Bobby Sparks II ‘Paranoia’ 3LP/2CD (Leopard) 4/5

‘Paranoia’ is the new album release from keyboardist and producer Bobby Sparks II released through Leopard Records.

Now a fully-fledged solo artist in his own right, Sparks’ lengthy career to date has bestowed innumerable successes and accolades to his name – as an in-demand session musician and collaborator, Sparks has recorded with some of the most revered names in contemporary soul and jazz including Lalah Hathaway, Stephanie McKay and Dianne Reeves; Further, Sparks served as a key member of the neo-soul and jazz-funk inspired side project by the late, great Roy Hargrove – The RH Factor – having appeared on both full-length albums, ‘Hard Groove’ (2003) and ‘Distractions’ (2006), as well as the intermediary EP ‘Strength’ (2004). And then of course there’s the matter of the Texan jazz fusion, Grammy-winning collective, Snarky Puppy, of which Sparks has found himself an original member of alongside band members that have also gone on to achieve staggering solo successes including Michael League, Bill Laurance and Robert “Sput” Searight.

The extension of Sparks’ work with Snarky Puppy to that of his solo material is very much a continuation of that notion of musical fusion equalling musical freedom. Even through Sparks’ debut album ‘Schizophrenia: The Yang Project’ (2019) encapsulated vastly different genres and styles – predominantly geared more towards funk and soul – ‘Paranoia’ significantly builds upon these concepts seeking to steer Sparks’ music towards an even grander, all encompassing sonic palette.

You could definitely never call Sparks short on ideas – as with this album’s predecessor, the somewhat grandiose vision for ‘Paranoia’ finds itself encapsulating a whopping 25 tracks at two hours and twenty minutes which is a phenomenal target for a single full-length studio release. Initially conceived as something of a “funk opera”, tracks on the album really run a bold gamut with Sparks’ tackling R&B, soul, funk, jazz, gospel, blues, hip-hop, Indian and orchestral scores in a vastly ambitious project.

Dedicated to the memory of his father, Bobby Sparks Sr’s touch is present throughout the album as are a variety of Sparks’ influences which are openly laid out for display throughout ‘Paranoia’. A string-laden cover of Elton John’s ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ features vocals by Chris Walker; the George Clinton, Parliament-Funkadelic, shout via the track ‘Horny Dreams’, and there’s more than just a nod towards The Purple Majesty that is Prince, firstly, via an eight-minute funk workout of ‘D.M.S.R.’ and then a cover of ‘Sometimes It Snows in April’ featuring Lizz Wright’s smokey vocals. The track ‘Jaime Starr’, despite featuring a minor rearrangement of the “a” and the “i” in “Jaime”, might have suggested a third Prince tribute – paying homage to one of Prince’s more prominent alter egos – but seems to draw inspiration elsewhere than the 80s era the name was synonymous with.

Again, that revolving door of artists and musicians for this album continues in the Snarky Puppy tradition – an epic line-up of names including Snarky Puppy members League, Jason ‘JT’ Thomas and Mark Lettier feature alongside established luminaries like Chris Potter, Gregoire Maret and Keith Anderson, all striving to realise Bobby Sparks’ epic and expansive vision for this album. A project that serves just as much as a celebration of black pride as it is a well-constructed musical experiment, ‘Paranoia’ sees Bobby Sparks continue his quest to create singular soundscapes from an unhindered and boundary-less well of ideas and creativity.

Imran Mirza

Sessa ‘Estrela Acesa’ LP/CD (Mexican Summer) 5/5

In Estrela Acesa, São Paulo’s Sessa offers a worthy follow up to his 2019 debut Grandeza. While Grandeza may have been a little more hopeful and starry-eyed, Estrela Acesa (which translates to Burning Star) brings us back down to reality. Exploring the messiness of life and especially love, Estrela Acesa is more grounded and thoughtful, thanks in large part to the tender way Sessa approaches his craft. The songs are simultaneously minimalistic and expansive, mirroring the duality he set out to highlight. Estrela Acesa is meant to be a bridge; sounds that connect the earthy and the astral, the painful and the hopeful, the divine and the mundane. The often sunny Brazilian beach evoking rhythms belie the impending doom of some of his lyrics; something akin to escaping a global pandemic on a private island-the reality doesn’t change just because your view is also beautiful.

