by Ian Mann
January 13, 2017
Clowes' most accessible, consistent and satisfying release thus far.
(Basho Records SRCD 53-2)
“My Iris” is the fourth album for the Basho label by the award winning saxophonist and composer Trish Clowes. The Shrewsbury born, London based musician is an ambitious writer whose work draws upon both the jazz classical traditions, something encouraged by her recent tenure as a BBC Radio 3 New Generations Artist. Clowes also co-ordinates the annual Emulsion Festival which encourages collaborations between jazz artists and contemporary classical musicians and composers. The 2017 Festival, the fifth, will be held in Birmingham for the first time at the Midlands Art Centre (mac) on Friday 27th January.
Clowes’ previous albums have included collaborations with string quartets and orchestras but “My Iris” finds her working exclusively with her working jazz quartet featuring long term associates Chris Montague (guitar) and James Maddren (drums). The current edition of the group also includes pianist and organist Ross Stanley who replaces double bassist Calum Gourlay. Clowes’ previous albums have also featured keyboards, albeit more sporadically, with illustrious guest Gwilym Simcock doing the honours. The phenomenally busy and in demand Simcock has also performed live with various Clowes groups, but only on an occasional basis. The addition of Stanley increases the range of colours and textures available to Clowes in a small group context and he makes a highly significant contribution to the success of “My Iris”, to these ears Clowes’ most accessible, consistent and satisfying release thus far.
The album takes its title from Iris, Goddess of the rainbow and messenger to the Greek and Roman gods, and Clowes’ album notes help to shed further light on the eight individual pieces that make up the album.
The opening “One Hour” refers to “the extra hour of dreaming you get when the clocks go back”. The piece begins in impressionistic fashion with shimmering guitar and keyboards and the lonely, Garbarek-like cry of Clowes’ sax. Becoming more dramatic with the addition of Maddren’s drums this passage acts like a kind of overture prior to the good natured complexities of the rest of the piece with its effusive melodies, colourful contrasts and energetic grooves allied to sparkling solos from Stanley on piano, Montague on guitar and Clowes on soprano.
“Blue Calm” is written for “the multi-faceted Iris of Greek and Roman Mythology” and features Clowes in more reflective mood on tenor. “Multi-faceted” is a good description of Clowes’ work in general and this piece progresses through several distinct stages yet never abandons its underlying sense of warmth as Clowes probes gently in a manner that has evoked comparisons to the playing of two of her mentors, Wayne Shorter and Iain Ballamy. There’s also a flowingly lyrical piano solo from Stanley and some neatly detailed brush work from Maddren.
Some of the pieces that are heard on “My Iris” have been in Clowes’ live repertoire for some time and I recall hearing a number of them previously at shows in Shrewsbury (2014) and Wolverhampton (2015). One of these was “I Can’t Find My Other Brush”, the title a quote from Maddren during a power cut in the middle of a gig. With its jagged, Ornette Coleman like theme and knotty but insistent rhythms this is one of Clowes’ most highly charged compositions and incorporates some complex group interplay alongside features for tenor and piano.
Another of the pieces heard previously in the live environment is “A Cat Called Behemoth” which is inspired by the writings of the Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov. An extract from the chapter “The Organ and the Cat” from Bulgakov’s “Diaboliad” is reproduced in the CD booklet and the piece is intended as a companion to the Bulgakov inspired “The Master and Margarita” which appeared on Clowes’ 2011 début album “Tangent”. Appropriately Stanley moves to Hammond here and solos engagingly on a piece that effectively combines the playful with the Gothic. Clowes solos on tenor and we also hear from Montague, whose fluently inventive, vaguely Frisell-like guitar is an underlying presence throughout.
The next two pieces are interlinked, both dealing with the theme of ‘forced migration’. First Clowes commissioned the Suffolk based Anglo-Armenian composer, singer and harpist Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian to write a piece for “My Iris”. This took the form of the song “Muted Lines” and was inspired by the flight of Cevanne’s own family from eastern Turkey a century go during the genocide that saw the murder of 1.5 million Armenians.
