Matthew Halsall & The Gondwana Orchestra ‘Into Forever’ (Gondwana) 4/5 & 3/5

matthew-halsall-the-gondwana-orchestraTrumpeter and leader Matthew Halsall has, over several years, been one of the champions of the more spiritual side of jazz and on this latest recording has departed somewhat from his traditional instrumental sound to incorporate new vocal elements. This has divided some critics, but the overriding approach and commitment remains the same. Only the setting has been modified and the Eastern influences are as strong as ever and arguably more diverse, yet certainly complementary. One of the strongest compositions Halsall has ever put to paper arrives in the gorgeous ‘The land of’ which features an epic combination of flute and strings. which is a showcase for flautist Lisa Mallett, and is by far the most modal influenced of the pieces on show. The building of intensity from the rhythm section and percussion is another highlight here. In a funkier vein, but still with a jazzy undercurrent, is ‘Badder weather’ that has something of a ‘Theme de Yo Yo’ feel and features the soulful vocals of Josephine Oniyama alongside the excellent electric piano of Taz Modi. Indian classical has evidently influenced Halsall and the band’s musical outlook and on the mid-tempo Longshan temple’ the flute is very much of an Indian classical idiom with fine harp work from long-time band member Rachel Gladwin and this combines with the sound of the Japanese koto performed by Keiko Kitamura.
Orchestrating strings is clearly something of a passion for Matthew Halsall and on a personal tribute to a sadly departed friend, the eulogy ‘These goodbyes’ is the pretext for some evocative strings with bass and harp in tandem.
Fans of Matthew Halsall the trumpeter may be disappointed that his own soloing is less prominent on this album, but that is because the focus has shifted to the leader as a composer and this he executes with aplomb. That said, the familiar relaxed trumpet hues do emerge on the koto-led ‘Daan park’, a piece that was inspired by a visit to Taipei, Taiwan. Matthew Halsall and the Gondwana Orchestra have recently toured throughout the UK during October.

Tim Stenhouse Rating 4/5

There can be little doubt that over the course of five albums, Manchester based trumpeter, composer and arranger Matthew Halsall has proved himself to be one of the leading lights on the UK music scene. Whilst his earlier albums lit up the jazz world with soulful, intelligent writing, the trumpeter sharing at times a kinship with among others saxophonist Nat Birchall, their music a shining beacon born out of a shared Coltrane-like spirituality, his later albums have taken him into a more contemporary place, one where calm, centred, meditative soundscapes take centre stage, Eastern and Western influences juxtaposed with Cinematic Orchestra-like strings and arrangements. Halsall’s journey continues in this vein with his latest release “Into Forever”. The spotlight here is primarily on Halsall as composer, arranger and producer as he once again works with The Gondwana Orchestra, featuring Lisa Mallett on flute, Rachel Gladwin on harp, Keiko Kitamura on koto, Taz Modi on piano, Sam Bell and Chris Cruiks on percussion, Gavin Barras on bass and Luke Flowers on drums. And although it is indeed the bass and drums of Barras and Flowers that underpin the whole recording, the album also features five string players who prove key to its overall ambience and atmospheric quality. It is however, the addition of two vocalists that supplies us with the most obvious departure from previous outings. The catalyst for “Into Forever” came when Halsall met Manchester based poet-singer Josephine Oniyama. Further to their initial collaboration on a new composition for the BBC Radio 3 show The Verb, for Halsall, something just clicked: “I had wanted to work with singers for a while, but nothing quite felt right, but with Josephine and then Bryony I am delighted to have found two astoundingly talented young Manchester artists whose vocals, lyrics and melodic ideas really fit with how I hear music”. Singer Oniyama features heavily on the album, and with Halsall writing in a style to suit vocal led music, it should come as no surprise that “Into Forever” is largely song based, the short tunes taking Halsall & The Gondwana Orchestra into previously unchartered territory.

“Into Forever” is beautifully arranged and produced. Recorded, mixed and mastered by George Atkins at 80 Hertz, it has that gorgeously crisp yet deeply honest sound to it that few recordings seem able to achieve. A highlight throughout is the sound of Gavin Barras’s double bass, often to be heard leading the line and providing the signature to many of the tunes, there is a depth and closeness to the bass that not only provides stability, but also intense emotion. The string sound is also bang on the money; contemporary and lush without ever sounding forced or contrived. The songs themselves are thoughtful, poetic and contemplative. The opening track, “Only A Woman” was originally written as an instrumental with Oniyama then providing the lyrics which are based on the touching theme of a mother bringing up her daughter and then later in life the daughter caring for the mother. Track 2 is undoubtedly one of the album’s stand-out tunes. There’s a lot to love about “As I Walk”; the wonderful vocal delivery, the beautiful harmonies, along with the strength of the composition itself. I do feel however, that as the album progresses it somehow fails to reach the same heights as the first couple of songs. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still good, but to my mind, there are a couple of reasons for this. Bear with me here and I’ll try to explain my thinking… As with most things in life, there is always more than one way of looking at something. On the one hand I certainly appreciate that the best albums enjoy an element of continuity; a vibe created by a common theme or style of writing for example. But on the other hand, as I feel is the case here, the songs follow the same path time and time again, the result in this case being a lack of variety or surprise. But that explanation is a little too much of a sweeping statement to be completely relevant. Halsall has proven himself to be a masterful writer, but I feel as though his string arrangements are a touch on the simple side and maybe too repetitious. Too obvious maybe. Also a consideration in my musings is the fact that although the promising Oniyama sings perfectly well, at the moment she doesn’t really “light my fire”, for want of a better expression. On certain pieces, a prime example being “Into Forever” the title track, I’m thinking “Oh yeah!!!”, yet on others I’m losing interest, there seems to be a lack of dynamics or some kind of unbridled emotion for me to take to heart. Things do get funked up slightly on “Badder Weather”, and it’s very enjoyable too, but it doesn’t quite have the verve of say Carleen Anderson or the soul of Fontella Bass. The positives however do very much outshine the negatives. If I had to pick one track out that does it for me above all others (the aforementioned “As I Walk” and the title track running it very close) I would have to go for the wonderful “The Land Of”. Drummer Luke Flowers is in his element here, providing a killer drum groove on this deeply rewarding instrumental piece. Flautist Lisa Mallet and koto player Keiko Kitamura work so well together here, East meets West on this awesomely written and performed tune. Not far behind is the exotic “Longshan Temple”, the title being taken from a temple in Taiwan where the composer recently spent some time as a guest. Essentially we are listening to a blues number, but with the lead instruments being flute and koto, once again creating a floating, drifting vision of peace and tranquility. Halsall’s trumpet is rarely heard on this session, but we are reminded of the stunning beauty and depth of feeling in his playing on the atmospheric “Dean Park”. Elegance personified. The album closes with “Jamais Vu”, co-written and sung by Bryony Jarman-Pinto.

My own personal preference would still be to hear Halsall perform in a jazz setting, rather than the more ambient or commercial route that he is travelling at this moment in time. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the music he carefully crafts on this path, far from it in fact, it’s just that I feel there could be so much more to come from Halsall the incredibly gifted jazz musician.

Mike Gates Rating 3/5