Quirky, quietly trippy and deliciously uncategorisable, Earth To Ether is an oddity (we like odd) even by Theo Travis' standards. The British flautist/saxophonist's varied activities include leading a hardworking on-the-road straight-ahead band, co-leadership of ambient/electronica outfit Cipher and free improv trio Marshall Travis Wood, and ongoing composing, performing and producing collaborations with Daevid Allen's Gong and singer/songwriter Anja Garbarek (daughter of Jan). Each of these diverse projects is stamped with Travis' trademark lyricism and love of lush, dreamy soundscapes.
There are elements of all these experiences hereplus guest contributions from prog/Canterbury vocalist/guitarist Richard Sinclair (Caravan, Hatfield & The North, Robert Wyatt, Hugh Hopper, Tony Coe); lyrics from Jonathan Coe, author of the acclaimed cult novel The Rotters Club, ("The Munich Train," "This Frozen Time"); astral jazz ("The Mystic & The Emperor"); in-the-Jobim-groove bossa nova ("Marti"); shades of Eddie Harris' hot tenor soul-jazz ("Full Moon Rising Part 2")... and a straight up cover of King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man."
The wonder is, it all fits so seamlessly together.
The three vocal tracks, it has to be said, have precious little to do with jazz, and should the jazz police discover them on this album, Travis will have some questions to answer. But they are enchanting pieces of music however you label them (progressive folk? the sound of psilocybin?). Sinclair's voice is one of a kind, and full of character, and he is an ideal vehicle for Coe's deceptively simple lyrics (young woman on a train, observed; the loss of a partner, wintertime), which gain resonance with every repeated listening.
As well as the ability to put out grits 'n' chitlins tenor solos, Travis and Eddie Harris share another, electronic lineage. Back in the '60s, Harris pioneered the use of the electric sax; forty years later, Travis has developed his own live-and-in-real-time multitracking system"ambitronics"which allows him to build up complex canvasses of sound via a series of foot pedals. The system here enriches in particular Travis' flute work on "The Munich Train" and "Stewed Flute," the latter an otherwise unaccompanied flute solo. Travis, admirably, is in complete control of the electronics, while a lesser artist might be overwhelmed by a blizzard of loops and overdubs.
Out of the left field for sure, Earth To Ether will sidle up to you and, if you let it, magic you away.
Postscript. Anyone who has heard Travis' music won't be surprised to learn that he has a wry sense of humour. In the magazine ads for his current UK tour, Travis uses just two press quotes, each of which could be one of the many heavyweight critical endorsements he has acquired for his music. Refreshingly, one of the quotes reads: "The thinking woman's crumpet of British jazz" (Oxford Times).
Personnel: Theo Travis, flute, alto flute, tenor saxophone; Simon Colam, piano; Andy Hamill, double bass; Marc Parnell, drums, percussion. Richard Sinclair, vocals, acoustic guitar on "The Book," "The Munich Train" and "This Frozen Time." Mark Wood, guitar on "Marti." David Gordon, piano on "Marti." Roy Dodds, percussion on "This Frozen Time."