Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Hammeriver Review - The Watchful Ear, how nice

The only Alice Coltrane album I own, and so therefore also the only one I have listened to, isJourney in Satchidananda, an album which for some peculiar reason I once got sent years back when I renewed my subscription to The Wire magazine. While my musical tastes have generally wandered off in other directions I do remember really enjoying the richness of that album, a kind of warmth and dense layering of sound that appealed to me a lot in my mid twenties. Its kind of fitting then that my head was turned towards tonight’s CD by an email recommending it to me by The Wire’s current editor- fitting in that the CD in question, the disc by the Australian/European Hammeriver septet is dedicated to the spirit and music of Alice Coltrane, and attempts to re-envisage the feel of her music through this new CD. It is actually a thoroughly beautiful album.

The disc is released on the Russian Mikroton label and features recordings made back in 2007 by the group of Clare Cooper, (harp) Chris Abrahams, (piano) Christof Kurzmann, (lloop) Tobias Delius, (clarinet and tenor sax) Clayton Thomas, (double bass) Werner Dafeldecker, (double bass) and Tony Buck (drums). The music is described in the liner notes as composed by the group, but while it feels like their has been some degree of mutual agreement on the general feel and shape of at least some of the five tracks, perhaps even some definite direction on one or two of them, I doubt that there was very much of anything written down, and the detail of the music at least is all improvised.

It is however, a thoroughly gorgeous album. The piece all tend to move slowly, often beginning with simple motifs such as simple piano patterns or swaying bass moans but they build into a beautifully detailed mass of carefully layered washes of sound, on the surface all rising together in harmony, if listened to carefully all made up of small elements pulling in different directions but still coming together as a whole. Generally speaking the basses underpin everything with a heaving warmth, which is offset by Kurzmann’s grainy, gritty laptop sound, with Buck spraying mostly cymbal splashes about between them. On top, the sax occasionally breaks out into tiny fragments of jazzy expression, and the harp and piano pick out a mixture of sparse ringing notes and little bits of melody. The impact of it all together, particularly in the midst of the swells of sound that the group push themselves into is truly inspiring, really richly detailed and demanding that you drop everything and listen deep down into the music’s strata. It all still sounds wonderfully controlled however, even with seven musicians playing together the album doesn’t ever feel like an overworked soup, there is a clarity and simplicity to the shape and structure of the music that was probably pre-determined but still sounds thoroughly organic.

If the album sets out to pull the emotional boldness of Coltrane’s music into a modern setting then I think it succeeds very well. The music here is no challenge to the listener, and makes no claims to originality, but it really is quite powerfully beautiful, thoroughly seductive and embracing, particularly when turned up loud, so allowing the listener to immerse themselves in it entirely. There are little tinges of jazz in there, tiny reminders of the music’s heritage, but in general the link to Coltrane’s music is mostly through the amorphous, glowing, overwhelming grandeur of the music, a no-holds-barred attempt at envisioning ecstasy through sound.

This is a really lovely album, one of the best recordings by a largely acoustic improv group this size I have heard. It is very easy listening, but it took no small amount of skill and musicianship to produce such a work. It also comes wrapped in a beautiful digipack adorned by screen prints by Cooper, who produced the album, and given that she shares her choice of instrument with Alice Coltrane was probably the instigator behind this release. Heartwarmingly uplifting music. I am so glad it was recommended to me and am more than happy to do so to you.

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