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Moss Project

What Do You See When You Close Your Eyes?


by Ian Mann

July 11, 2013


A brave and successful attempt to unite the worlds of music and literature, blurring the boundaries to produce a work of art that succeeds from the perspective of both.

Moss Project

“What Do You See When You Close Your Eyes?”

(Babel Records BDV 13114)

One of my unexpected highlights of the 2012 London Jazz Festival was the double bill at the Green Note, Camden featuring the Alice Zawadzki Band and Let Spin, a new group featuring Manchester born guitarist Moss Freed. A detailed review of that evening can be found in our London Jazz Festival coverage in the “Features” section of this site.

Both Freed and Zawadzki (violin, vocals) appear on this second album from Freed’s primary creative outlet Moss Project. In another tie up to that memorable evening in Camden Let Spin’s Ruth Goller is featured on electric and acoustic basses (she’s perhaps best known for playing the former with Acoustic Ladyland and more recently with Pete Wareham’s latest project Melt Yourself Down). The core quartet is completed by drummer Marek Dorcik, Slovakian born but now an increasingly important figure on the Mancunian jazz scene. Shabaka Hutchings is a most welcome guest contributor adding his distinctive presence on tenor saxophone and bass clarinet.

This lavishly packaged production is a brave and successful attempt to unite the worlds of music and literature, blurring the boundaries to produce a work of art that succeeds from the perspective of both. Freed had already written the music to be heard here and found that the music conjured up a variety of mental images and scenarios resulting in the realisation that each track was effectively a self-contained short story. From this he developed the idea that it would be a fascinating artistic exercise to approach various authors and ask them to write a short story based on their responses to the music. Throughout history music has been written that was inspired directly by literature -Freed cites such diverse musical examples as Prokoviev, Verdi and Wagner through Duke Ellington to Led Zeppelin and Radiohead. It’s rare for the process to be tackled the other way round so Freed approached half a dozen authors asking for their artistic responses to his music. The result is the pithy, poetic and often beautiful writing to be found in a CD package that is in fact a 30 page hardback book complete with a contents listing, a foreword from Freed, a brief biography of each author and their six short stories. Illustrated by Aaron Munday it really is a beautiful package.

The authors who have added their words to Freed’s project are among the most acclaimed in English literature and beyond. They include prize winning authors Colum McCann, Naomi Alderman and Lawrence Norfolk, rising star novelists James Miller and Joe Dunthorne and the acclaimed Lebanese author Hanan al Shaykh. All make memorable contributions that are memorable artistic statements in their own right, a claim that can also be made about the music which can also stand alone as an artistic success. Here at the Jazzmann I’m primarily concerned with the music, which is consistently excellent, but nonetheless I enjoyed each of the short stories and poems and I think it’s fair to say that considered as a whole the entire project succeeds brilliantly. The words and music can be enjoyed equally either separately or together, the five musicians and six authors combining to form a highly effective “first eleven” (let’s muddy the waters even further by throwing a sporting metaphor in there in as well).

A brief, almost subliminal, introduction featuring looped guitar and sampled crowd noise leads into “The Bubble”, the music complemented by the short story of the same name by Naomi Alderman, winner of the Orange Prize for New Writers and of the Sunday Times Awards for Young Writer of the Year. Musically the piece features the soaring, flexible wordless vocals and violin of Zawadzki and the jagged, rock influenced guitar soloing of Freed, these distinctive components underpinned by Goller’s propulsive electric bass grooves and the crisp, hard driving drumming of Dorcik. The drummer is the one member of the line up whose playing I had not heard before and he impresses throughout with both his power and intelligence. Here he and Goller negotiate a series of tricky time signature changes without ever losing the sense of rhythmic drive. Alderman’s life affirming prose meanwhile matches the buoyancy of the music.

Colum McCann’s Irish American epic novel “Let The Great World Spin” is one of my favourite books of recent years. By contrast his short story here, “Anniversary” is a model of economy but his writing is equally effective. Bearing in mind that Freed’s composition came first it seems obvious to this listener how the melancholy of the music has inspired McCann’s words. The music drifts slowly, at first almost in stasis, with Freed’s ghostly, Frisell like guitar accompanied by the aching sadness of Zawadzki’s violin and the ruminative brooding of guest Hutchings’ bass clarinet. A rare excursion for Goller on acoustic bass plus the understated drumming of Dorcik, mainly consisting of delicate and imaginative brush work, completes this picture of intense but oddly resigned sorrowfulness. Hutchings’ solo moves things along mid tune but Zawadzki’s haunting wordless vocal in the closing stages reclaims the mood of melancholy and regret and may have inspired McCann’s choice of an ecclesiastical setting for his short story.

Freed’s title track embraces several cultural references including folk, Afro-beat and post rock Zawadzki’s violin and voice swoop and soar above tight, muscular grooves. Zawadzki’s wonderfully flexible vocal lines owe something to those of one of her mentors, the great Norma Winstone, but Zawadzki is a huge talent in her own right as her London Jazz festival performance proved. Also a hugely impressive instrumentalist she is due to release her first album as a leader later in 2013. it’s a début that should be well worth waiting for.
The literary aspect here is provided by author James Miller, once voted London’s Rising Literary Star by Time Out magazine. Miller’s enigmatic tale embraces themes of memory and alienation in an urban environment. It’s an intriguing and arresting piece of writing.

Goller’s turbulent interlude “Caravans” clocks in at a little under two minutes and sounds as if it may be largely improvised. With her electric bass to the fore it’s the most freely structured item on the album. Lawrence Norfolk’s story is a cryptic road tale that references pub quizzes, the Rollright Stones and the aspirational names given to touring caravans.

“Freud & Jung Ride The Tunnel Love” sounds lush and mysterious with richly textured guitar, alternately languorous and swirling violin plus Hutchings switching between bass clarinet and tenor saxophone. Goller’s fat bass grooves and Dorcik’s insistent drumming provide the necessary forward momentum. Hutchings’ probing tenor solo is the outstanding instrumental feature and Zawadzki’s voice is also featured in full soaring flight. Zawadzki’s imaginative and intuitive use of wordless vocals recalls her one time mentor Norma Winstone and impresses throughout.
Poet and novelist Joe Dunthorne’s poem   conjures up graphic and surreal images. The Swansea born writer’s first novel “Submarine” has been made into a major film.

The final musical/literary merger is is the gently drifting “The Angel” with the melancholy sweep of Zawadzki’s violin to the fore and with Goller on acoustic bass. Freed’s guitar is in painterly Frisell like mode. Although Freed is a player capable of generating considerable rock power as last year’s Let’s Spin show attested this album demonstrates that he’s also a player of great taste and subtlety, content here to function as a central part of the ensemble, there are few out and out guitar solos on this record. Hanan al Shaykh’s beautifully constructed short story ends the “book” on a positive note note, the spirit of hope and redemption expressed in her words reflecting the mystery and serenity of the music.

The album ends with the song “Lose Ourselves”, which Freed describes as a “postscript”. He felt that it was right to conclude this fusion of words and music with a song containing actual lyrics. These are beautifully sung by Zawadzki but it seems a shame that they’re not reproduced as part of the album package. The music is as fine as anything else to be heard on the record with Freed taking a rare chance to stretch out on this hybrid of jazz,folk and rock.

The minor quibble about the absence of the lyrics is the only negative aspect of this ambitious, brilliantly realised project. Both the music and the writing are a constant joy, reflecting each other very well. Crucially for this site the music succeeds as a stand alone entity but the total package is an almost unqualified success. This sumptuously packaged work retails for the price of a regular CD representing excellent value for money.                 

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