Nat Birchall ‘Invocations’ LP/CD (Jazzman) 5/5

nat-birchallIt was Sibelius who said: “Music begins where the possibilities of language end.” And there endeth this review. Or not (obviously). I am far from alone in having been fortunate enough to have had the pleasure at one time or another, to listen to music that somehow seems to bypass the usual route to our senses by directly affecting us in a way that transcends our normal thought processes, even taking us beyond what we would consider to be a heightened emotional response. It goes deep. Deep into our very being, into what it is to exist as a human being. Buddhists might experience this as the awakening of the lotus flower that rests within us all. A spiritual awakening that sets a person on the path to Enlightenment. In musical terms, it is the point where we don’t even need to think, extrapolate any information or consider anything to do with what we are hearing and feeling; it just is. A oneness within us that touches, holds and is effortlessly joined with the music we are listening to. This is how I felt when I first heard this album.

John Coltrane once said: “All a musician can do is to get closer to the sources of nature, and so feel that he is in communion with the natural laws.” An apt and relevant quotation in more ways than one. Nat Birchall’s musical journey began in the early ’70s, listening to Jamaican music. Throughout the decade he delved deep into roots and reggae music, with passion and enthusiasm. To Birchall, it was the “sound” of these recordings, as much as anything else, that meant so much. Sometime around 1978 Birchall purchased his first Coltrane album, “Blue Train”. It felt slightly foreign to his tastes at that time but once again, it was the “sound” of what he was listening to that really struck a chord. A year or so later, after a brief flirtation with playing the guitar, Birchall bought his first saxophone. He explains: “So in gathering together the records featuring saxophones it gave me a taste for the saxophone myself.” Having made the purchase he goes on to say, “I went home with it, intending to fool around with it and impress people at parties. But as soon as I put the mouthpiece in my mouth and breathed air into it the sound spoke to me. It spoke to me in a way that the guitar never did. The sound had some kind of meaning to me. I decided there and then that I had to take it a little more seriously.”

Fast forward to 2015 and I think we can safely say he has. Despite the fact that Birchall, to some extent, still appears to be, in jazz terms “The UK’s best-kept secret”, he has pursued his own path of discovery that has led him to become one of jazz’s true exponents of the kind of soulful, spiritual jazz perhaps first embodied by the trail-blazing recordings of John Coltrane. For “Invocations”, his latest album, Birchall is joined by his regular pianist Adam Fairhall, bassist Tim Fairhall and drummer Johnny Hunter. Birchall’s previous release, the excellent “Live in Larissa” featured Cory Mwamba on vibes and although he doesn’t feature on this session, we do have the addition of Christian Weaver on congas and percussion. What makes this album so special, apart from the obvious: outstanding compositions and a bandleader at the peak of his powers, is the contribution of Birchall’s fellow band members. They perform with such unity and skill that the resulting recording is lifted to an even higher place than one may have imagined. This is especially noticeable with pianist Adam Fairhall. His performance here is simply stunning. Throughout the session, he performs at such a high level of mastery, virtuosity and above all, intrinsic understanding, at times the listener is left speechless. There appears to be a rare natural musical bond between the musicians here, one that elevates the music well beyond normal expectations. Interestingly, in a recent interview for UK Vibe, Birchall makes reference to part of the recording process: “When we have a new song, usually at a recording session, I explain the different parts to the players and how they fit together. We then have a brief run through the beginning of the piece, maybe once or maybe twice, and then we go for a take. Each player has to really find his own space. The musicians are free to deviate from the written part after it has been played for a few bars or for the duration of the melody statement, but even this is not strict, it depends on the song.” Birchall’s approach pays huge dividends on this recording, allowing space and freedom for the band to shine. Without doubt this approach requires the players to be on the same wavelength, and it works with an unerring cohesion here. Birchall sums it up well: “I believe the best music is made when the musicians are free to play as they wish within the character of the song, and you have to be a certain type of player to do this.”

“Invocations” features five tracks, four Birchall compositions and Coltrane’s “To Be”. All the pieces sit very well together, the album as a whole being more like one conceptual spiritual vessel rather than separate individual tracks. The journey begins with “Song to The Divine Mother”, a searching, emotively powerful composition that draws the listener in from its first breath. The percussive and bass-led opening soon develops into a Coltrane-like floating hymn, the music caressing and comforting the soul with Birchall’s evocative and expressive tenor reaching out to the listener, at times subtle, at times explosive, but always with a deep meditative balance. The rhythm section plot their own course half-way through the tune, with pianist Adam Fairhall taking the lead in breathtaking fashion. There seems to be an awareness here, one of mindful unity and understanding from the musicians. It’s such an open, honest vibe being created that when the band leader’s sax brings the tune back in, it’s totally natural, nothing being forced, allowing the music to simply live and breathe. It’s almost as if Birchall and co are the divine vessels through which the music flows. Tim Fairhall’s double bass leads us into “Invocation”, a thoughtful piece that gradually builds on its reflective opening with Adam Fairhall’s piano holding it all together as Birchall soars. The extended intro, punctuated by some great drums and percussion from Hunter and Weaver, takes us into more familiar territory as the melody kicks in, underpinned by a cool, time-honoured bass riff that allows pianist Fairhall and saxophonist Birchall to express themselves, weaving in and out of the subtle nuances created by the band as a whole. One can only sit and marvel with a deep respect on hearing Coltrane’s “To Be”. Originally recorded during 1967’s “Expression” sessions, the tune featured Coltrane on flute, sharing the ambience with Pharoah Sanders’ piccolo flute. Birchall’s tenor playing suits the feel of the track perfectly. There’s a universal energy emanating here, one which sees Birchall leading his band to an ultimate truth through the lineage of Coltrane and Sanders. And when pianist Fairhall rides the waves of consciousness with such passion, it’s hard to imagine anyone else enhancing an old Trane tune with such skilful beauty and heartfelt understanding. Continuing in the same mood, “Njozi (Vision)” is a truly stunning piece of music. Birchall disappears into freer territory here, yet his soloing is so immersive and involving, that there’s never a doubt in my mind as to just how poignant and melodiously wondrous his playing can be. He’s on fire here, his inner flames darting out with metaphysical strength and prowess, engaging and atmospheric. During this tune he hands over the torch to Fairhall who provides us with an equally memorable passage of virtuosic piano playing. The emotional power in his performance lifts things to an even higher plane. The final track, “A Luta Continua” translates as “The struggle continues”. No matter what tongue we are speaking in, the universal language here is undoubtedly in the music itself. The improvisations around the core themes create an aesthetic of purity and unbridled, unashamed freedom of spirit and expression. Listen to this album by letting yourself go… by letting everything go… and you will be transported to a place where music rarely takes us, to the heart and soul of our very being.

Mike Gates