But we can’t heal what we don’t talk about, and Estrela Acesa is hoping to do just that, to air it all out so that we can heal. “Gostar do Mundo”, a beautiful soft samba makes you want to slow dance and kiss and smile, and yet the lyrics are about love at the end of the world. The dichotomy encourages us to make the most out of what we have left. Sessa’s voice is soft and cooling, like the sheet you cover yourself with on a hot summer’s night; light and airy while still protecting you from the elements. The choral components of the song, provided by the voices of Ciça Góes, Ina, Paloma Mecozzi, and Lau Ra add depth without adding heaviness.

Estrela Acesa also reminds us to play. “Pele de Esfera” or “Skin of the Sphere” is sort of nonsensical. During a stint supporting Shintaro Sakamoto, who sings in Japanese, paired with Sessa’s own Portuguese lyrics played in front of audiences who mostly spoke English, the tangling of languages inspired a song tied more to feelings and imagery than words and linear meaning. It’s playful and joyful, and if you listen closely you can hear the musicians laughing in the background. Estrela Acesa is full of these moments, from the delightful orchestration of “Irmão de Nuvem” to the whimsy of the flute in “Ponta da Faca”. These songs are spritely and curious, inviting you to partake in the joy and the sorrow.

The album in general has such depth and texture, and each time you listen you can have a completely different experience. Do you want a night of moving your body, or one of candlelit reading in the bathtub? You can have both with Estrela Acesa. Each song adds a layer to the musical story by centering a different instrument emphasizing the sheer talent in the room and the language they have created together. The violins in “Sereia Sentimental”, the percussion in “Música”, all compliment Sessa’s soft voice, but it’s not overbearing. The album is never overbearing, it just sort of wraps around you like a cloud. It’s safe and soft and yet pushes you to go deeper into the experience of the moment.

Even when presented with the often crushing heaviness of reality Estrela Acesa leaves behind the lesson that hope remains at the end of it, that even if we have nothing, we have something because we are still here, there is softness within that heaviness and while it may take effort, if we look we will find it.

Molly Gallegos

London Odense Ensemble ‘Jaiyede Sessions Volume 1’ LP/CD (El Paraiso) 5/5

London Odense Ensemble is a five-piece collective combining established UK jazz musicians with most of the members of Danish psych-rockers, Causa Sui. London is represented by the baritone sax/flute of Tamar Osborn and Al MacSween on keys. Odense by guitarist and studio guy, Jonas Munk, drummer Jakob Skøtt and ‘multi-string instrumentalist‘ Martin Rude, who also fronts Sun River.

Recently, Skøtt and Rude released a couple of very decent albums (“The Discipline Of Assent” and “The Dichotomy Of Control”) under the moniker Martin Rude & Jacob Skøtt Duo. The modus operandi for those releases was essentially studio post-performance treatments of recorded jams of Skøtt’s drums and either Rude’s double bass or baritone guitar.

Even more recently, Osborn joined the duo (hence, Rude Skøtt Osborn Trio!) with some tasty overdubs for “The Virtue Of Temperance” and although it was similar in concept to the other two albums, there were hints to “Jaiyede Sessions Vol.1” with the affected sax and flute adding an extra dimension to the psychedelic/jazz fayre.

Droning tanpura-like sound initiates “Jaiyede Suite pt. 1” before sax, electric piano, drums and fuzzy guitar kicks in like a sort of psych-rock “Journey in Satchidananda”. The drums fade as track 1 segues into the magnificent “Jaiyede Suite pt. 2”. Osborn switches from fiery sax to soaring echo-y flute as the tune slowly builds towards a mighty heavy funky jam reminiscent of electric Miles. “Sojourner” has a trippy, sunny West Coast feel enhanced by smooth flute and MacSween’s fluid mono-synth lines. Next is the epic-length “Enter Momentum”; synth and flute trade lines as the track hits a repetitive prog-rock groove. Reverberated sax, sinuous retro-synth lines coalesce with lazily arpeggiated guitar on the valedictory “Celestial Navigation”.

