Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


Kevin Figes

Wallpaper Music

by Ian Mann

November 29, 2021


An admirably ambitious and personal recording that touches many musical bases.

Kevin Figes

“Wallpaper Music”

(Pig Records PIG11)

Kevin Figes – saxes, flutes, vocals, Brigitte Beraha – vocals, Jim Blomfield – keyboards, Ashley John Long – bass, Mark Whitlam – drums


Bristol based saxophonist and composer Kevin Figes has been a regular presence on the Jazzmann web pages for a number of years.

He has been leading his own quartet for more than a decade and has recorded a total of five albums in the classic sax /keys/ bass / drums format beginning in 2008 with “Circular Motion” for Edition Records followed by “Hometime” (2009), Tables and Chairs” (2013), “Weather Warning” (2016) and “Changing Times” (2020), all issued on Figes’ own Pig Records imprint.  All of these have delivered an exciting and interesting blend of fine playing and intelligent writing, drawing upon a wide range of musical influences. I have heard them all and both “Tables and Chairs”  and “Changing Times” are reviewed elsewhere on this site.

Pianist / keyboard player Jim Blomfield has been a constant presence and the group has also featured bassists Riaan Vosloo and Will Harris, and drummers Tim Giles and Mark Whitlam. Around the time of the “Weather Warning” release I saw the quartet of Figes, Blomfield, Harris and Whitlam deliver a superb live performance at the Queens Head in Monmouth that could have come straight from the jazz clubs of New York – it really was that good.

Figes has also fronted an octet, an expanded edition of his regular group with the addition of tenor saxophonist Nick Dover, vocalists Emily Wright and Cathy Jones and second drummer Lloyd Haines. This line up released the album “Time Being” on Pig Records in 2014.

In 2012 Figes was part of the more fusion orientated quartet 4 Sided Triangle, alongside Mike Outram (guitar), Dan Moore (keyboards) and Daisy Palmer (drums). This line up released an eponymous album on the Pig imprint. Review here;

Figes has also been a key member of the Bristol based Resonation Big Band, this line up releasing a digital album of a live performance that is still available via Bandcamp here;

He has also performed with singer Cathy Jones’ latin band Balanca and has appeared as a sideman with pianist Dave Stapleton’s Quintet and as a guest with the Japanese pianist Atsuko Shimada.

Figes also enjoyed a fruitful creative alliance with the late, great Keith Tippett, playing in the Bristol born pianist’s Tapestry Orchestra and also with Tippett’s Octet.

Others with whom Figes has worked include saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, trombonist Fred Wesley and trumpeter Bobby Shew. He is also a member of guitarist Denny Ilett’s Jimi Hendrix inspired Electric Lady Big Band.

Away from jazz Figes has performed the music of TV theme composer Barry Gray and appeared with the Bristol based This Is The Kit,  the musical vehicle of singer and songwriter Kate Stables.

As an educator Figes is currently a teacher of jazz saxophone at Bristol University and also teaches at schools and workshops.

Figes is primarily an alto saxophonist and the majority of his quartet albums have been strongly influenced by the New York based alto saxophonist, composer, improviser and producer David Binney.

As befitted its title “Changing Times” brought different influences to bear, whilst also signalling something of a ‘return to roots’. Figes first studied the saxophone under the tutelage of former Soft Machine saxophonist Elton Dean and it was these sessions, combined with his consequent exposure to the music of Soft Machine, that first precipitated Figes’ graduation from rock to jazz.

But the ‘Softs’ are also indelibly associated with progressive rock and it was the hinterland between jazz and ‘prog’ that Figes began to explore on the excellent “Changing Times” with ‘Canterbury’ bands such as Soft Machine, Caravan and Hatfield & The North all serving as discernible influences.

At the time Figes also cited the influence of Henry Cow, another band sometimes co-opted into the so called ‘Canterbury Scene’. With regard to the music to be heard on “Changing Times” Figes commented;
“My aim is to produce personal music in a fearless and evolving way. So now, I’m moving on again. Henry Cow, a whole world of contemporary classical – Witold Lutoslawski, Luciano Berio etc. - and the delights of free improvisation are beckoning and there are no limitations. It’s all music after all”.

Figes’ use of vocals on “Changing Times”, both his own voice and that of guest singer Emily Wright, brought a new dimension to the music and this is something that is continued on the new album with London based vocalist Brigitte Beraha credited as a full member of the quintet. She joins Figes regulars Jim Blomfield (keyboards) and Mark Whitlam (drums) while Cardiff based bass virtuoso Ashley John Long completes the group.

The Henry Cow influence is even stronger on this latest release with Figes stating;
“I was particularly inspired by the band Henry Cow and its offshoots and also a lot of contemporary classical music, Stockhausen, Berio etc. I wanted to use bigger structures with sections that did not repeat and that were precisely written, contrasted with sections that were completely freely improvised. I also heard the voice as an integral part of that and enjoyed trying to express myself through the text. Other ideas involved using more sounds (saxes, flutes, keyboard sounds, spoken word) and inventing my own scales, harmonies and rhythmic structures”.

Figes composed the material for “Wallpaper Music” during the first Covid lockdown and the album was recorded in January 2021 at the famous Rockfield Studios near Monmouth by an engineering team of Tosh Wijetunge and Gaz Williams.

The music to be heard on the new album is even further removed from conventional jazz than that of “Changing Times”, thanks in part to more extensive use of vocals, but also due to structures variously derived from prog rock and from contemporary classical music.

