before eventually giving way to an unaccompanied drum episode featuring the sounds of Bianco’s mallets on skins and metals. Pope then took over on plucked bass, sometimes singing along to his improvisations as Bianco returned to offer support with brushes and sticks. O’Gallagher then stepped forward to deliver a searing alto solo, supported by similarly powerful bass and drums. Brackenbury then took over on violin, with O’Gallagher eventually responding as this marathon collective improvisation finally drew to a close, with Pope handling the final audience announcements.

Overall this was an evening of intense but immersive music making with a strong sense of spirituality and a real and uncompromising sense of purpose. The standard of the musicianship was superb throughout, with the non-stop, polyrhythmic ‘octopusian’ drumming of Tony Bianco truly a thing of wonder as prodigious technique was combined with an unbelievable stamina. This guy really is a percussive whirlwind.

The only caveat was that the sound of the violin or viola was too often drowned out by that of the alto sax, even after I changed seats at half time in an attempt to hear Brackenbury better.  O’ Gallagher is a phenomenal player but was arguably over-dominant, with Brackenbury, by her own admission, left to fill in the gaps as best she could. I would also have liked to see her make more use of her array of foot pedals, which remained comparatively under utilised.

My thanks to Faith for organising press tickets for my wife and I and also to all four musicians for speaking with me after the show.

The Sentient Beings tour continues with just one more date left to play at The Vortex Jazz Club, Dalston, London on 8th February 2024. Hopefully a live recording will also emerge from the tour.

Apparently the Birmingham date at Eastside Jazz Club featured a five piece version of the band with Dunmall joining the others on stage. That must have been quite something.

Meanwhile John Pope was keen to point out that his friends in the band The Unit AMA, which features Archipelago drummer Christian Alderson, will be visiting Bishop’s Castle on Sunday February 18th as part of Bishop’s Castle Arts Festival. See for details.


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