On first glance of the press release of this album, I groaned at some irritating art-ese (“harmolodious” being particularly virulent) and didn’t look forward to the listen. As is often the case, however, press releases can be as elegantly written as a Mills and Boon.
Matt Lavelle’s group on 12 Houses is a disparate bunch. Lavelle on cornet accompanied by baritone and alto sax, bassoon, piano, banjo, ute, mandola, vibraphone, bass clarinet, violin, bells, drums, cello and voice. Not a standard line-up, by any means, and it pays off. The six tracks are a mixture of landscapes and character pieces, to me at least. The simplest I could signpost it to is somewhere between Górecki and Polar Bear, at moments classical and at others frenetic improvisation. Chamber jazz-core? No, that feels restricted. I think it best that I describe each track in turn, to emphasise the vignette feel of this record.
The opener, Solidarity, feels like an anthem for a secret Dadaist society gone to ruin. A strong lamenting march for a head leads to an elongated sax led meltdown to a grinding cello finish and a return to the main motif. A lone member of the society sifting through minutes of meetings, broken bottles and dust hanging in the air.
Second, Brooklyn Mountain, is a frenzied rush about New York with all the cars and concretia, bars and bustle. This one barely lets up; flashes of nights in venues, traffic and human movement. Very vivid, and just about the right length.
Third is Knee Braces. An odd violin heavy track that could pass as a bluesy nocturne, moving from arpeggios to sinister screeching. The vibraphone and voice give this a chilling melancholy, like a drunk skeleton or a neglected child in a dreary house.
Fourth is Cheery Swing, offering some drum bending and searching cornet improvisation, moving into a more structured and standard free-jazz second half. It doesn’t really feel that cheery, more like a tunnel of love ride operated by Miles Davis (drunk) and Earl Scruggs (the banjo solo is an album high-point for me).
Fifth is a charming bassoon piece called Moonflower Interlude. This is a track that swerves between the wistful, woody tone to the upper ranges of the instrument. Many characters could be painted to this solo.
Finally, Faith is a largely piano-centric piece with a fantastic central motif. At first, the chord sequence is almost as sickly as any Ivor Novello, but at the halfway mark a spine of hand claps drag it into an ecstatic, celebratory swing. A wonderful ending.
This is what I saw when I listened; landscapes and scenes and characters. This record will inevitably infuriate those who are not fond of “twiddle” (for want of a better word), but I feel this is a varied and very interesting blend of styles, themes and tonal scenarios. It doesn’t outstay its welcome either. 12 Houses is definitely worth a punt if you enjoy freer jazz, unusual pairings and evocative playing.