Mike Walker ‘Ropes’ CD (Madhouse/Market Square) 5/5

Having read in recent years some of Mike Walker’s unpublished poetry, it is interesting to hear how the guitarist’s music on “Ropes”, his second release as band-leader, mirrors the heart and mind of Walker the wordsmith. Where the words of the poet are thoughtful, wise, reflective and quietly questioning, so is his music performed on this very engaging album.

Originally commissioned for the Manchester Jazz Festival and debuted there in 2008, the recently released studio recording showcases Walker’s talents as a composer, not just the awesome guitarist jazz listeners have come to know and love over several decades. Alongside Walker, the core quintet for this album includes saxophonist/clarinetist Iain Dixon, drummer Adam Nussbaum, pianists Les Chisnall or Gwilym Simcock, and bassists Steve Watts or Steve Rodby. Several other musicians feature in addition to the twenty-two piece Psappha Strings Orchestra which is central to much of the music presented here.

It would be far too lazy and ill-considered to use the old phrase ‘jazz with strings’, which undervalues in so many ways both jazz and the intelligent use of strings, but if one were to go down that road, then ‘strings with jazz’ might be more appropriate. At the heart of “Ropes” is the lyrically beautiful and beguiling three piece “Ropes” movement, a thoughtful, contemplative neo-classical musical journey. The orchestral soundscapes produce pictures of beauty, like the musical interpretation of a Turner landscape watercolour.

The album opens with the breathtaking minimalism of “Still Slippery Underfoot”, the lone, starkly melancholic piano leading the listener into a slowly unfolding, tender feeling of compassion and warmth. As strings and clarinet enter the scene, one might be comparing the music to Vaughan Williams and Henryk Gorecki, rather than the guitarist’s previous collaborations with The Impossible Gentlemen and Julian Arguelles. As the three part Ropes Movement unfolds, we are treated to glorious, repeating themes, delicate instrumentation, deliciously integrated orchestrations with jazz ensemble, and yes, some beautifully subtle and masterful guitar work from Walker himself.

The album continues with “Devon Beam”, a more straight-ahead jazz quintet piece, but none the less satisfying. “Wallendas Last Stand” has a cool, almost Brazilian vibe to it, with pizzacato and romantically lush strings adding to the gentle, alluringly soft and reflective atmosphere of the tune. There’s a more inquisitively playful feel to “Madhouse and the whole thing there”. What begins as a somewhat dark, quirky piece, ends up leaving the listener feeling uplifted and hopeful with its brightness and clever change of vibe, featuring some of Walker’s finest moments on guitar. “Slip Not” closes the album; a short reflective piece on piano, perhaps the beginning of the end, or the end of a beginning.

“Ropes” is a triumph in many ways. It is poetic. It is beautiful. And to quote the first few lines of Walker’s poem inside the album sleeve: “Come, dear one, let’s walk through the echo of this moment…” Inspiration comes from many things, but most of all perhaps, from people and our relationships with one another. With “Ropes”, Walker has brought to life a sense of classical romanticism and jazz sensibility. Moments of insightful and reflective music made with passion and skill. What more could a listener ask for.

Mike Gates