Sometimes, music is made to be pleasant without presenting audacious and extreme challenges to the ear. The key is for that music to remain engaging. How differentiated the instrumentation is, the more chances the umbrella of engagement can be opened. The slightest edge, the slightest off-centeredness will be heard and remembered, and will expand the music's integrity.
In this somewhat conventionally titled recording, Songs and Themes, sampler Ashley Wales and multi-instrumentalist John Coxon, the British duo Spring Heel Jack, have incorporated the contributions of savvy internationally known contemporary musicians into their identifiable electronic sampling and instrumentals.
There is nothing upbeat about this twelve track recording. The tempo never seems to change. Coxon and Wales have created the parameters within which the musicians can move. Even when the duo chooses not to participate ("For Paul Rutherford" and "Folk Players"), the musicians carry on with an essential drone-like dilated motion. There are no choruses, no call-and-response exchanges, no riffs, and no standard, countable drum pulsations.
Trumpeter Roy Campbell and saxophonist John Tchicai are the main players; they carve out the melodies and superbly so. They have a say-so right up front and are never stuck back in the crowd, even though they are recorded and mixed in the layering that completes the music. The trumpet plays on every cut except one, where the bass is the main voice. The alto works only once on top of the backdrop Coxon and Wales provide ("Dereks"). On "Silvertone," Tchicai, on bass clarinet and almost in holy guise, flutters, bends and presses exquisite low tones over Coxon's violin curtain.
John Edwards' bass also takes a prime spot in theme-making: his arco on "Folk Players" imposes length and continuity over the isolated mallet strikes on the vibraphone and the stick work on cymbals. On the whole, the vibes and drums weave in and out of the music percussively, accenting the flow or building bridges between one moment and the next. But on "1000 Yards," drummer Marsh does more than span bridges; he and guitarist J Spaceman build a wall of sound that lasts four-and-half-minutes.
The most involved instrumentation occurs on "Church Music," "Without Words," and "At Long Last," where stories are told that have resolution beyond that of any other compositions. "Garlands," the last cut, puts the final touch on a tightly designed recording.
Everything on this record is audible. Everything. The musical lines within each composition are patently evident and go in one direction: forward. The listener can determine the separation of the lines without a lot of effort. Perhaps this is the beauty of Spring Heel Jack's compositions. The clarity with which the pair arranges the music, how its most direct display can be maximized and how the colors of one instrument can be pitted against a persistent surface are the cornerstones to the music's appreciation.
Personnel: Roy Campbell Jr.: trumpet, pocket trumpet, flugelhorn, flute; John Coxon: electric and acoustic guitars, bass guitar, samples, violin, glockenspiel; Ashley Wales: samples; John Tchai: alto and tenor saxophone, bass clarinet; John Edwards: double bass; Tony Marsh: drums; Orphy Robinson: vibraphone; J Spaceman: electric guitar (9, 12); Mark Sanders: drums (7); Rupert Clervaux: drums (8).