by Ian Mann
December 06, 2022
An album that skilfully combines tradition with innovation and which incorporates an impressively wide stylistic range, whilst still retaining a strong group aesthetic.
“Voices Of Bishara”
Tom Skinner – drums, Kareem Dayes – cello, Nubya Garcia – tenor saxophone, flute, Tom Herbert – acoustic bass, Shabaka Hutchings – tenor saxophone, bass clarinet
Drummer, composer and producer Tom Skinner is arguably best known to jazz listeners as a member of the hugely influential Sons Of Kemet, led by saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings. Prior to this he and Hutchings had collaborated as part of the Trio Zed U, alongside bassist Neil Charles.
Other jazz musicians with whom Skinner has worked include pianists Andrew McCormack and Alexander Hawkins, vibraphonists Jim Hart and Mulatu Astatke, vocalist Cleveland Watkiss and saxophonists Ingrid Laubrock, Finn Peters and Denys Baptiste.
He has also been a member of Melt Yourself Down, co-led by saxophonist Pete Wareham and vocalist Kushal Gaya, and of the trio The Grip, with Peters and tuba specialist Oren Marshall.
Rock fans will know him best as a member of The Smile, the side project of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood and he appears on that group’s début album “A Light for Attracting Attention”, released in June 2022.
Skinner has also worked with Graham Coxon (Blur), Grace Jones, Kano, Zero 7, Floating Points and The Invisible, the latter led by bassist Tom Herbert.
As a solo artist Skinner has issued two albums under the alias Hello Skinny, the eponymous début appearing in 2012 with “Watermelon Sun” following five years later. The latter featured a collaboration with New York based trombonist and composer Peter Zummo.
I’ve heard the first of the Hello Skinny releases and was hugely impressed by Skinner’s brand of ‘electro-jazz’, which borrowed freely from other genres, among them dub and techno.
For this latest release Skinner has abandoned the Hello Skinny moniker and issued the album under his own name. This signifies a change of approach on a record that is essentially acoustic (although still shaped by modern production techniques) and which was recorded with all five musicians playing together in the same room.
The album title is a reference to the late American cellist Abdul Wadud (1947-2022) and his 1978 album “By Myself”, a recording that Skinner listened to repeatedly during lockdown. The album was originally released on Wadud’s own label Bisharra and Skinner uses the more common spelling of this Arabic name, meaning ‘good news’ or ‘the bringer of good news’.
The second important source of inspiration for the “Voices Of Bishara” project is the Played Twice sessions at the London venue Brilliant Corners. The premise for these regular events is for a classic jazz album to be played in full over the venue’s audio system and for a hand picked group of musicians to improvise their response. Skinner had been invited to create an ensemble to respond to fellow drummer / composer Tony Williams’ 1964 Blue Note album “Life Time” and the music that they created in the moment inspired him to compose his own music for the group. The result is this thirty one minute, six track ‘mini album’, which features five new pieces written by Skinner plus “Red 2”, a version of the Williams composition “Two Pieces Of One; Red”.
Skinner enlisted cellist Kareem Dayes to fill the Wadud role and the ensemble also included old friends Hutchings and Herbert plus rising star Nubya Garcia. Following the initial recording session Skinner took the music home and slowly began to edit it, a ‘slow burn’ process that was fitted in around his other projects.
Drawing inspiration from fellow drummer / composer / producer Makaya McCraven Skinner describes the editing process thus;
“I took a very liberal approach with the scissors and started going really hard into the edits between instruments. It breathed new life into the music. I was taking my cue from the great disco re-edits, people like Theo Parrish chopping up tunes and looping sections. I’m not a purist, I don’t want to get hung up on the past. It was really empowering to fuck it up a bit, to mess around with the music and see what happened. It felt right.”
The result is music that blurs the lines between past and present, traditionalism and modernism.
The album begins with “Bishara”, effectively the title track. The piece commences with the sound of Dayes’ bowed cello, the undulating motif joined by the polyrhythmic rumble of Skinner’s drums and then by the hoarse incantations of the twin tenors. The intensity of the performance has invited comparisons with the spiritual jazz of John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders as the music filters a sound forged in the 1960s through the prism of modern production techniques. As the tumult subsides the cello comes to the fore once more, paying homage to the inspiration of Wadud.
“Red 2” draws on the music of Tony Williams, Skinner’s second source of inspiration in relation to this recording. It’s a more subdued piece with a greater focus on colour and texture and with a noirish quality about the music. Cello and reeds combine in eerie fashion with Garcia featuring on ghostly, echoing flute. Skinner’s percussive backdrop is loosely structured, more concerned with colour and texture than rhythm. At the close the other instruments drop out, leaving just the sound of melancholy unaccompanied cello. In its own quiet way this piece is just as striking and dramatic as the dynamic opener.
“The Journey” explores yet another musical feeling as Herbert and Skinner establish an off kilter bass and drum groove that verges on the funky, and I’m pretty sure that there’s pizzicato cello in there too. Staccato reeds jab and feint between the spaces while Dayes solos in highly mobile fashion on plucked cello, later continuing with the bow.
Another stylistic change with “The Day After Tomorrow”, which opens with a dialogue between cello and reeds, later joined by the leader’s drum colourations. The cello remains prominent in the mix as the piece unfolds in loosely structured fashion and I’m reminded of the music of the 60s and 70s avant garde and of composers such as Henry Threadgill. The piece is also notable for the pizzicato dialogue between Herbert on double bass and Dayes on cello.
Skinner introduces “Voices (of the past)” at the drums and he effectively leads the piece from the kit, with reeds and cello adding splashes of colour and with bass clarinet and flute featuring in the mix. There are also production effects including the use of electronic keyboard sounds and the piece variously echoes the sounds of electric era Miles Davis, Blaxploitation movie soundtracks and nu-jazz. It’s the piece where the influence of hip hop and of McCraven in particular come to the fore.
The album concludes with “Quiet as it’s kept”, which again commences with the sound of drums and which develops a powerful groove. The sound of Hutchings’ bass clarinet is subtly manipulated as the hip-hop / electro jazz influence continues. In keeping with its title the piece features gentler, more reflective moments too and the recording ends peacefully.
Although relatively brief “Voices of Bishara” is an impressive and varied piece of work that embraces many stylistic and dynamic changes during its half hour or so duration. This is an ensemble that has enormous future potential, although whether that will ever be totally fulfilled remains to be seen, given that the participants are involved with so many other different projects.
Skinner is to be congratulated on an album that skilfully combines tradition with innovation and which incorporates an impressively wide stylistic range, whilst still retaining a strong group aesthetic. He impresses with regard to his skills as a drummer, composer and producer, combining the three aspects of his talent to excellent effect and he receives excellent support from a truly stellar ensemble. “Voices Of Bishara” has enjoyed an excellent critical reception and rightly so.
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