The music scene in the UK notices jazz about once every ten years and then forgets the musicians thrust into the limelight quite unforgivingly. The recent Jazz Britannia series told the tale of Keith Tippett, extravagantly flying his Centipede band to Europe in the early '70s but reduced to picking potatoes by the 1980s. In the mid-1980s a young big band called Loose Tubes gained a high enough profile to be featured in a rare jazz concert at the BBC Proms. Today, you would be hard pressed to attend a regular jazz venue without bumping into an ex-Loose Tuber, yet few are known beyond the jazz world.
Mark Lockheart has had the good fortune to get a second chance at fame as a member of the Mercury Prize-nominated group Polar Bear. Since Loose Tubes, however, he has been involved in a wide range of other musical activities, including the band Perfect Houseplants and appearances on discs by June Tabor, Billy Jenkins, and Radiohead.
Lockheart explains the music on Moving Air as having grown out of practicing, modestly underemphasising the compositional skill that marks the disc. It draws from the talents of four players, but with Lockheart multitracked on saxophones, adding clarinets and piano to give the feel of a little big band. Touring this work in autumn of 2005 has required the addition of three extra reed players, adding another dimension to the music.
Lockheart draws his melodies from various sources. He often employs the minimalism associated with composers like John Adams, as on the up-tempo opener, "Tell Me Why." Many of his themes seem related to English folk music. Elsewhere the music sounds like the soundtrack to a missing film. "Man in the Moon" has a faintly Spanish flavour, emphasised by John Parricelli's guitar. Throughout, the almost pastoral feel of the pieces is given real drive by Martin France's drumming. "When the Fire Burns Low" allows Lockheart to explore a new instrument in his repertoire, the bass clarinet, over a delicious descending chord pattern.
Especially memorable is "Dreamland," which begins with a pattern-like Morse code established on Fender Rhodes before switching to a folk-like melody. The richness of the composing is especially strong, a lovely bass clarinet counter-melody complementing the main theme before shifting into a darker section. The themes established at the start are then used as a base for passionate soprano and tenor solos. The closing track, "Light Years," evokes the immense space implied in the title, a world reminiscent of Copland's "Quiet City."
Although conceived on a smaller scale, Moving Air often recalls the recent music of Maria Schneider, with its attention to compositional detail, the way solos seem to rise naturally out of the written music and the beauty of its melodies. Like Schneider's, this music, though sometimes bittersweet, is essentially bright and optimistic, displaying none of the angst demanded in much "modern" jazz.
Personnel: Mark Lockheart: saxophones, clarinets; Martin France: drums, electric percussion; Dudley
Phillips: double and electric bass; John Parricelli: guitars.