The George Orwell inspired album opener “More Equal Than Others” is a thirteen and a half minute epic that moves through several distinct phases with vocalist Beraha cast in the ‘Dagmar Krause’ role. Sonic, stylistic and dynamic changes are a constant throughout with Figes deploying a range of saxes and flutes, alongside voice, keyboards, electric bass and drums. Beraha’s voice is less obviously influenced by Norma Winstone than it is in other settings and I was reminded both of Henry Cow and of the first edition of National Health with Amanda Parsons on vocals. But Parsons never ventured into the kind of wordless vocal improvising that Beraha delivers during the piece’s eerie and atmospheric ‘free section’. This passage features some of the most ‘avant garde’ playing yet heard on a Kevin Figes record. It’s followed by a contrasting passage featuring flowing melodies, delicate flute and soaring vocals. There’s also a more muscular episode featuring some challenging but invigorating time signatures that could come straight from Soft Machine or Caravan and at one point a blistering sax solo from the leader. Towards the close Figes adds his own voice to that of Beraha as this suite like composition builds to a climax. It’s unfortunate that the lyrics are not included as part of the album packaging as this would inevitably help with regard to the listener’s enjoyment and understanding of this ambitious and impressive piece. 
At first “Danse Macabre” seems to belie its title with its whimsical intro referencing domestic routines. It then mutates into something darker and more sinister, incorporating rock rhythms, and a vocal ‘argument’ between Beraha and Figes, this leading into a barrage of avant garde sounds, including the ‘screaming and vomiting noises’ of the two vocalists. One is now tempted to add the likes of Frank Zappa and Faust to the eclectic range of influences. Eventually the earlier song structure returns and the piece ends almost sweetly, but ‘easy listening’ it is most emphatically not.

“Game Of Chance” emerges from a freely structured intro to feature Beraha’s wordless vocal melodies, this mutating into another loosely structured passage featuring more extraordinary vocalising from Beraha. Figes specialises on flute while Blomfield makes effective use of the piano’s innards. Figes and Beraha go back a long way, both having studied at London’s Guildhall School of Music at the same time. With Wright unavailable for this latest project due to motherhood Figes decided to bring his old friend on board. Beraha’s extraordinary talents as a vocal improviser are particularly well suited to Figes’ increasingly personal and adventurous music.

“Half Sunk, A Shattered Visage Lies” takes its title from Shelley’s “Ozymandias” sonnet and places its lines into a surprisingly funky setting featuring Blomfield’s electric piano and the leader’s alto sax. Beraha’s well enunciated rendition of the words represents some of her most conventional and most beautiful singing of the set. Despite the funkiness there’s still a strong prog element about the music that becomes more pronounced as the piece progresses.

“Fear of Failure (A)” is a brief song like fragment, a little over a minute long, featuring Beraha’s singing of the lyric alongside Blomfield’s piano.

This is followed by “Alt View”, which alternates dreamlike episodes with bursts of heavy prog rock style riffing featuring thunderous Hammond organ and incisive soprano sax. Like much of the album it’s a multi-faceted piece that rarely stays in one place for long. Figes’ music evolves rapidly and makes many stylistic and dynamic twists and turns. Blomfield, who solos impressively on Hammond here, was very much Fige’s co-pilot on the project, suggesting sounds to fit the notes that Figes was writing.

“Fear of Failure (B)” than acts as a kind of bookend, with Beraha’s wistful vocals this time accompanied by flute and keyboard.

The album begins and ends with an epic, closing with the near eleven minute “Song: Meaning”, which eventually builds from Figes’ extended solo sax introduction,  Blomfield’s electronic bleeps and Beraha’s wordless vocal improvising. A lengthy improvised section featuring these elements eventually leads to the song itself, featuring the unison voices of Figes and Beraha and the drone of Blomfield’s Hammond. Then we’re into another improvised section featuring the sounds of organ, electronics, pecked flute and the rustle of percussion. Finally we hear a more melodic vocal led passage as the album concludes on a meditative note.

Building upon the success of “Changing Times” this latest recording sees Figes probing even more deeply and personally than before. It’s even further removed from a ‘conventional’ jazz recording, and this might understandably deter some listeners, but it is an admirably ambitious and personal recording that touches many musical bases. As previously observed there is a good deal of stylistic and dynamic variation with almost every individual piece going through an exciting and elaborate series of twists and turns. Fans of the more adventurous strands of prog rock, notably the Henry Cow / Canterbury axis, and fans of Frank Zappa too, will find much to enjoy here.

With her extraordinarily flexible vocal style and her improviser’s sensibility Beraha represents the perfect addition to Figes’ already tried and trusted team, her voice ideally suited to the challenges of Figes’ increasingly ambitious and demanding music.

As I say, it’s a shame that the lyrics are not reproduced on the album sleeve, which would doubtless have enhanced my appreciation of the recording.

Overall I probably enjoyed this album less than the excellent “Changing Times” album, which struck a better balance between Fige’s jazz and prog / contemporary classical leanings. Conventional ‘jazz’ largely takes a back seat here and despite my personal reservations there is no doubt that Wallpaper Music” is ultimately a more ambitious and personal record, qualities encouraged by the isolation of lockdown. However as someone who was brought up on prog rock and who retains a great fondness for the ‘Canterbury Sound’ there is still plenty here to ‘float my boat’.  Incidentally the album title, presumably inspired by lockdown, but perhaps not the ideal choice, reminds me of Carla Bley. I can hear plenty of her in Fige’s music too.

Figes’ next project will see him incorporating samples and found sounds into his music as he continues his increasingly personal and exploratory musical journey. He’s certainly delivering on that that manifesto to “produce personal music in a fearless and evolving way”.

In the meantime “Wallpaper Music” will be released on December 3rd 2021 with the official album launch taking place at The Vortex Jazz Club, Dalston, London that same night. Further dates will take place at The Flute & Tankard, Cardiff on December 7th and Fringe Jazz, Bristol on December 8th. Please visit for further details.



blog comments powered by Disqus