“Akhenaten” was released 10 years ago by the, then, hot and new Manchester-based label, Gondwana Records. It was Nat Birchall’s first, and enthusiastically received, Gondwana album and it is now, thankfully, re-released on CD for us to enjoy again.
Nat’s on tenor sax throughout with the other 3/4’s of the quartet being Adam Fairhall (piano), Gavin Barras (bass), and Gaz Hughes (drums), with Matthew Halsall popping up on the title track to make a high five.
All that is true of this album is (not so) loud and (ever so) clear from the opening track, “Nica’s Dance”. The album is deeply mesmerising. It is soothing; healing; calmative; demulcent. It is a linear exploration of spirit and soul and heart. There are no incongruous pyrotechnics. It is a “thank you”; a modest request to join a grateful, hymn-like single state.
Nat’s style/sound has always felt British, I guess. It seems to effortlessly mix the American, Jamaican and African sax player influence with a unique here-ness that is quite common amongst contemporary Brit jazzers. You can feel Trane, Henderson, Sanders, Cedric Brooks, Roland Alphonso, Don Drummond etc but the end result is all about Nat.
“Nica’s Dance” is an unhurried, sensual dance, with Hughes gently pushing Barras/Fairhall’s groovy riff while Birchall floats; cooly, elegantly and sensitively serpentine. Fairhall drops the riff for a while to gently comp, flit and whirl around Barras/Hughes before Birchall slides back in to offer genial, peaceful resolution.
“A Prayer For…” is an acknowledgement for this place, this time. Birchall’s tenor sound’s rich, pure and meaningful. He plays with incredible feeling and focus and a purposeful restraint as Fairhall glides, glistens and sprinkles some of his special soul-dust over Barras’s mantra bassline. It is a definitive answer to the question “What does spiritual jazz sound like?”
“Akhenaten” has a deep ‘n’ easy, swinging riff which allows infinite space and time for Birchall, Halsall and Fairhall to tell us their truths. Halsall’s solo is glorious; long, patient, wistful notes that invite you to close your eyes and consider your own self, environment and relationships.
“Many Blessings” showers its grace and thanksgivings upon us. Barras/Hughes create a wash that ensures our souls are cleansed; Fairhall’s flowing shapes and arpeggios cascade us with soothing hope and divinity; and Birchall partially repeats and revisits motifs to firstly evoke and then emphasise their purpose. Many blessings gratefully received, thank you.
This album is extraordinary in its ability to say so much, and push us to feel so much, but be delivered with such a focused, restrained simplicity. It enables the listener to contemplate, heal and grow under its graceful, emotive, human warmth and assured collective voice. It feels as ‘right’ now as it did 10 years ago, and it will continue to feel right for decades to come. Many more Blessings to be gratefully received, then. Thank you.
Nat Birchall ‘Creation’ CD (Sound Soul And Spirit) 5/5
Nat Birchall Quintet ‘Live in Larissa: Divine Harmony in Duende Jazz Bar’ 2LP (Sound Soul and Spirit) 4/5
Nat Birchall ‘World Without Form’ CD (Sound Soul and Spirit) 4/5