Allow me to say at the outset that this is not music I would rush to the nearest record store to buy. On the other hand, there are many others who might. If one bases his evaluation on size and instrumentation, Ultrasound (based in Bristol, England) is a “big band” (although it prefers the term “contemporary Jazz ensemble”), but definitely not in the traditional (i.e., straight–ahead) sense of the term. In other words, the music it performs is typically bold and often thematic, and while it sometimes swings, that’s not its cardinal purpose. Ultrasound chooses instead to draw sweeping sound–pictures whose uncommon landscapes are aimed at the mind as well as the heart. On North Utsire South Utsire the theme is the sea, with its series of seven graphic tone poems inspired by John Cabot’s voyage to the New World in 1497 aboard the good ship Matthew. The main sections (“Oceanology,” “The Matthew Variations,” “Ocean Blue,” “All at Sea,” “Eighth Voyage,” “A Thousand Miles or More,” “Breaking Water”), all of which were written by members of the ensemble, are separated in some instances by shorter “variations” drafted by trombonist Ralf Dorrell (Variation V, on which Ben Waghorn’s clarinet is the only voice heard, closes the session). Variation III, by the way, is quite charming, shuffling along to the sound of a rhythm guitar and featuring a muted trumpet in front of winds and rhythm to enhance a lightly swinging motif. Saxophonist Jake McMurchie’s lovely “Thousand Miles or More,” whose gently swaying, quasi–Latin rhythms and richly textured voicings for brass and reeds are near–hypnotic, was recorded in concert, everything else in a studio. Also enchanting (and at times almost Kentonesque, with an occasional nod to Astor Piazzolla) is keyboardist Jon Stein’s “Breaking Water,” which uses each of the orchestra’s various sections to good advantage behind splendid solos by Stein, Waghorn (on tenor) and guitarist Clive Radford. “The Opening” and “Oceanology,” both by pianist Jonathan Taylor, summon forth abstract images of the sea in its various forms, using counterpoint, shock chords and other devices to press them home. Trombonist Savio Pacini’s “Ocean Blue” opens gently before giving way to a more rhythmic groove in which Taylor is thoroughly comfortable, then slows again for Kevin Figes’ burnished alto. Figes’ unaccompanied flute is heard first on his composition, “All at Sea,” whose dreamlike strains are introduced by Stein, bass guitarist Andy Keep and drummer Simon Gore before Radford and flugel Andy Hague (who’s equally impressive on “Thousand Miles”) assume the spotlight. Keep’s “Eighth Voyage” begins darkly with keyboard, bass guitar and vibes leading to staccato phrases from the reeds before the brass briefly enter the fray, Figes and McMurchie solo in front of steadily advancing brass crescendos, vibraphonist Matthew Griffiths and Stein on Fender Rhodes take their turns during a period of repose, and the ensemble quickly reasserts itself with a jarringly dissonant passage before Figes and McMurchie return to shepherd the piece toward its placid denouement.
There are no underlying themes to bind together the disparate elements on Critical Moments, which captures Ultrasound in a livelier frame of mind. There are, however, some brief dedications — Taylor’s “Coyote Falls Short” for Warner Bros. cartoons’ arch–villain, Wile E. Coyote, “I am Melting” for the wicked witch of the West — and descriptions. On “Thanatoid Song” (“We are assured by the Tibetan Book of the Dead that the soul finds no difference between the weirdness of life and the weirdness of death”); on “Bacon Madras” (“do not try this at home”); on “Prodrome” (“the calm before the storm”); and on “Dire Tonic” (“Barbra Streisand meets African tribal Jazz”). Again, all numbers were written by members of the band — Taylor (“Coyote” and its reprise), Figes (“Madras”), Radford (“Thanatoid”), Keep (“Melting”), McMurchie (“Prodrome”) and Hague (“Tonic,” on which his flugel is featured). And again, everything is adventurous and largely unpredictable (although, to its credit, Ultrasound never forswears entirely its commitment to those elements that make any music worthwhile — melody, harmony, rhythm and their resourceful arrangement within a given time frame). Critical Moments swings harder than Utsire (especially on “Bacon Madras” and “Prodrome”) but can’t match the latter’s understated charm (although Hague’s sylphlike “Dire Tonic” comes close) or sense of continuity. “I Am Melting” is a shapely ballad, “Thanatoid” surprisingly upbeat and sunny for a song whose inspiration may have been the Tibetan Book of the Dead; only “Coyote” (either version) falls short of being musically appetizing. Soloists who leave a strongly favorable impression include Hague, tenors Waghorn, Will Vinson and Matt Sibley, trombonist Pacini, alto Figes, trumpeter Pete Judge, guitarist Radford and pianist Taylor. While each album has its moments, if it came to either/or I’d have to go with Utsire because of its panoramic beauty, but others may prefer Critical Moments’ more passionate point of view.
Track listing: North Utsire South Utsire — Opening; Oceanology (The Matthew Variations); Variation I; Ocean Blue; Variation II; All at Sea; Variation III; Eighth Voyage; Variation IV; A Thousand Miles or More; Breaking Water; Variation V (68:09). Critical Moments — Coyote Falls Short; Bacon Madras; Thanatoid Song; I Am Melting; Prodrome; Dire Tonic; Coyote Reprise (55:52).