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Night School

by Ian Mann

October 07, 2021


A thoroughly immersive listening experience, with the trio continuing to expand their musical horizons.


“Night School”

(New Jazz and Improvised Music Recordings NEWJAiM8)

Chris Sharkey – guitar, Andy Champion – bass, Joost Hendrickx- drums

The latest release from Wes Stephenson’s innovative Newcastle based NEWJAiM label features the trio Shiver, a group comprised of three of the leading jazz /  experimental music figures in the North of England.

Formed in 2013 the group has thus far released four eponymous EPs, “#1” (2013), “#2” (2014),  “#3” (2015) and “#4” (2020). The last named of these features a single forty minute track, “I Need You To Focus”, edited together from a series of group improvisations, with the band making extensive use of live looping and other electronic techniques.

This latest offering, their first official full length album and their first for Stephenson’s imprint expands upon this and comprises of the single fifty three minute piece “Night School”. The rather bald description of the group as a guitar/ bass/ drums trio barely does it justice, electronics play a major part in the music as Sharkey’s liner notes explain.

“I can’t remember exactly when my old school burnt down, but I can tell you I was there”, he begins, “it had been closed down for many years and was just there, abandoned, when someone decided to strike a match”.

Sharkey describes how he and his friends watched the building, the former Heathfield Senior High School in Low Fell, burn down, reminiscing about former teachers and pupils, and of music lessons in the school hall.

“The images of the burning school and the memories it contained were in my mind when I wrote ‘Night School’” he continues. “We played the song a lot in 2014/15 and when it came to record it we tried lots of different ways, but just couldn’t do it justice. Frustrated, we tried to improvise freely for a while and just move towards the song when we felt like it. And that’s what you hear on this album, one continuous take with no edits. It’s a deconstruction of the song followed by the song itself, like watching a building burning down in reverse”.

He offers this advice to the listener; “It’s a big ask these days but I think the piece works best consumed whole from start to finish. There’s plenty of contour and detail to listen to but feel free to let your own imagination wander and drift as you listen, as if sitting in front of the fire, eyes stinging slightly from heat and memory”.

This latest recording also owes something to the methods deployed on Sharkey’s recent solo work “Presets”, a double album of improvised guitar and electronics. Review here;

That said the music to be heard on “Night School” was actually recorded in 2015, but is has taken the support of Stephenson and NEWJAiM to bring it to final fruition.

Besides his solo work and his work with Shiver Sharkey is also known for his associations with the bands trioVD, Acoustic Ladyland and the still ongoing Roller Trio. He has also recorded with leading British improvising musicians such as pianists Pat Thomas and Matthew Bourne, bassist Michael Bardon and drummers Joost Hendrickx, Mark Sanders and Paul Hession.

Meanwhile Champion has led his own prog-jazz ensemble ACV, worked extensively with his vocalist wife Zoe Gilby and performed in a more straight-ahead jazz context with many of the North East’s leading jazz musicians, among them pianist Paul Edis, saxophonist Graeme Wilson, guitarist Mark Williams and drummer Matt MacKellar.

Besides his work with Sharkey and Shiver drummer Joost Hendrickx, a graduate of Leeds College of Music, has also been associated with pianists Sean Foran and Al MacSween and bassist Dave Kane. He has also been a member of saxophonist James Mainwaring’s quartet Tipping Point and of Leeds based guitarist Craig Scott’s Gastric Band. He is also part of the anarchic Leeds collective Shatner’s Bassoon.

I recall enjoying a performance by the Shiver trio at the 2016 Cheltenham Jazz Festival in which they successfully combined elements of jazz, rock and electronica to compelling effect, making highly effective use of looping and layering techniques. My review of that show can be found as part of our Festival coverage here;

The qualities that the trio exhibited at Cheltenham are very much in evidence here as “Night School” commences with a series of ambient soundwashes, vaguely threatening and unsettling in tone, evoking images of a dystopian urban landscape, the smouldering ruins of a burning building perhaps. The sound is predominately electronic, one step removed from the primary sources of guitar, bass and drums courtesy of the real time processing being undertaken by the members of the trio as they improvise collectively.

As befits a piece of over fifty three minutes duration the music unfolds slowly, in an organic, unhurried fashion, the eerie soundscapes possessed of an evocative, cinematic quality. Sharkey describes the music as “slowly moving from abstraction to structure” and listening to this process represents a fascinating experience for the patient listener as the piece slowly evolves. Electronic crackles replicate the spluttering of embers before an insistent electronic pulse kicks in, adding an element of structure and steering the music into a more obviously ‘industrial’ direction. The sound becomes harsher and more abrasive, before eventually mutating into something even more discernibly structured and almost ‘song like’, the individual sounds of guitar, electric bass and drums now more readily discernible. That said the elements of electronica remain very much in place, more vigorous crackles and continuing ambient washes swarm and swirl around Champion’s bass pulses while Sharkey’s guitar undertakes a solo of sorts as the piece gently and gradually drifts towards its denouement, the melodic and rhythmic elements becoming more focussed as the transition from abstraction to structure becomes complete.

The final section is sometimes reminiscent of Pink Floyd, but despite the trio’s acknowledged prog rock influences I was slightly disappointed that the piece didn’t contain any of the gargantuan, metalloid, math rock riffing that we had enjoyed at that Cheltenham Jazz Festival performance.

That said this was not really the trio’s aim here with Sharkey citing artists such as The Necks and the veteran French electronic composer Eliane Radigue as influences on this long form work.

Stephenson has described “Night School” as being “perhaps the most challenging label release so far”, and in terms of sheer length maybe it is. That said listening to “Night School” represents a thoroughly immersive experience and the music is less wilfully aggressive than some of Shiver’s and Sharkey’s previous output. I personally found the label’s début release by Laura Toxvaerd, Maria Faust and Jacob Anderskov more of a challenge, but it did represent a real statement of intent from this most uncompromising of labels.

Despite the considerable degree of improvisation “Night School” is unlikely to appeal to straight-ahead jazz listeners but it will reach out to improv enthusiasts, including Necks fans, and also to fans of electronic music. It may even lure in some particularly adventurous rock listeners, especially those rooted in prog rock, krautrock and electronica.

For me, Shiver’s output is consistently stimulating and unfailingly interesting, and although this album may represent a challenge in terms of sheer duration it’s ultimately a very rewarding one, with the trio continuing to expand their musical horizons.

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