by Ian Mann
March 01, 2012
Intimate, unhurried and often chillingly beautiful.
Tom Arthurs & Richard Fairhurst
“Postcards From Pushkin”
(Babel Records BDV 1194)
This is the second album release by the duo of trumpeter Tom Arthurs, here specialising on flugelhorn, and pianist Richard Fairhurst and is a worthy follow up to 2007’s excellent “Mesmer” (also Babel). Arthurs was one of the founding members of the F-ire Collective and released his Babel début “Centripede” back in 2003, a very good quintet album which also gave its name to the group itself. Other recorded projects include the trio Squash Recipe, with Canadian musicians Bruce McKinnon (piano) and Joe Sorbara (drums) and Arthurs/Hoiby/Ritchie with bassist Jasper Hoiby and drummer Stu Ritchie.
Arthurs is a restlessly creative and experimental musician who straddles the worlds of jazz, contemporary classical and electronic improvised music and has also recorded for the Not Applicable label with lap top artist Ollie Bown. In recent years he has divided his time between London and Berlin and brought his German band Subtopia, a kind of successor to Centripede, to the 2009 Cheltenham Jazz Festival. A frequent award winner Arthurs’ multifarious other collaborations are too numerous to list here. Check out http://www.tomarthurs.co.uk for further information.
Slightly older than Arthurs pianist Richard Fairhurst is a musician worthy of greater recognition. He rather falls between the cracks of the Loose Tubes and F-ire/Loop generations. His band Hungry Ants recorded three hugely enjoyable albums for Babel between 1995 and 2001and featured Fairhurst on synthesiser as well as piano. Audibly influenced by Django Bates and the Loose Tubes school the first of these even included Iain Ballamy on saxophones. In 2003 Fairhurst was awarded a Cheltenham Jazz Festival commission which resulted in the sextet album “Standing Tall”, another excellent Babel release. I recall seeing the Cheltenham performance and spotting an appreciative Django Bates in the audience. Fairhust has subsequently worked in this duo with Arthurs as well as leading his acoustic piano trio Tryptych (with Hoiby and drummer Chris Vatalaro) releasing another excellent Babel album, “Amusia”, in 2009.
In 2009 Arthurs was selected as the second BBC New Generation Artist and proved to be a worthy successor to pianist Gwilym Simcock. “Postcards From Pushkin” was a joint commission from the BBC, the City Of London Festival and the Royal Philharmonic Society. That year’s theme for the COLF was “cities with latitude of 60 degrees North”. Among these was St. Petersburg, home city of the Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin(1799-1837) and a favourite of the cosmopolitan Arthurs, a man with a wide range of interests that embrace both the literary and the culinary (his website even includes a section for cake recipes and favourite London eateries). Arthurs states that Pushkin’s poetry tied in with the kind of music he was attempting to write for the duo (all the compositions are his) “I liked Pushkin’s subtle humour, but simultaneous depth and pathos” he says before going on to explain that “Postcards” is very much a continuation of “the world that Richard and I had already started to create together with Mesmer”. The album was recorded on location at St. Giles Church, Cripplegate, London with the duo harnessing the natural vibrations of the building’s acoustic. It was released on February 13th 2012, the anniversary of Pushkin’s death. Some readers may have heard this music already on a BBC Radio “Jazz Line Up” live broadcast from the 2010 Bath Festival. The CD booklet reproduces the lines of Pushkin’s poetry on which each composition is based.
Musically the album continues with the aesthetic established on “Mesmer”, the sound is intimate, unhurried and often chillingly beautiful. Opener “The Flirt” sets the tone, commencing with Arthurs’ solo flugelhorn, the church acoustic supplying a wonderful natural echo. His playing is quietly eloquent, shadowed by Fairhurst’s economical piano. Arthurs’ tone is crystal clear but he also makes use of slurs and smears to vary his sound. Fairhurst’s role develops as the piece evolves and his playing becomes more expansive whilst remaining essentially lyrical. As on much of the album the atmosphere is one of hushed reverence but this only adds to the beauty of the music with both men exhibiting admirable restraint, taste, and control allied to superb technique.
“Given Up” is elegant, almost courtly, a reflection perhaps of Arthurs’ classical leanings. The piece incorporates a lengthy passage for solo piano that reveals Fairhurst at his most lyrical, this is music in the Romantic classical tradition. The words upon which it is based extol the virtues of nature and the freedom of being in the open air. Arthurs and Fairhurst embody this spirit of bucolic spaciousness through their quietly eloquent music.
“Silence” is more abstract with flugel and piano intertwining like the nightingale and the rose in Pushkin’s poem. The piece incorporates passages of improvised dialogue alongside more through composed sections.
“Solo” is the only piece not directly based on Pushkin’s writings. As the title suggests this is a piece for solo flugelhorn which finds Arthurs making full use St. Giles’ acoustics to create a solo performance that engrosses for the whole of its five and a half minutes. Arthurs’ horn whispers and cajoles proclaims and mutters. It’s a brilliant technical performance and, ironically, also a highly poetic one. Arthurs’ skills are focussed on creating and maintaining the distilled atmosphere that permeates the album as a whole. The technique may be remarkable but there’s not a trace of virtuosity for its own sake, not a single hint of showboating.
Fairhurst’s solo piano piece “The Judge” is equally compelling, stark and minimalistic and curiously hypnotic in its use of space. The atmosphere of fragile beauty that pervades the album is particularly well represented here. The album was recorded by a BBC production team under the guidance of producer Kevin Bee and the sound quality is absolutely wonderful throughout and particularly so on the two solo performances.
“The Judge” segues into the nine and a half minute “Darkness”, the album’s lengthiest track. The title is well chosen with Arthurs’ lonely sounding flugel punctuated by the glacial tinkling of Fairhurst at the piano. Pushkin’s lines describe the miseries of a sleepless night and his sense of isolation is reflected in the music. Other reviewers have likened the chilly atmosphere to Russia’s frozen tundra yet even here the rounded tones of Arthurs’ flugel add a little warmth to the proceedings.
The closing “Half-Milord” is the track most often chosen by broadcasters to represent the album. It’s elegant mellifluousness makes it a good choice yet the piece is still an integral part of the album as a whole and concludes a work that is perhaps best considered as a suite on a gently elegiac note.
Superbly recorded and brilliantly played “Postcards From Pushkin” absorbs throughout despite the meagreness of the instrumentation. Arthurs and Fairhurst sustain an atmosphere of quiet reflection throughout and allow nothing to muddy the waters of their shared artistic vision. Lack of variation is sometimes a criticism but here the duo’s singularity of mood is a positive virtue. Arthurs’ notes state that the music was “composed in a moment of particular calm and reflection” and this can be clearly heard in the resultant music as can the “directness, honesty and clarity” of Pushkin’s work. Arthurs and Fairhurst reflect this by bringing a simple,unadorned beauty to a music shorn of all unnecessary embellishment despite the enormous technical skills exhibited.
The musical and aural quality of “Postcards From Pushkin” reminds me of an ECM record, a comment that is meant to be regarded as the ultimate complement to a highly fruitful collaboration.