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Tipping Point

The Earthworm’s Eye View


by Ian Mann

October 21, 2015


An impressive debut from an exciting new band with a strong group rapport that strike just the right balance between composition and improvisation.

Tipping Point

“The Earthworm’s Eye View”

(Lamplight Social Records LSRCD002)

Saxophonist James Mainwaring will be familiar to many listeners as a member of the Mercury Music Prize nominated Roller Trio, the band he co-founded with guitarist Luke Wynter and drummer Luke Reddin-Williams. While Roller Trio remains an ongoing concern Mainwaring has been spreading his wings elsewhere including a collaboration with fellow Mercury nominees Django Django. Another project with which he has been involved is Space F!ght, the electro-improvising collective led by electronics artist Radek Rudnicki that released the EP “Sci-Fi” in 2014 (reviewed elsewhere on this site). 

Mainwaring has also been playing solo sets featuring saxophone and electronics and in 2014
I witnessed just such a performance when he supported pianist John Escreet’s trio at Kings Place as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival. It was an intense, uncompromising performance that was utterly compelling in its own way but which was very different to the music of the more obviously accessible Roller Trio.

Mainwaring’s latest project sees him continuing to follow his experimental muse with Tipping Point, a quartet that includes the piano maverick Matthew Bourne, here playing Fender Rhodes exclusively. The line up is completed by Michael Bardon on double bass and Joost Hendrickx at the drums, like Mainwaring both graduates of the jazz course at Leeds College of Music. Bardon and Hendrickx are also members of the cult Leeds based sextet Shatner’s Bassoon.

The seeds for Tipping Point were sown by the extended duo jams that Mainwaring and Bardon used to enjoy during their college days. The three younger members of Tipping Point were all tutored at Leeds by the influential Bourne and Mainwaring describes the music of his latest group thus; “we’ve all spent a lot of time working on and thinking about improvisation, absorbing contemporary classical and world influences and looking at different ways of sounding together but being free, different ways of organising sounds. Bourne’s got a PhD in it”.
The band’s music aims to “evoke playfulness, mindfulness, darkness and extremes of emotion, humour and terror, angst and patience” through both composition and improvisation. 

Released on Mainwaring’s label Lamplight Social Records (also the home of the second Roller Trio album “Fracture”) “The Earthworm’s Eye View” features five Mainwaring compositions alongside five group improvisations.  It begins with the brief improvisation “Playtime” which features Mainwaring’s melodic sax squiggles above Bardon’s underpinning bass motif and Bourne’s sparse keyboard chording. It’s a playful reminder of the origins of the band.

The Mainwaring composition “Equanimity” is described as being “based around one melody moving through different keys with different bar lengths”. That makes it sound rather dry and academic but the music initially has a chilly beauty that is all its own as Bourne’s keyboard shimmers frostily as if in deep space and Mainwaring plays with a halting lyricism. Hendrickx supplies suitably atmospheric percussive effects and there’s also a subtle soupcon of electronica, presumably courtesy of Mainwaring who is also credited with ‘effects’. After the ethereal “Silent Way” style introduction the music subsequently takes a more energetic turn as Hendricx supplies momentum from behind the kit and Mainwaring and Bourne coalesce thrillingly on a series of darting riffs and motifs.   

“Rat Bucket” is based around the compositional idea of a three bar riff and a twelve bar melody but is largely improvised. The furtive drum shufflings and sax harmolodics of the introductory passages sound like archetypal free improv but eventually a degree of melody and structure emerges which provides the framework for Bourne’s gently needling Rhodes explorations and Mainwaring’s more incisive sax probing. In the end it’s a rigorous workout that represents a good illustration of the quartet’s obvious rapport.

The title of “Robin Hood Stood as a Robin Hood Should” displays a love of wordplay and a sense of fun that extends into a group improvisation that develops from Bourne’s staccato opening keyboard motif. Mainwaring’s sax brings a pleasing melodicism to a piece that actually sounds as if it may have been composed. If the group’s ideals are to blur the lines between composition and improvisation then they succeed brilliantly here. 

Equally successful is “Bigsaw Jigsaw” which begins with an improvisation that alludes to the later written passages. Indeed the piece moves restlessly between written and improvised sections, hence, presumably, the title. There’s an agreeable edginess about the music with Bourne producing some pleasingly dirty keyboard sounds but there is sometimes a balancing lyricism too. With Mainwaring soloing powerfully on tenor it all adds up to thoroughly compelling music on a lengthy track that is arguably the album’s centrepiece.

“Breathe” is also aptly named, a charmingly wistful and atmospheric piece that acts as a breather before the extremes of the title track. The music seems to drift or float with Mainwaring’s long, melodic sax lines underpinned by Hendrickx’s mallet rumbles and the ethereal chimes of Bourne’s keyboards. There’s a kind of spirituality about the music that evokes Coltrane, Sanders and Garbarek yet sounds nothing like any of these.

Mainwaring has described the title track as depicting “a journey through purgatory”. Powerful and insistent the piece features the leader heavily treating the sound of his sax to a backdrop of similarly distorted Fender Rhodes and metronomic bass and drums. It’s almost unbearably intense but the bristling rock inspired energy is likely to appeal strongly to Roller Trio fans.

The final three tracks of the album are group improvisations and there’s no let up in the energy levels on “For Linear Park”, a kind of protest song without words. Mainwaring dedicates the piece to Linear Park, an area of open space in his home town of Culcheth which is threatened with destruction by the proposed HS2 development. Ironically the park has been developed on the bed of a former railway line. Musically the piece features even more extreme electronic sounds than the title track with Mainwaring’s drastically distorted sax augmented by the chiming of Bourne’s Rhodes and the boxy clatter of Hendrickx’s drums.

“Tipping Point” is a piece of music as well as being a band name. Mainwaring actually sits this one out as Bourne spars playfully on trilling Fender Rhodes with Bardon and Hendrickx in an improvised trio setting.

The album closes with the brooding, slow building improvisation that is “Hometime” which features long, overblown sax lines teamed with almost subliminal bass and drums. Despite the relative brevity there’s a haunting beauty about Mainwaring’s harmolodics.

“The Earthworm’s Eye View” is an impressive debut from an exciting new band. I sometimes find totally improvised albums a difficult listen in the home environment - although free improv live is an entirely different proposition. However albums that strike just the right balance between composition and improvisation hold considerable appeal for me and this is one of those albums with Mainwaring contributing some strong themes to accompany the improvisatory gristle. The varying moods and emotions that the band seek to achieve are also fully realised on an essentially improvised record that carries considerable emotional depth.

“The Earthworm’s Eye View” offers a well balanced programme by a well balanced band with a strong group rapport. Mainwaring and Bourne are both excellent throughout, one would expect nothing less, but I was also particularly impressed by Hendrickx’s contribution, always producing the right drum sound at the right time. Hopefully Tipping Point will prove to be more than just a one off project.

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