Friday, August 01, 2008

Chords That Bind - Manchester Jazz Festival day 6

There are moments when things align. The frequency and interval varies. It may take months. It may take years. It may happen in a fleeting moment or take many millennia. Everywhere there is scale and relativity. Particles line up and resonate in mutual empathy. Broken clocks tell exactly the right time. Birds migrate. Some alignments are intentional, some occur by chance. Most events conjoin these opposite and coincident bedfellows.

And so we happened upon one such event on the evening of Wednesday 23rd July 2008 at the Royal Northern College of Music. Such was the sense of occasion and expectation for ‘Ropes’, a specially commissioned piece by the guitarist Mike Walker for this year's jazz festival. Whilst he has a long established and enviable reputation as a premier guitar player on the UK and world jazz stage, it has only been this year that we've finally had an opportunity to hear Mike’s compositional skills in full, first with the recent release of the ‘Madhouse and the Whole Thing There’ album in May and now with the epic ‘Ropes’. The suite employed a twenty two piece string section alongside the clarinet of Mike’s long time collaborator and friend Iain Dixon, the piano of Les Chisnall, the double bass playing of Steve Watts and the drumming of the mighty Adam Nussbaum.

Ropes met the occasion and surpassed it, sweeping us along with its soaring beauty and near overwhelming intensity. A touching version of ‘Still Slippery Underfoot’ from the Madhouse album opened the set, its mysterious opening piano chords accompanied by the haunting cello of Hannah Roberts before giving way to the main melody on the clarinet. Headbound followed, opening with a dark and pensive repeating piano sequence. A soft cymbal accompaniment from Adam Nussbaum eased its way in, lifting the dynamic and opening the way for some classy improvisation from Iain and Mike with some graceful cushioning from the string section.

A harmonics enhanced solo guitar introduction from Mike steered us into the warm and latin-tinged wistful tones of ‘Wallenda’s Last Stand’. The tune seemed to capture a certain sense of regret and isolation in parts, a mood deepened by the plaintive solos from the violin of Ben Holland and the sax of Iain Dixon.

Another short sweeping solo introduction from Mike opened the smiling nostalgia of the swing feel based ‘Clockmaker’. A fluid solo from Iain set Les up for a particularly joyful response that warmed the heart. The closing melody created a good feeling all round, returning the hope that ‘Wallenda’s Last Stand’ had doubted. A subtle and savvy dynamic drum intro from Adam Nussbaum kicked off the fast swing and metrical melodies of ‘Last to the Line’. There was some really sweet, clean and boppy improvising from Mike on this tune.

After the break Mike introduced ‘Moored to Water’, a collective free improvisation from the string section. To hear a 20-piece classical string section improvising was both a surprise and very effective. Mike explained a little about the layered concept behind ‘Ropes’, the broad theme being the lines on a music stave and the harmony of the chords as ropes hanging down like threads. The music also evokes many of the uses of ropes, both good and bad, from the light sounds and harmonies of sea shanties to the darker sounds for the darker history.

The first movement of Ropes opened with a series of short block string chords of varying lightness and darkness. A solo clarinet introduction of an upright folk melody then got the movement going, leading into a lush string wash and some punchy lines delivered with panache by the string section. Ropes part two began with a metrical piano phrase that became the outline for the tune’s repeated sequence and its slightly off kilter rhythm, hinting at the sounds of Steve Reich. The really quite sublime Ropes part three featured the marvellous playing of Iain Dixon on clarinet, backed by sweeping strings and evoking some intense emotions of melancholy, longing, reflective contemplation, quiet and calm resolution, reconciliation and the happiness of meeting old friends. So much was evoked by the piece and all echoed in the sense of occasion of this special evening. A long shared moment of return, closure and beginning again.

A sustained standing ovation brought the musicians back for a reprise of ‘Headlong’. A lightness and relief opened the space for an incredibly relaxed, gentle and dreamlike seductive start to the track. The momentum slowly built with Mike eventually burning us up with the most searingly powerful improvising of the evening. A really amazing, emotionally exhausting and truly unforgettable evening.

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