We can break this music down into its parts and we get psych/prog rock, spiritual jazz, Miles’ funky fusion and proto-electronic music. These are a few of my favourite things and happily, there’s no friction between them on this record. The combination does produce some unexpected results: A pastoral raga-rock “Celestial Navigation” is transformed into a retro-futurist cosmic jam with lavish doses of electronics. The spiritual jazz vibe on ‘Jaiyede Suite pt. 1’ has an extra urgency from the crunchy power chords. “Jaiyede Sessions Vol.1” is an exciting and heady mix and I’m already looking forward to Jaiyede Sessions Vol.2.

Kevin Ward

Fauna 5 ‘Haptics’ LP/CD (Jaeger Community Music) 5/5

Fauna 5 is an exciting Danish quintet led by drummer and composer Andreas Skamby. “Haptics”, the group’s debut release, is a thrilling exploration of the meaning, and the common experience of touch-sensation, for both animals and humans. The expressive nature of the music sits well with the inspiration that led to these eight original tunes, with the bandleader commenting: “With a single deviation, seven of the eight issues on Haptics are based on wildlife and the experiences and observations that have aroused enthusiasm, amazement and curiosity in me.”

The thriving, vibrant Danish jazz scene is represented well here, with saxophonist/clarinettist Jonas Andreasen, synths/pianist Mathias Jæger, bassist Jens Mikkel Madsen and trumpeter Scott Westh joining drummer Skamby on a journey of high-spirited Scandinavian contemporary jazz. Recorded, mixed and mastered in FinlandStudio by Jacob Worm, the sound is crisp and clean, with a natural warmth mirroring the thoughtfulness and energy coming from the performers themselves.

The alluring opener “Fauna” swirls with harmonic beauty. There’s also a clear purpose though, with Skamby’s drums creating, as they do throughout the entire album, such a cool vibe. There’s an almost hypnotic feel to this tune, with the sax and trumpet intertwining in and around Jaeger’s luscious keys. There’s a curiosity that comes across in Skamby’s compositions that I love. Even on the solid groove of “Frogeye”, reminiscent perhaps of a young, effervescent Bugge Wesseltoft, questions are asked, answers are found, and the band play on in impeccable style. The reflective opening of “Play” leads the listener into an almost Brazilian vibe, with some excellent soloing. “Animal Locomotion” mesmerises with its cohesive, engaging and immersive nature. It’s like a journey, with the intuition of the musicians deciding where to take the listener. The ethereal “Dancing Birds” has a beauty to it that personifies what this album is all about. Fabulous writing, matched by collectively engaging musicianship and great soloing. “Haptic Sensation” is defined by a freedom of spirit. Skamby’s edgier drumming is juxtaposed against Madsen’s driving bass, subtle, melodic horns, and Jaeger’s free-flowing piano. The subtle, alluring “Hibernation” takes its time to unfold, like an old storyteller allowing the listener to appreciate the whole atmosphere, time and place of his wondrous tales. There are many intelligently played-out nuances and turns of pace on this album, but none more so than on the extraordinary final tune “Instincts”. This really did make my heart skip a beat. Blindingly brilliant writing and performing.

It’s difficult to pigeonhole the music of Fauna 5, and quite frankly I wouldn’t want to. There are many musical influences within the band’s music; jazz, electronica, ambient, folk, and many more besides. The key thing for me though is the originality and the wonderful spirit with which it is played. It’s a mighty fine debut for sure and a quite fabulous slice of contemporary Scandi-jazz.

Mike Gates

Yarni ‘Pigna’ LP (EMK) 5/5

‘Pigna’ marks the third full-length album release from producer and multi-instrumentalist, Benjamin “Yarni” Harris.

New album releases are potentially a difficult period for Yarni – for an artist who openly professes to fear being placed within a box or known for just one style of music, you have to ask yourself whether the expectation for consistently reinventing your sound becomes a burden in of itself as opposed to something that is symbolic of an artist’s organic and ever-evolving inspirations.

