A distinctive album that fuses subtly jazzy arrangements to interesting song based material
This review copy was kindly given to me by the members of Zoo following their recent appearance at the 2009 Lichfield Real Ale, Jazz and Blues Festival. Zoo’s performance is reviewed as part of our feature covering the Saturday of the festival.
“End Of The Telegraph Wires” was recorded in 2008 when Zoo consisted of the multi instrumentalist trio of Reg and Karen Clegg plus Paul Biggins. Since then the group has expanded to a quintet with the addition of saxophonist John Sanderson and drummer Ian Beestin who both feature as guests on this album.
Zoo are based in Derbyshire where this album was recorded but their well crafted music has earned them a national reputation. Essentially they are a song based band centred around the lead vocals of Karen Clegg. They use a lot of jazz chords in their arrangements and in Sanderson now have a genuine jazz soloist. Their music has been described as “nu jazz fusion” but has a good deal more substance than that epithet, with it’s implied accusation of blandness might suggest. Biggins’ thank yous refer to “Don and Walt” which I take to be the celebrated Messrs. Fagen and Becker of Steely Dan. Certainly the combination of smooth-ish music and barbed lyrics is a Steely Dan trademark and Zoo offer something of the kind here without ever sounding remotely like their heroes.
This fourteen song collection features the song writing talents of the core trio either solo or in various combinations. Biggins’ “Button By Button” opens proceedings, teaming pounding electronic rhythms with Sanderson’s squiggling tenor sax on this tale of undercover crime and surveillance. The wistful “Beyond”, also by Biggins is one of his many “escaping from reality” songs. Instrumentally the piece features Karen’s piano solo and guest David Ives’ flute above a percussive backdrop led by Beestin’s subtle grooves.
Husband and wife team Reg and Karen Clegg wrote the unsettling “Open Air” which gains much of it’s atmosphere from the eerie combination of Karen’s melodica and Ives’ ewi (electronic wind instrument). Biggins’ “Mutual”, a “relationship in crisis” song continues the uneasy atmosphere with Ives’ flute now to the fore, dovetailing with Karen’s recorder.
At nine minutes plus"Big Red Bus” is one of the album’s stand out cuts. A collaboration between the core trio the song featured in their set at Lichfield, announced as “the story of someone’s life”. With it’s twin towers references it’s maybe more than that. The instrumentalists get the chance to stretch out here. Guest trumpeter Ben Lee broods in Milesian fashion shadowed by Biggins’ electric piano and Sanderson’s snaking soprano sax.
Reg Clegg’s “I Fell Through a Hole To You” tells the story of a stale relationship. Sweetly sung by Karen and paced by Reg’s guitar the song seems to shimmer on the horizon with Ives’ flute adding to the atmosphere of delicacy.
“Like A Knife” is another three way collaboration but given the escapist theme of the song I’d guess it’s predominately Biggins’ baby. Sanderson’s bass clarinet and tenor sax swirl around a shuffling electronic rhythm with Reg’s guitar also prominent in the mix.
“These Things Happen” is written by the Cleggs and features Reg on lead vocal, duetting with wife Karen. The intriguing arrangement juxtaposes electronic rhythms against Reg’s acoustic guitar, Ives’ flute and the woody clarinet of another guest, Michael Aggio.
Biggins’ “I Didn’t Mean To Fall In Love With You” is yet another broken relationship song. Karen’s singing is as close to orthodox jazz phrasing as anything on the album. Reg’s acoustic guitar paces the delicate arrangement and Ben Lee adds plaintive, mournful trumpet. The starkness of the arrangement makes this one of the album’s most effective songs. The way the group drop out as Karen sings the word “silence” is a neat touch.
The trio written"Energy” is more urgent, rhythmically driven and Latin tinged but behind the sunny exterior is a bitter lyric regretting “all this wasted energy”. This contrast/tension between the musical arrangement and the lyrical content make for an intriguing and convincing song.
“Leave It All Behind” is another of Biggins’ wistful “escape” songs with Sanderson’s floaty soprano sax prominent in the arrangement.
Reg & Karen’s “Kill a Man Today” explores the the motorist’s temptation to mow down a luckless pedestrian. We’ve probably all felt that urge, but like the protagonist of the song never gone through with it. Sanderson features here on flute alongside Ives’ ewi.
Biggins’ “Disguise” with Karen’s semi spoken hipster vocal proved a big favourite at Lichfield and works well here in an arrangement just featuring the core trio. Paul and Karen’s keyboards (the latter takes the piano solo) are supported by Reg on acoustic bass and guitar.
By contrast the closing “Changes”, also by Biggins, is an outlet for sextet with Beestin, Sanderson (tenor) and Lee added to the core trio. Powered by Beestin’s insistent groove Reg (guitar) and Lee take the instrumental honours.
“End Of The Telegraph Wires” is a distinctive record, fusing jazz based arrangements to conventional song based forms. Karen Clegg’s vocals are cool and assured throughout and although none of these songs is a real jaw dropper the group consistently try to keep things interesting. The lyrics may not be up to Becker and Fagen’s standards but they are an attempt to sing something more interesting than the usual “moon in June” fluff. The combination of acoustic and electric instruments works well on these painstaking, mainly keyboard led arrangements and all the guests make a significant contribution. It will be interesting to see how Zoo develop from here especially with Sanderson in the band. He was the star instrumentalist at Lichfield and I’d have liked to have heard more from him here. “Telegraph Wires” is Zoo’s third album following the earlier “Greenhouse” and “Endangered Species”. Maybe the next (quintet) album will be the real killer.