by Ian Mann
August 04, 2020
It’s easy to see how 3 Cane Whale have accrued something of a cult following for their distinctive all acoustic, multi-instrumental music.
3 Cane Whale
Pete Judge – trumpet, cornet, dulcitone, lyre-harp, chimes
Alex Vann – lute-harp, mandolin, bowed psaltery, mandolin-banjo
Paul Bradley – acoustic guitar
The Bristol based musician Pete Judge is probably best known in jazz circles for his role 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, and with a trio featuring his Get The Blessing colleagues Jake McMurchie (sax) and Jim Barr (bass). As a trumpeter Judge is also a member of the Bristol based sextet Dakhla Brass, founded by saxophonist Sophie Stockham.
But Judge is more than just a trumpeter, he is also an accomplished multi-instrumentalist who has released two albums of solo piano music, both recorded on the grand piano at the St. George’s venue in Bristol. The second of these, simply titled “Piano 2”, was recently reviewed on the Jazzmann and you can read my account of this recording here;
Judge spreads his musical net far and wide as a prolific session and studio musician and 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.
Many of the pieces that Judge performs on his two solo piano albums were originally written for the trio 3 Cane Whale, which sees Judge performing in the role of multi-instrumentalist alongside the similarly versatile Alex Vann and the acoustic guitar specialist Paul Bradley. After hearing “Piano 2” I was understandably keen to hear the music of 3 Cane Whale and I’m grateful to Pete for forwarding me a copy of “303”, the band’s latest recording, for review.
Although Judge is featured on both trumpet and cornet 3 Cane Whale can perhaps be best classified as an ‘instrumental folk band’. 3CW describe themselves as a “multi-instrumental acoustic trio based in Bristol”, which sums things up pretty accurately.
All three members contribute original compositions to the group’s repertoire and “303” represents their fifth album, following in the wake of “Three Cane Whale” (2011), “Holts and Hovers” (2013) and “Palimpsest” (2016). Music from the band’s first two albums was also used as the soundtrack for the 2016 film “Brown Willy” and an album featuring the soundtrack is also available.
3 Cane Whale’s music is often inspired by locations in the West Country (”Brown Willy” is named for the highest point on Bodmin Moor) and the “303” album was recorded live at three different linked locations on the A303, the main artery into the West of England for those travelling from London and the South East.
The music was captured on location by the band’s long serving recording engineer Rob Harbron on the slopes of Cadbury Castle, in St. Thomas a Becket Church, South Cadbury, and at the Chapel Cross Tea Room in South Somerset, with all the recordings made on August 30th and 31st 2019.
It’s not the first time the 303 has been mentioned in music, but 3CW’s road trip sounds far more relaxed and bucolic than the Levellers’ scabrous condemnation of police brutality and the general malaise of Thatcherism on the emotionally charged “Battle of the Beanfield”. The rawness, and justifiably righteous anger, of Simon Friend’s vocal (the writer of the song, but not even the Levs’ regular lead singer) still sends shivers down the spine even now.
3 Cane Whale describe “303” as a ‘mini album’. It clocks in at around thirty two minutes, and features twelve short original compositions, the majority of them by Judge and Vann. The music doesn’t possess the improvisatory element of jazz, but that doesn’t make it any less appealing. Nevertheless the trio is probably best regarded as a ‘folk group’ and their albums have been particularly well received by the folk community, winning several awards and attracting significant press and radio coverage, plus a loyal cult following, some of whom are possibly unaware of Judge’s more jazz or electronica inclined activities.
The album kicks off with two pieces by Alex Vann, a musician already well known to folk followers as a member of the long running instrumental quartet Spiro. The brief “Shadow’s Shadow” represents an introduction, including the sounds of tramping feet and squeaking gates alongside the sounds of (I think) the composer’s mandolin-banjo.
This is followed by the jaunty “Island of Apples”, with its darting trumpet and mandolin melody lines underpinned by the taut and propulsive rhythms of Bradley’s acoustic guitar. There are gentler, more reflective moments too, on a title that perhaps pays tribute to Somerset’s history and reputation as a centre for cider making.