For instance, the Sheffield native’s debut album, ‘Entkommen’, saw Yarni explore broad electronica-themed soundscapes across some sensational and eclectic tracks like ’28 Years Of It’ and ‘It Takes Time’. ‘Entkommen’s official follow-up came in 2021 through the unexpected ‘Boro’ which, following a trip to Japan, sought to pay homage in part to the Japanese custom of honouring one’s traditions while also looking forward to embracing a forward-thinking and progressive path ahead.

And while Japan served as the inspiration for ‘Boro’, ‘Pigna’ turns to Sicily as its launch pad as the “symbol for openness and welcome hospitality”. When considering the music throughout this release, that concept of “openness” is an inspired theme when taking into account the range of musical styles throughout, notwithstanding the actual process of putting the music together.

Past Yarni releases have found the multi-talented artist assuming the vast amount of instrumental duties himself but, although he is credited on ‘Pigna’ for drums, percussion, synth, guitars, engineering and production, the concept of “openness” is employed with the recruiting of a significantly more expansive ensemble including long time collaborator Rachel Shirley on flute, bassist Ally McMahon and horns by Ben Marks, James Atasharoo and Jonoa. The album boasts an added dimension with the inclusion of Sheila Herzog (‘Space Travel’), Jeff Darko (‘Lady’) and Emily Marks (‘In a Dream’) on vocals who truly deliver some incredible work across some of the album’s numerous highlights.

While many of the album’s ten tracks still showcase some of those signature electronica-fuelled sensibilities, Yarni has created a record that pushes beyond any preconceived notions of what “Yarni” music is supposed to sound like. Heavy in its celebration of jazz while tracks like ‘Midnight Getaway’ and ‘Nova’ tease dalliances into more disco-inspired territory; ‘Chic’ is joyous in its presentation, brimming with personality but perhaps does come in a close second to ‘The Astral’ which is a soul-gratifying explosion of spiritual jazz and hip-hop-styled breakbeats. Incredible.

It would be hard to imagine Yarni hoping for a better outcome than what’s presented on ‘Pigna’. This is an undeniable masterpiece of a record that may place insurmountable expectations for him going forward but whatever Yarni does go on to create next, the one thing we all know is that it won’t be what we think it will.

Imran Mirza

Turning Point ‘Vanishing Dream’ (Jazz In Britain) 4/5

For those who were accustomed to seeing Jeff Clyne with double bass in settings ranging from the Jazz Couriers to Stan Tracey, Gordon Beck, Dudley Moore, and Zoot Sims, it may have come as something of a surprise to see him on bass guitar leading his own jazz-rock fusion group ‘Turning Point’. Why? I’m not entirely sure, as Clyne, one of the most questing of musicians, welcomed the chance to work in more progressive situations with Ian Carr’s ‘Nucleus’, ‘Gilgamesh’ and ‘Isotope’.

‘Turning Point’ were formed in 1975. It is often claimed that the band was formed by Clyne together with vocalist Pepi Lemer. However, to me, it always seemed to be something of a co-operative endeavour with Dave Tidball on saxes, Paul Robinson on drums and percussion together with the wordless vocals of Pepi Lemer. The link with jazz-rock fusion was cemented by the addition of keyboard player Brian Miller with whom Clyne had worked in Gary Boyle’s ‘Isotope’. Clyne noted that the partnership with Lemer dated from their working together on recording sessions and gigs and observing that their musical ideas had a certain unity of purpose. During the 1970s they recorded two albums: Creatures of the Night (1977) and Silent Promise (1978). Sadly, thereafter, they were lost to sight until the albums were re-released on one CD in 2009.

For Clyne, the band name signposted a change of direction and a chance to put his own musical ideas across. He noted the thrill of hearing his own music being played after working for so long in other people’s bands. The use of voice recalls the music of Chick Corea and Flora Purim, but the inspiration for the band was the French Progressive rock band ‘Magma’, having worked opposite them whilst still in ‘Isotope’. The vocals consisted of lines for voice as distinct from songs in the more traditional sense.

