Named after a character from Victorian folklore, Spring Heel Jack (the English electronic duo of John Coxon and Ashley Wales) has vaulted across stylistic divides with the same ease that witnesses attributed to the legendary figure. Undergoing a gradual aesthetic transformation over the past decade, they have expanded from experimental drum 'n bass duo to innovators in a genre of their own devising: free-ambient.
Since the turn of the Millennium, their recordings have featured appearances by such notable free jazz icons as Tim Berne, Evan Parker, William Parker, Paul Rutherford, Matthew Shipp, Wadada Leo Smith, John Surman and Kenny Wheeler.
Songs and Themes, their eighth album for Thirsty Ear Records, features another stellar cast, including trumpeter Roy Campbell and saxophonist John Tchicai. A dusky aural journey through soundscapes ranging from the pastoral to the urban, this is their most accessible and harmonious record to date.
Beautifully recorded at Abbey Road studios, the understated session unfolds episodically, knitting somber transitory themes and subtly tense interludes with judicious restraint. Cinematic in scope, the album weaves an effervescent mosaic of shimmering vibes, lush synth washes, and plangent horns driven by reverberating bass and sporadic percussion.
Campbell and Tchicai ply mournful tones and lyric refrains from their horns across rich sonic landscapes, with Campbell as the primary voice. His tender phrasing on "With Out Words" sets the stage for the majority of the album, eliciting soaring cadences that drift effortlessly into the ether. Campbell and Tchicai engage in a melancholy but animated duet on the lengthy "At Long Last," warily navigating an ominous neo-classical setting.
Passages of assertiveness are rare, but not absent. John Edwards' abrasive arco bass dominates "Folk Players," while guitarist J Spaceman (Spaceman 3, Spiritualized) unleashes a torrent of caustic feedback on the dramatic "1,000 Yards," bolstering Campbell's plaintive cries on the anthemic closer, "Garlands."
Seamlessly blending textural dissonances and rubato rhythms with aching lyricism and bittersweet harmonies, Song and Themes offers a level of emotional commitment and structural sensitivity that other electro-acoustic artists can aspire to.
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).