FORJ ‘Skirfare’ (Self-released) 3/5

FORJ is an adventurous jazz quartet led by drummer Jonathan Silk, featuring long-time friend and collaborator Nick Jurd on double bass, alongside two of London’s finest improvisers, tenor saxophonists Josh Arcoleo and Joe Wright. High octane grooves and expansive improvisation are the order of the day, as the quartet attempt to bridge the gap between chaos and purpose, blurring the lines between composition and improvisation. This though is only half the story…

This release is a very interesting and highly innovative concept for which the band must be applauded. Thinking outside of the box, Skirfare is an attempt at challenging the normal process by which improvised music is recorded and released. As a band, the idea is to frame the openness with which the quartet plays and to question the normal studio process. Feeling that it was inappropriate to simply choose one take of a composition, the band wanted the listener to hear variations of how that tune had travelled each time it was performed, thereby giving the listener the opportunity to hear those variations in a format that effectively allows people to choose their own album.

I’m guessing most of us have bought a Blue Note reissue, one where the last two tracks are labelled as “alternate take”. It’s often intriguing to hear how a classic tune was interpreted in different ways during the actual session. But herein lies a couple of flaws with the concept of this release that I can’t seem to get past. These alternate takes are usually tunes that the listener is already very familiar with. And although interesting, I think it’s fair to say that in most cases we could live without them. Skirfare takes things much, much further. With five different compositions, each version of a tune can seamlessly transition to any of the other tunes in the album regardless of whether they were recorded together or not. Confused? You will be. Or maybe not. There is a definitive start and end point for each tune which forms the basis of the project, allowing then for the musicians to improvise freely between these points. The result is that each version of each tune can lead in to every other tune, apparently giving 120 unique album combinations!

Now then… I have to admit that I have often listened to music and wondered what might have happened if the artist had taken a tune in a different direction. But I think that’s possibly due to an involvement in music production over the years, rather than just having an enquiring mind. This leads me to another point. As much as I applaud the idea behind the concept, is it not more for teaching/writing/musicians than it could ever be for the general punter. I’m not in any way saying the general punter wouldn’t appreciate this concept as much as a performing musician, I just doubt that the interest would be commonplace enough for it to be a worthwhile exercise. And when all is said and done, do we really want or need this many options?

Skirfare is also accompanied by a collection of unique collages commissioned to support the release of the music. Creative photography and design from David Stanley has produced a set of bespoke visual representations of the music, one for every recording of each tune. A segment of these individual collages also combines under the listener’s choice to form dedicated artwork unique to each version of the album.

So how does all this work in practice? The final part of the puzzle is a bespoke website that enables the listener to access all of the music. The interactive user interface allows the viewer to choose their own setlist. The website then produces the individual version of the album based on the chosen setlist and packages this into a download. The great thing is that listeners can return to the website as much as they like – perfect for those who want to try out other combinations and explore the concept further.

As much as I value the overall concept presented here, there’s a part of me that would have liked the music itself to have been somewhat less demanding in the first place. My concern is that this wonderful idea could fall prey to the difficult nature of the music. Two saxes, bass and drums may well make for an innovative and ultimately rewarding sound under normal circumstances, but it’s not necessarily the easiest music to connect with, and may therefore put some listeners off investigating the whole concept of what the band are attempting to offer.

In its current format, I view this as perhaps more of a resource for teaching composition and improvisation than anything else, but the possibilities are endless. For artists wanting to present their music in multi-faceted ways, there must be many avenues to pursue. Imagine a band or producer wishing to showcase their music in different genres for example. A tune could be performed in different styles; jazz, folk, rock, etc, etc. Or a tune could be performed using entirely different instruments. Or, the idea of investigating what happens to a tune between point A and point B could be investigated further and further. Or, maybe in an even more revolutionary move, the tracks could be made available in a format that allows other musicians to improvise over them and upload their own final track onto the website for other people to listen to. Whichever way you look at it, it’s a great idea. I urge you to go to the FORJ website and try it out for yourself. It’s such a new idea that it merits praise and consumer participation. So what are you waiting for? Go check it out now.

Mike Gates