The addition of Miller on keyboards was a master stroke. The writing partnership of Clyne and Miller helped the band to avoid the bombast of a Weather Report and presented a certain lightness of touch to their performances. Notwithstanding this, some A&R representatives alleged that the music was ‘unfashionable’. As is often the case, what success the band garnered was solely down to their own PR and booking efforts. Although this effort did result in festival appearances and gigs at the most prominent London jazz venues of the time, the band failed to achieve their potential. Their final tour took place in 1980 when the group were augmented by the addition of guitarist Allan Holdsworth and composer and keyboard player Neil Ardley. The second album, Silent Promise, seemed to demote a slight change of direction with a more rhythmic approach.

With this new release, we have the chance to reassess the music from a standpoint some forty years after their final tour appearances. The album features six previously unheard live studio recordings plus one previously only on a Japanese CD. One piece, ‘Eppik’, appears in two versions which opens with a soprano saxophone and drums dialogue reminiscent of some of John Surman’s work. It’s only a short time before the melody is introduced with keyboards, saxophone and voice sketching this out. Once the theme has been dispensed with, the feel changes and Clyne’s funky backbeat is highlighted with tenor saxophone sailing above, before passing responsibility to the keyboards. The whole is held together by the drummer’s forceful backbeat. Clocking in at around ten minutes, this is an epic performance in every sense. However, many of the tracks here are of similar length. ‘Turning Point’ has its own unique sound and the presence of the wordless vocals seems to make for melodically accessible listening linked with some very complex musical passages all played with aplomb. As these are live sessions, the band are afforded the luxury of being able to stretch out with extended passages which embellish what were merely musical motifs on the original albums and it’s interesting to see where the band takes the music.

The album opens with the episodic ‘Queen of the White E’ which is quite astounding, moving through several moods to great effect and it’s fun too. For me, the standout track is ‘Silent Promise’ which seems to typify the band’s unique mix of delicacy and power. Once again, Miller’s keyboards add a new dimension to the music. Many of the pieces of the album have unexpected twists and turns ‘The Journey’ begins relatively sedately but by the end, we are left wondering where we are journeying to – somewhere far away, that’s for certain. ‘Vanishing Dream’ is a delightful ballad performance. It opens with acoustic piano underpinned by the bass and topped off with an atmospheric tenor saxophone. The voice enters around the mid-point and in the end, I’m left wishing that this performance was longer. ‘Better Days’ opens with magnificent solo bass guitar from Clyne, before falling into a hypnotic rhythmic pattern ushering in the vocals and soprano saxophone. The album closes with a further interpretation of ‘The Eppik’. Composer credits are split between Miller and Clyne with the title track coming from the pen of Dave Tidball.

Using the voice as an additional instrument was nothing new. The musical scene known as the Canterbury sound, associated with progressive rock and a loosely defined improvisational style, made extensive use of such a devise. It certainly works well for ‘Turning Point’. The recorded sound is generally good and I would draw particular attention to the wonderful cover design from Richard Moore. All credit is due to the team at Jazz in Britain for arranging the release of another wonderful slice of British jazz from the 1970s.

Alan Musson

Gustaf Ljunggren with Skúli Sverrisson ‘Floreana’ LP/CD (April) 4/5

Swedish multi-instrumentalist and composer Gustaf Ljunggren has teamed up with Icelandic bass player and composer Skúli Sverrisson to create “Floreana”, a wonderfully atmospheric album. Awash with luscious soundscapes of lyrical beauty, the duo have created a mesmerising recording that allows the listener to breathe in, relax, and exhale. Akin to a golden light meditation, the music is transformative, healing in its gentle, altruistic nature.

Ljunggren’s musical language is clear, thoughtful, and melodic, and the pieces chosen for this album all share a sense of weaving past and future together into the present. About the music on “Floreana”, Ljunggren reflects: “I listened inwards, and it sounded like this. Melodies came to the surface, and I chose to say ‘yes’ to them, embrace them, carry them forward. My musical partner on this album, Skúli Sverrisson, has been with me throughout this process; embracing the music with both profound dedication and artistic boldness.”

