Jonathan Silk ‘Fragment’ (Stoney Lane) 5/5

jonathan-silkAward winning drummer and composer Jonathan Silk has been a driving presence on the Birmingham jazz scene since graduating from the city’s conservatoire in 2011. Let’s make no bones about it, “Fragment” is an ambitious project, with its 19 strong big band and 13 piece string section, and the resulting album is nothing short of spectacular. The recording brings together key players from both Birmingham and London and is conducted by Silk’s fellow Scottish drummer Andrew Bain. Silk is a rising star on the British jazz scene, and this album fully justifies that tag, with 11 tracks of invention, subtlety, power and grace succeeding in making this one of the musical highlights of 2016. The stunning compositions are performed in style by a band that features some of the finest talent in the UK; with wonderful contributions from Percy Pursglove on flugelhorn, Mike Fletcher on alto and flute, Chris Maddock on alto, John Fleming and Joe Wright on tenor, Rob Cope on baritone, Reuben Fowler, Mike Adlington, Matt Gough and Tom Walsh on trumpet, Thomas Seminar Ford on guitar, Andy Bunting on piano and Nick Jurd on bass… to name but a few. Emily Tyrrell leads the strings.

Recorded at Angel Studios in London and produced by Chris Mapp and Jonathan Silk, credit has to be given out for the quality of the recording itself. Mixed by Alex Bonney and mastered by Peter Beckmann, the recording is a pleasure to listen to from start to finish. The balance is perfect, with every instrument sounding exactly as it should, all beautifully clear and in its right place, from the fiery brass to the lush strings to the wonderful rhythm section.

Stylistically one might make comparisons with works by Maria Schneider, Vince Mendoza and Gil Evans, but what is more obvious is the fact that Silk is confident enough to tread his own path, unafraid to write with a conviction that belies his age and experience. The tunes are varied in style and the mix of big band and strings works superbly well, each being integrated intelligently and thoughtfully, rather than one being bolted on to the other, as heard elsewhere on too many occasions. “Fragment” has so much going for it. Brilliantly composed, expertly performed, with a change of pace and feel always just around the corner, there’s a wide variety of powerful and intense soloing coupled with a gentle time and space for the more reflective moments.

There are times when listening to this album where I thought ‘Wow, I’d love to hear a strings only/orchestral soundtrack from this guy. Tracks like “Reflection” offer an insight into the beauty of the composer’s musical mind, making for an emotional and thought-provoking listen. And then there are times when I thought ‘Wow, imagine if this guy was let loose with an avant-garde big band- the fires of hell would be let loose!’ The title track for instance is an exploration into varied rhythmic cycles and the development of groove based, hard-hitting material overlapping the many layers of the band and set against some frantic improvisation. I also like the clever use of instrumentation employed throughout the album, for example, the stark beauty of classical guitar and flute on “Withdrawal”. As with many of the pieces heard here, the stunning implementation of brass and strings working together in harmony is a pleasure to behold.

Inspiration for many of the tunes comes from Silk’s Scottish roots, his world travels and the ever-changing natural landscape. “First Flight” captures that twilight hour, whether from an early morning start or a very late finish. The musicians explore a winter night spent with whisky and friends. The second part of the suite, “Last Light”, is written around late night wanderings, in particular a small Scottish island harbour, the knocking boats and quiet waves, ending on a note of restfulness and hope. “Barefeet” was written following the composer’s time in South Africa, walking up to one of the world’s highest waterfalls, the Tugela Falls. Taking similar inspiration, “Buchaille” pays homage to the once-volcanic mountain region of Glencoe, in the Scottish Highlands. As ever with any new musical adventure, the listener will find his/her own inspiration and thoughts from the music being performed, but it’s always good to hear from the writer as to what inspired them on their journey. And talking of journeys, how good it is to see an independent record label such as Stoney Lane Records continuing to release striking, dynamic music of such undoubted quality.

If, like me, you relish the opportunity to hear and see wonderful music such as this performed live, then don’t miss out on the chance to see Jonathan Silk with full big band and strings playing live this coming Friday, 9th December at The CBSO Centre in Birmingham. It’s a mouth-watering prospect.

Mike Gates