Now the parody's over

The English jazz saxophonist Iain Ballamy has turned his back on the musical jokes and irony that were so much a part of his work with Django Bates in Loose Tubes. In his new album he returns to his abiding interest in melody, almost pure but hardly simple
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The English jazz saxophonist Iain Ballamy's last album, Food, came in a box with real food in it. Whether you got a pasta twirl (the dried variety, mercifully) or a bay leaf owed less to the exactitude associated with fine-art limited editioning than to a night's random bunging-in of ingredients by Ballamy and Dave McKean, the graphic artist who acts as his partner in crime at Feral Records.

The English jazz saxophonist Iain Ballamy's last album, Food, came in a box with real food in it. Whether you got a pasta twirl (the dried variety, mercifully) or a bay leaf owed less to the exactitude associated with fine-art limited editioning than to a night's random bunging-in of ingredients by Ballamy and Dave McKean, the graphic artist who acts as his partner in crime at Feral Records.

As the début release of Feral, their joint venture into the highly unprofitable business of releasing jazz albums, Food exceeded all expectations. Sales have topped the four-figure mark - not as derisory as it sounds for an independent, avant-garde record - and the product, which also included a nifty set of cards designed by McKean, both looked and sounded great. If albums really are collectable, then this is a dead cert for the Antiques Road Show, circa 2050.

Food was a live recording from the Molde Jazz Festival, in Norway, of the debut performance by Ballamy's new group, also called Food, formed with three young Norwegian musicians. The music was proudly experimental, mixing acoustic instruments with electronics, and free improvisation with surprisingly topical ambient, chill-out grooves. It got reviews that were either wildly ecstatic or completely uncomprehending, and made almost every other album of last year sound depressingly old-hat.

Ballamy's and Feral's follow-up has just been released. It's not another Food set, and there's no food in the box, but the design keeps to the same corporate identity and theme. Entitled Pepper Street Interludes, after a jazz club in Prague where McKean encountered Ballamy unexpectedly one night, the new album is a significant departure from the iconoclastic Food. It features a number of "standards", for a start, including Ray Noble's "Cherokee" (made famous by Charlie Parker); Joseph Kosma's "Autumn Leaves"; Kurt Weill's "Surabaya Johnny"; and Jerome Kern's "All The Things You Are".

That these tunes don't sound much like their more familiar incarnations is partly because of Ballamy's deliberately off-kilter arrangements and phrasing, but also because his most important musical partner in the recording is a Norwegian button-accordionist, Stion Carstensen. The wheezing breath of Carstensen's instrument infuses the music with a folky, timeless feel, and successfully pulls the rug out from under the hoary, careworn, tunes. If you're not keen on accordions, however, whether buttoned-up or not, then this is one cross you just have to bear.

There are also a few vocals by the veteran British singer Norma Winstone, which serve to accentuate the rather dreamy atmosphere already established by Matthew Sharp's cello on the opening track, "Julienne", which appears in three different versions.

All in all, it's a strange combination, quite unlike anything else around, and while I found Pepper Street Interludes infuriating at first, it definitely has legs. After a few plays, the ridiculously open sound-world starts to get under your skin and it becomes hard to contemplate listening to anything more conventional. Ballamy - who plays tenor sax throughout rather than occasionally devolving into soprano sax, as he usually does - sounds like a master.

"It's intended to confront people in a way, and to show that I'm interested in making music, wherever it comes from," Ballamy said when I interviewed him before his gig at the Bath Jazz Festival last month.

"I've made life simple for myself really; there's music that I want to play, and music that doesn't register on my meter at all. Since Food, my way of making music has changed for ever. I was getting uncomfortable playing standards, and trying to play in any genre felt wrong, so I've had to unlearn all this complicated stuff, bin it and start again.

"With Food's kind of music, you can't play lines; we don't play jazz time, there's no groove and no chordal instrument. Instead, you're laying yourself open. What I'm trying to do with the new album is to come at something from different angles, not like a big New York tenor player or an English eccentric."

The English eccentric reference is important. Ballamy, who is now 36, has long been associated with British jazz's eccentric-in-chief, Django Bates, with whom he played in big bands Loose Tubes and Delightful Precipice, and also in the small group Human Chain. Despite the remarkable inventiveness of Bates' writing, and the brilliance of Ballamy's playing, such was their reliance on genre-parody and musical jokes that it was often difficult to restrain an urge to climb up on stage and beat them about the head.

With the new album, though, Ballamy has decided to indulge his abiding interest in melody relatively unironically. "I'm really old-fashioned, in a way," he says. "I like hymns and church music and I love melody. There's just not enough of it in the world, especially as most of the music we hear now is made by machines; melody is essential to life, like garlic in your dinner.

"It's also about finding out what makes you want to continue playing. A lot of musicians hate making music and a lot of jazz is like stamp-collecting: you know, 'we've got that one already'. People can smell a fake a mile off. Now I've started this thing with Dave, the most important thing is to get on with the work."

It's also important that the work belongs to the artist. Ballamy's first solo album, the impressive Balloon Man, which came out on Editions EG in 1989 when he was just 25, has been unobtainable for years. He's looked into buying the master-tapes, but as they now belong to whatever conglomerate currently owns the defunct label's catalogue, and because the album never recovered its original costs, he can't get them back without paying far more than they're worth.

The small but perfectly formed Feral, like the whole honourable history of unprofitable jazz artists' labels that precedes it, looks an ever more attractive proposition. If you want to put pasta in the packaging, you can.

'Pepper Street Interludes' is out now on Feral Records

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