Found sounds continue to be stitched into the fabric of the recording, birdsong and the hum of a tractor introducing Judge’s composition “Frond”, a piece that appeared in another form on “Piano 2”, but which here features the haunting, but beautiful, sound of Vann’s bowed psaltery.
Again written by Judge “Cruc” was also featured on the second piano album. As in its solo piano incarnation it is once more the lengthiest item on the recording and again passes through a series of dynamic and stylistic changes. Guitar, mandolin and trumpet combine effectively during the early stages, prior to a more reflective episode, featuring first guitar and then mandolin. A smattering of birdsong also finds its way into the mix. More loosely structured than some of the other items on the record there may even be a degree of improvisation here, particularly in the second half of the piece.
A trio of Judge compositions concludes with “Blackthorn Spring”, another of the album’s more substantial pieces. Melodic, and almost courtly, the music features a winning combination of trumpet (or possibly cornet) and cleanly picked mandolin, subtly shadowed and underscored by acoustic guitar.
Bradley takes up the compositional reins for “Deadman’s Hill”, a short but atmospheric interlude featuring his own acoustic guitar. It all sounds suitably mellow and bucolic.
Judge takes over again for “Crooked Bank”, which features Judge on chimes and introduces the influence of minimalism, a factor that also surfaces on the composer’s piano recordings. It’s an intricate performance, slightly darker in mood and timbre than much of this trio’s music.
The sounds of birdsong and running water help to form a link into Vann’s “SS 91089 04944”, the title presumably derived from a map reference rather than anything more sinister! I’m uncertain as to the exact combination of plucked stringed instruments here, but they continue to evoke the sounds of running water, a hill stream perhaps.
That subtle, but discernible, minimalist influence remains, and continues into Bradley’s “Dark Lane” with chimes (or possibly dulcitone) again featuring among the instrumentation, alongside guitar, mandolin and a soupçon of trumpet. The sound of sampled voices at the close suggests that this was one of the pieces recorded at the tea room.
Vann’s “Estovers” restores the earlier folkish, bucolic feel, stirring in splashes of trumpet melody alongside the neat dovetailing of mandolin and guitar. There are passages when the mandolin or trumpet assume the lead, effectively solos, before Bradley’s guitar comes briefly to the fore at the close.
Judge’s “The Good Dark Of This Room” features an intriguing mix of string sounds, his own lyre harp presumably featuring here.
The album then concludes by the side of the 303 with a fragment of Judge’s “The Lost Travellers Dream Under The Hill”, featuring the lonely sound of the composer’s trumpet, set first against traffic noise, but later birdsong. There are echoes here of “The Last Post”, the piece acting as a kind valedictory at the end of 3CW’s musical journey.
Although it’s not a jazz record as such I found that I rather enjoyed “303”. The music combines elements of folk, minimalism and a smattering of jazz to create a distinctive group sound. The playing, allied to the skilful deployment of field recordings, helps to give the album a real sense of place. Credit is due here to 3CW’s long serving recording engineer Rob Harbron, often referred to as “The Fourth Whale”, who, according to the group “fed, watered and nurtured the whole thing”.
The playing is excellent throughout, as is the sound quality, given that several of these pieces were recorded in the open air. Behind the attractive surface of the music there is also a good deal of subtlety and sophistication, in terms of both the writing and the playing. It’s easy to see how 3 Cane Whale have accrued something of a cult following for their distinctive all acoustic, multi-instrumental music.
The music of 3 Cane Whale is very different to much of Pete Judge’s other output, but this is clearly a setting in which he feels very much at home. 3CW presents a different side of his musical personality, allowing himself to express himself on a variety of different instruments and to write for a band far removed from a conventional jazz line up. 3CW also gives a platform for him to express his obvious love of the West Country, with the majority of the group’s pieces being inspired by nature or locations. The all acoustic setting is radically different to Get The Blessing and its associated acts and serves to demonstrate Judge’s skill and versatility as an all round musician and composer.
“303” is available via http://www.threecanewhale.com, which contains a link to the trio’s Bandcamp site.
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