Jazz: Pure, gigantic air

Jazz Round-up

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke once likened music to the breathing of statues. It's an image that suits the new album by the British saxophonist Iain Ballamy and his Norwegian band, Food (Feral, ASFA 101, distributed by New Note), perfectly. Opening with a kind of somnolent chill-out groove where it's impossible to be sure which sounds are electronic and which acoustic, or where one instrument leaves off and another begins, the music shifts so imperceptibly that you can hardly tell whether it's breathing or not.

Here, texture is almost all. Though there are echoes of the past, such as Joe Zawinul's "In a Silent Way", Albert Ayler's "Ghosts" and "Bells", and the ECM school of Scandinavian recordings, the effect is quite unlike anything else and astonishingly evocative.

Playing at times so quietly that the music barely seems to exist at all, Ballamy on tenor and soprano saxes and Arve Henrikson on electric and acoustic trumpets (plus odd grumbling vocals and electronic washes), along with Mats Eilertsen on bass and Thomas Stronen on drums, form the most unforced-sounding ensemble imaginable. Sax and trumpet interweave seamlessly, the bass steps daintily around them in a stately dance, and subtle percussive noises cover up the gaps in between that aren't left to silence and the void.

Although you wouldn't really know it, apart from one or two coughs later on, the album was recorded live, on the occasion of the group's first gig at the Molde International Jazz Festival last year. Taped direct to two-track, the sound is captured beautifully, with the tick and shimmer of Stronen's cymbals hovering over the soundscape like a benevolent deity. It is very much a group effort, with composing credits shared between the members, and trumpeter Henriksen writes perhaps the most entrancing piece, "Restless".

Though the governing mood is slow and thoughtful, Food does get cooking occasionally, and there are one or two chewy bits that won't be to everyone's taste. But the invention of the individual contributions, the empathetic interplay between component parts, and most of all the creation of an utterly distinctive sound-world as strange and beautiful as Rilke's other images of music - as "audible landscape", or "air's other side, pure, gigantic, and not for us to inhabit" - combine to make Food something you can't easily do without.

Even the packaging is impressive. Housed in a handsome box designed and illustrated by Dave McKean (also credited as an executive producer), and including both a set of vegetable-sculpture postcard graphics and a twist of pasta in case you get hungry while listening, it's a class act all the way down the food-chain.

Rediscovering a lost world where musicians wrote stoned liner-notes, free jazz sounded new, and Ronnie Scott could cover a song by Donovan, Sony Jazz's recent re-releases from the British CBS vaults circa 1969 provide fascinating archive material. Some of the music sounds great too. The Baptised Traveller and 4 Compositions for Sextet by the ground-breaking drummer Tony Oxley still seem fresh-minted, with the dream-team of Evan Parker on tenor sax, Kenny Wheeler on trumpet, Derek Bailey on guitar and Jeff Clyne on bass (plus Paul Rutherford on trombone on the latter) excelling on pieces that time hasn't necessarily made any easier on the ear, but which now resound with a sense of their own historical importance. The wonderful version of Charlie Mariano's "Stone Garden" on The Baptised Traveller sounds like a clarion call for what has since become the orthodox approach of European avant-garde jazz and new music.

The Howard Riley Trio's albums Angle and The Day Will Come (from 1969 and 1970) are similarly contemporary in feel, and call upon an equally esteemed personnel, with Riley on piano accompanied by Barry Guy on bass and Alan Jackson on drums. In fact the improvisations are often so good that you can't help wondering if the format of the piano trio has progressed at all in the 30 years since, and why Howard Riley isn't universally regarded as the star he so obviously is.

With guitarist Ray Russell's Dragon Hill (1969) and Rites and Rituals (1971), we are deep within the zeitgeist of loon trousers and, one suspects, even loonier ideas. "Looking into the occult, the I Ching, UFO phenomena, religious theories, has brought this on," says Russell in the taped dialogue that forms the original sleeve-notes to Dragon Hill, and both his own and drummer Alan Rushton's March '99 addenda keep very much to the same vein. The music, however, continues to defy easy categorisation. Dragon Hill opens as abstractly as anything by Oxley before modulating into a kind of blues-based free-for-all. Then, just when you think you've got it down pat, it shifts again, with Russell's maelstrom of strings thundering away against Rushton's drums. The guitar gets some solo space in which to bend notes into ridiculous shapes before the blues theme comes back again, only to be killed off by an orgy of feedback. And that's just the first track. Its amazing stuff.

Finally, what did Ronnie Scott make of Donovan? On the terrific Live at Ronnie Scott's from 1969, the version of the Celtic waif's song "Lord of the Reedy River" is rather the odd one out amongst all the headlong bop around it, but it makes an excellent jazz ballad all the same, with a beautiful flugelhorn solo by Kenny Wheeler. The band is one of Ronnie's best ever, with John Surman and Ray Warleigh on horns alongside Scott; Tony Oxley and Kenny Clare on drums, Chris Pyne on trombone, Gordon Beck on piano and organ, and Ron Matthewson on bass. Thirty years on, it still sounds more modern than much of what passes for modern jazz today; even the two rather Blue Note-by-rote Joe Henderson tunes could give Acid Jazz a good run for its money. As with the other reissues, it's enough to make you wonder what actually has been going on in jazz for the past three decades.

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