Jon Armstrong ‘Reabsorb’ LP/CD (Orenda) 4/5

Bandleader and composer Jon Armstrong’s third album, Reabsorb, is a timely ‘meditation on our mortality’ exploring humanity’s relationship with our own mortality. The record comprises two contrasting suites of music performed by Armstrong’s sextet. Created with vinyl LP listening in mind each track spans a side of the record, the natural break enhancing the experience by drawing our attention to the contrasting nature of each piece of music. Armstrong describes it as ‘a journey from raging against the inevitable, to acceptance, towards transcendence, and the reabsorption of our spirit back into the universal consciousness of all life’. Nobody could accuse Armstrong of lacking ambition for the project which follows his well-received but somewhat ironically titled debut album Farewell from 2013 and his 2016 release Burnt Hibiscus which combined Hindustani music with poetry.

‘Hit It As Loud As Possible’, the first track does feel like a journey or a dreamlike film score to an imagined movie. It’s a multi-layered piece broken into two separately titled sections, ‘best case scenario’ and ‘they’ll mention the quiet when I’m gone’, the music is continuous and it’s up to the listener to decide where the shift is taking place. It explores a colourful sound palette by emphasizing some pretty dramatic dynamic shifts. The piece sets out with Benjamin Shepherd’s funky bass abstractions before the warm tone of Armstrong’s sax breaks away from the brass section for a very free passage showcasing the capabilities of the sextet. The brass structure just holds it together nicely keeping this listener fully engaged.

Armstrong describes his compositional technique as one where he sketches ideas out on an MPC 2000 sampler to get a sense of what might work. He wants the musicians to be ‘free to explore and take chances’. Armstrong says jazz is simply an approach to music rather than a genre which has a predetermined sound. He sees it as a way to expand the music on offer. Capturing the live sound of the band is important and they are recorded with a minimal setup. Another insight into his approach which I listened to is called ‘Cochlear Implant’, a track available on Armstrong’s website. It’s an atmospheric fusion of chamber music and ambient serial music with an uncanny living, breathing sense of being about it. Threads of this soundtrack-like music can be heard as an undercurrent on the new album.

Flipping it over now to take in ‘Loop Of Light’ which is also comprised of several passages, ‘released’, ‘light moves inside a green leaf’, ‘now I’m absorbed by green’, and ‘bouncing the loop of light’, the titles inspired by his wife Erin Armstrong’s poetry. This one builds incrementally, beginning with a passage that also has the distinctive rhythm of human breath about it. Each of the musicians come in with a satisfying precision followed by an ethereal sounding brass arrangement, I think this must be the transcendence that Armstrong was aiming for, it’s led by trombonist Ryan Dragon. The piece gradually returns to the initial setting and the loop of light is completed. At fourteen minutes it seems like a fleeting moment but that doesn’t matter because I’m going to play it again.

James Read