ENRICHING THE SPIRIT


PAUL DUNMALL MOKSHA BIG BAND: I WISH YOU PEACE

(Cuneiform Records. Rune 203)
FULL CIRCLE: EXPLORATIONS. (Red Eye Music. Redeye 002)
 

The work being done in the area of free jazz/improv/spontaneous composition, call it what you like, continues to provide me with some of the most stimulating and rewarding listening. So it is extremely gratifying to hear the continually challenging music of Paul Dunmall and associates being documented alongside the next generation, in the shape of Welsh improvising quartet Full Circle.
  
I Wish You Peace
was conceived as Dunmall's 50th birthday celebration and this big band is an extension of his staggeringly powerful octet whilst exhibiting elements of his smaller group work in the process. It covers a range of settings featuring players he has worked with many times plus one new one, trumpeter David Priseman. So, inevitably there are shades of earlier work, such as 'The Great Divide' especially its augmented section which saw the ensemble swell to 16 musicians.
  
Dunmall, in the liner notes, says that he was writing this music when 'the war in Iraq was in full flow', so the title took on a greater significance and the project became more than simply a personal celebratory statement. But it would be misleading to read it as a kind of anti-war diatribe, instead as the name 'Moksha' says, it is about supreme liberation and is imbued with a spiritual intensity akin to that which Dunmall's great inspiration, Coltrane, achieved.
  
From its mysterious opening with autoharp and percussion setting up a drone, it is obvious that this is no ordinary 'big band'. This lays a foundation for the leader’s meditative tenor sax and Paul Rogers' purring bass. Wraith-like piano lines, courtesy of Keith Tippett, contribute to an atmosphere of expectation but it is the tenor which most captures listener’s imagination, quietly but insistently probing. Gradually, as is often the case in Dunmall’s writing for larger ensembles, the horns glide in with a stately motif against the tenor saxophone’s increasingly urgent attack. This contrast is particularly effective, bringing together the elements of composition and free improvisation, all driven by Tony Levin’s powerhouse drumming. It is free jazz at its most controlled and exhilarating, another trademark of any work Dunmall and company are involved in.
  
‘Part Two’ commences with a small scale improvisation showcasing the trombones of Paul Rutherford and Hilary Jeffery in a busy exchange of mercurial ideas.  The track inevitably builds in momentum as Tippett’s dancing piano darts around the deft drumming and sturdy, propulsive bass. It's easy to hear the spirit of Mujician in this section until it is further augmented by the incisive trumpet of Gethin Liddington. There is more agitated trumpet later in the movement but this time juxtaposed with what sounds like either a marimba or thumb piano. An inspired duet that is merely one more notable section in a 21 minute piece which moves seamlessly from small group interactions to the full throttle barrage of the entire outfit. What unites the work is undoubtedly the passion and sensitivity of all involved; they think as one and there is strong sense of listening apparent in the way they feed off each other's statements.
  
The start of 'Part Three' echoes the beginning of the suite with the autoharp accompanied this time by Rogers' arco bass singing across the breadth and depth of its range, becoming more abstract as it progresses. Tippett's prepared piano jangles and adds both percussive and melodic colour before Dunmall's tumbling soprano takes off on further expressive and intense explorations. Subtly the written and improvised materials merge again as the colossus edges towards an ecstatic crescendo.
  
Near the close a ghostly fragment from the somewhat cliched wartime tune 'We'll Meet Again' drifts fleetingly behind the improvisations returning the listener to the sentiments of the title. Music may not be able to deflect those bent on war but it will always stand as an alternative that enriches rather than depletes the human spirit. This recording is an outstanding example of that.

By contrast, I recently heard an executive from one of the major record labels saying that 'the public' didn't want to hear 'difficult jazz' and then compounding his stupidity by saying that the works of Coltrane and Miles Davis are no longer 'in vogue'. Without wanting to unravel the semantics of either 'difficult', 'jazz' or 'vogue' this is plainly a slice of economic spin. But such an attitude doesn't bode well for more adventurous work that dares to set foot outside of a narrow mainstream.
 
However. I find it continually satisfying to come across new improvising musicians like those featured on Full Circle’s extremely assured and exhilarating release. They are new, in that I haven’t heard them before and they are relatively recent arrivals on the jazz scene but I suspect more will be heard from them, narrow-minded company executives notwithstanding.

They operate in a mainly acoustic arena with just a few electronic embellishments and feature the multi-instrumental talents of Deri Roberts on saxes, trombone, didgeridoo and flute. His contributions are balanced by impressive, frequently tumultuous piano from Dave Stapleton, diverse percussion courtesy of Elliott Bennett and the unusual combination of double bass, acoustic guitar and electronics from the hands of Matthew Lovett.
  
The cd features a mixture of live and studio recording and all sections are equally compelling, for example ‘Part 7’ where the dense undertow of piano rises against the agitated flute before calming into a stretch of lyrical interplay with the percussion. Plucked bass and the muted growling of the didgeridoo set up a different tonal scenario before the cascading piano builds once more.
  
'Part 1' is taken from a live gig and demonstrates how group improvisation can make use of colour and energy without being in any way 'difficult'. Roberts' soprano is fluent and luminous, while once more the piano explores both sparse and more substantial textures. Parts of the piece reminded me of Stan Tracey and Mike Osborne in one of their spectacular duo improvisations. Additionally the drumming brings a powerful momentum to the track. 
  
More fragmentary sounds open 'Part 2' with scraped strings and minimal piano. This is another live example of how subtlety can be an essential ingredient of improvisation. When the tenor enters and joins forces with the keyboard and guitar it is a timely reminder that warmth and passion can equally feature in this type of jazz, just as much as any other strata of the genre.
  
The didgeridoo makes another atmospheric appearance on 'Part 5' along with edgy piano, some of which sounds treated in a similar way to Keith Tippett's methods. The zither-like string effects strike a delicate contrast to that other guttural voice.
  
I could just as easily enthuse about any of the joint compositions here but instead I'll simply recommend this remarkable release as an exciting meeting of four like-minded players who clearly have all eyes and ears on the music and not the opinions of lackwits looking for a fast return on investment. This music is the real thing if you want to hear honest and impassioned jazz played with love, commitment and a sense of adventure.
           
    © Paul Donnelly 2004