As Clowes’ album notes put it;
“When trying to express this with sound all she could think of was silence. The silence of generations unable to speak of the death marches, the slavery and beheadings because they were silenced by political pressure, or by the sheer horror. This silence grows louder as it is passed down family lines, leaving a void in cultures, in language, in relationships”
Cevanne took inspiration from the words of the poet Nahapet Kuchak “Sing, although the exile’s heart fills with such unsingable songs” and explored this as a reductive exercise asking the question; “how does the meaning of a sentence change, when, bit by bit, its words are forgotten? By omitting words she arrived at the song’s lyric;
Sing, although the exile’s heart fills with such unsingable songs,
Sing! The exile’s heart fills with unsingable songs,
Sing the exile’s heart with unsingable songs,
Sing the exile’s unsingable songs,
Sing the exile’s songs,
Sing unsingable songs,
“While much was lost, the feeling remained, and by setting this line to music the silence could be filled with new meaning. The melody repeats because history repeats. The 16th century text shows how the experience is universal, across time and geography.”
The song is dedicated to “all exiles and their descendants, 100 years from now”.
The performance features Clowes’ frail but emotive rendition of the lyric, the first time her singing voice has been on record, while Stanley’s organ drone provides sympathetic, atmospheric accompaniment. The band then play the melody, with Montague’s guitar leading the way followed by Clowes’ mournful tenor over a backdrop of rolling organ chords and delicately brushed drums. By Clowes’ standards it’s an uncharacteristically simple piece but is no the less effective for that, the naked emotion of the work helping to give it an anthemic and elegiac quality.
Clowes’ response piece is “Tap Dance(for Baby Dodds)” which addresses the theme of jazz, the music that Clowes loves, and her guilt in the knowledge that the music owes its very existence to the brutal horrors of the Atlantic Slave Trade that “enslaved, transported and killed many millions of African people”. While reflecting on this Clowes decided to celebrate the evolution of the drum kit and the role that it still plays in the music of the African diaspora. One of the pioneers of early jazz drumming was Warren ‘Baby’ Dodds (1898 - 1959) and this piece has its origins in Clowes’ transcription of a Baby Dodds drum solo, a “Tap Dance”. Clowes takes fragments of Dodds’ rhythms and implied pitches from his cow bell sounds to create a composition of her own. Naturally it starts with Maddren at the kit, with Stanley and Clowes subsequently picking up on his rhythms.
Despite its early New Orleans inspirations the piece sounds thoroughly contemporary, especially when Montague’s electric guitar cuts in, and the performances are good natured. This is a celebration of the spirit of jazz rather than a reflection on the malign forces that loom so large in its origins. Although these two companion pieces are linked by a common theme they contrast widely in terms of both musical style and emotional effect.
Intended to evoke an English garden “In Between the Moss and Ivy” is another of those tunes that has been in Clowes’ live repertoire for the last couple of years. It’s a gentle, atmospheric piece and is vaguely reminiscent of the folk tinged English whimsy that distinguished the early post Loose Tubes output of artists such as Iain Ballamy, Julian Arguelles and Mark Lockheart in his Perfect Houseplants days. Particularly engaging here is the delicate interplay between Clowes and Montague, the sounds of their instruments intertwining like climbing plants. There’s also some lovely, limpid piano playing from Stanley.
The closing “Be A Glow Worm” is the reaction to a piece of gnomic advice given to Clowes by Ballamy. Here the whimsical feel continues but the mood is altogether more celebratory as Clowes’ saxophone periodically takes flight with Stanley switching to Hammond as Montague’s guitar weaves in and out of the piece.
“My Iris” represents Clowes’ most focussed album to date. Although she is working with a smaller instrumental palette than previously (no strings, no orchestras) the music feels more natural, organic and concentrated. And although it may lack the epic scope of some of her previous works “My Iris” certainly doesn’t lack variety with Clowes’ compositions encompassing a wide musical and emotional range. The playing is excellent throughout and Clowes and her colleagues are well served by engineer Curtis Schwartz.
Trish Clowes and her quartet will undertake a short British tour in support of the album commencing 17th January 2017. Dates as below;
17th, Pizza Express Jazz Club Soho – ALBUM LAUNCH
18th, Gateway Education & Arts Centre, Shrewsbury
19th, Leicester Jazz House, Vijay Patel Building, Mill Lane, De Montford Uni
20th, Wakefield Jazz, Wakefield (College Rd) Sports Club
26th, Cambridge Modern Jazz Club, Hidden Rooms
27th, Emulsion V Festival, mac Birmingham
Further information at http://www.trishclowes.com
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