There’s a feeling of warmth and inclusion throughout this album; musical spaces that reveal possibilities to listen inwards, aided by repetition in melodies and patterns. The music doesn’t seek climaxes as much as it seeks states of presence and attention. The main instrumentation is from Ljunggren’s guitars; in forms like pedal steel, lap steel, mando, and electric guitars. The sounds are woven together in a gorgeous tapestry of sound, a colour-wash if you like, for the artists to paint their musical pictures in hues that build gradually in texture and gentle iridescence.

Sverrisson’s bass adds depth and meaning to the soundscapes, not just in sound, but also in feel. The duo clearly share a sense of intuition, with intelligently layered sounds reflecting a thought process that offers differing depths depending on how one chooses to listen to this album. As a background, the beautiful ambience of the lap or pedal steel guitars sound simply gorgeous. The character of the music is infused with love and life. Listening up-close is highly rewarding. One can really feel the emotive energy, the power of the various instruments used, the rise and fall of the subtleties and nuances that lay beneath the surface, just waiting to be discovered. A breath of fresh air indeed. Sublime.

Mike Gates

Edan ‘Beauty and the Beat’ Picture Disc/LP/CD (Lewis Recordings) 4/5


Edan’s own words artlessly throw light on the provenance of this 2005 cult classic. Arriving 3 years after his juvenile debut, this UK-charting, lo-fi beaut reeks of ripped-cover, coffee-stained, fuggy digs from varied and unlikely charity/2nd hand shops. An idiosyncratic psych style is further left-fielded by Edans love of Minimoog, fuzz and excessive echoplexin’. The whole thing flows effortlessly. From his smile-inducing words and delivery, to each component part and track, it segues so smoothly, so correctly. It’s impossible to think it could have happened without a singular vision and some serious storyboarding.

“Polite Meeting” is the quirky intro asking us to “open our ears and listen” via loopy fx and a David Bowie interview that fittingly threatens “there are plans for something much more ambitious”. “Funky Voltron” glows with sunny space funk and the more-than-their-two-parts, interplay of Edan and Insight. “I See Colours” lyrically wears its respectful origins on both sleeves, showing much love to the hip-hop pioneers and explicitly letting us know that “Prince Paul already used this loop”. “Fumbling Over Words That Rhyme” is all about the fluid juxtaposition of late 60s soft psychers, Passing Clouds, and oldskool hard beats.

The menace of “Murder Mystery” portends into the snarl of “Torture Chamber”. Percee P is relentless; he conquers the beats and rides the foreboding strings. Mr Lif and a simple “Hey Joe” line is all that minimal “Making Planets” needs. “Rock And Roll” has got nuts that have gone well flaky; Marriott’s guitar is stretched under Edan and Dagha, rumbling beneath them and various random bleeps and clicks. “Beauty” is blessed with beautiful strings and flute while “The Science Of The Two” reunites our favourite superhero dyad as Edan and Insight further convince us of their Voltronic credentials. “Smile” is a beaming, backwards sliding, trippy psych via Jefferson Starship and The Hollies. And, finally, after many righteous battles and grinning victories, Edan arrives at his deserved “Promised Land”.

Time eh. This colourised beauty is nearly 18 years old. It came out before I worked for The Man, before fruity sour beers, before my Citroen Picasso family car acquiescence, before this world demanded I take it more seriously. Times felt quite different – simpler, maybe; more easily hopeful, I guess, and this album feels of its time. It has a lovely feel of assumed perpetual organic growth, like it is part of an entitled, unstoppable, creative surf; a gentle, wacky wave washing us forward to a better place – a place where you go to be yourself. Not that it’s soppy or artsy. It’s an intelligent, focused work that psych rocks and funks. It’s driven by an experimental, probing intelligence that’s enthused by a self-deprecating, naturally generous and respectful, collaborative spirit. And it is impossible not to be charmed by it; impossible not to love it. Thanks in part to EDAN BADD HABIT but mainly due to his Humble Magnificence.

Ian Ward

Bagland ‘States Of Being’ LP/CD (Jaeger Community Music) 3/5

“States of Being” is the fourth album to be released by Bagland, a group led by Danish trumpeter and composer Jakob Sørensen. Integrating electronic audio sources, synths and effects, with a cool, Nordic ambience, The Copenhagen based band-leader continues to build on the atmospheric nature of his music, within a playful, curious, and expressive platform that encourages creativity.

The musical shape of this album was developed by Bagland whilst on tour in Finland during 2020. Joining Sørensen on this latest recording are Alex Jønsson on pedal steel and guitar, Mathias Jaeger on synthesiser, Frederik Sakham on bass, Frej Lesner on drums, Josefine Opsahl on cello, and Anna Jalving on violin. The delicate nature of the music is subtle, like moments in time that are held, then released, before one has chance to fully take in or memorise the meaning.

Sørensen’s playing reminds me in some ways of Arve Henriksen, or Verneri Pohjola. The breathy, laid-back style creates an atmospheric soundscape for the rest of the band to fall into, familiarise, and release their own accompanying notes that drip slowly yet thoughtfully like raindrops from the leaf of a tree. Sometimes the resulting music is immediately cohesive, whilst at other times it is disparate, fragmented, broken links slowly but surely finding their pathways back to one another.

Immersing myself in the ten pieces of music on “States of Being”, I find myself drifting with the music… to places, thoughts and feelings, dreams and memories. The journey sparks images in my mind… of nature, humanity, love and loss. The lyrical soundscapes help create my own visual accompaniment as I listen, moving pictures dancing eloquently to the feelings and thoughts that respond subconsciously to the essence of the music being performed. Musical poetry in motion one might conclude.

Mike Gates

Read also:

Jakob Sørensen’s Bagland ‘Cirkel’ LP/CD (Jaeger Community Music) 4/5

Dave Douglas ‘Secular Psalms’ CD (Greenleaf Music) 3/5

In the early 15th century, Flemish brothers, Hubert and Jan Van Eyck completed The Adoration of The Mystic Lamb (a.k.a.The Ghent Altarpiece), an eccentric 12 panel polyptych situated in Ghent’s St Bavo’s Cathedral. In 2018, to mark the 600th anniversary, Dave Douglas was commissioned by the Handelsbeurs Concert Hall to write and perform this music. He called it “Secular Psalms” with the aim to write a set of “songs of praise for all of us.”

To capture that late-Mediaeval, Western European vibe, Douglas immersed himself into the lives and works of contemporaries of Jan Van Eyck in the court of Burgundy, particularly composer Guillaume Du Fay and writer Christine de Pizan (coincidentally, History Extra podcast recently ran an episode called “Christine de Pizan: from medieval writer to feminist icon”, if you’re interested) even using her translated words as text for “If I’m In Church More Often Now” and “Ah Moon”.

Then COVID happened and with the lockdowns, a difficult and experimental logistical effort began. Developing new methods, the musicians worked together separately over two continents with both arranged and improvised passages for well over a year.

The opener, “Arrival” begins with atmospheric backward masking giving a tanpura-like drone sound and Douglas’ subtle trumpet before slowly opening towards Federik Leroux’s smoothly distorted guitar and fronds of strings and brass. On “Mercy”, the upbeat motif drips positivity as the track climaxes with Tomeka Reid’s strident cello solo. “We Believe” features the Credo from the Latin Mass and there’s a light folky feel from Leroux’s lute and Marta Warelis’ pump organ. On “Agnus Dei”, the cello-led asymmetrical melodies navigate the tricky time signatures.

“Instrumental Angels” is the standout, particularly the second half of the track where the band is tight. The balladic “If I’m In Church More Often Now” has melancholic grace. The sparse haunting texture of cello and pump organ introduce “Hermits and Pilgrims”. Electronic sounds pepper the abstract tuba-led “Righteous Judges”. “Ah Moon” sounds suitably nocturnal and Berlinde Deman’s almost twee voice is fortified by the off-kilter, angular accompaniment. However, the dirge-like “Edge of Night” is the disappointing conclusion.

Respect is due for overcoming the challenges of this ambitious project and there is much to admire. “Arrival” and “Agnus Dei” are enjoyably edgy and “If I’m In Church More Often Now” is very pretty. So this is all good but somehow this still leaves me cold. I couldn’t define what “songs of praise for all of us” sound like but I don’t think it’s this album. “Secular Psalms” is as enigmatic and elusive as its subject.

Kevin Ward