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BigSpoon's Chris Engel: Intention... And Spontaneity

BigSpoon's Chris Engel: Intention...  And Spontaneity

Courtesy Chris Engel

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More and more, what would have been considered jazz venues don’t lend themselves to the aesthetic that a lot of bands are putting out these days. They are more acoustic venues, and a lot of bands are experimenting with electronica and sequencing and all sorts of tools.
—Chris Engel
So much goes into a debut album—a lifetime of learning, experiences and myriad influences. The music that springs forth is also often shaped in subtle and unfathomable ways that are sometimes not entirely clear even to the composer.

Some musical reference points may appear obvious, others much less so, and so it is with The Return of the Prodigal Son (Diatribe Records, 2022) by Dublin four-piece BigSpoon. It's a visceral affair, hewn from jazz and improvised traditions, electronic music and post-production sculpting.

Formed by Chris Engel in 2016, BigSpoon's debut album also marks the South African-born saxophonist's recorded bow as leader. It is an album of great intensity and equally, of great beauty. Complexity and simplicity. Tradition, and boundary pushing.

It has been a long journey for Engel, so often the sideman in some of Dublin's most exciting contemporary jazz and improvised music projects since arriving on Irish shores in 2011. Then in his mid-twenties, Engel had already obtained degrees in jazz studies from the University of Cape Town and the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo.

In Dublin Engel landed on his feet, quickly becoming an-demand figure on the city's thriving music scenes. BigSpoon came into being in 2016 when a booker—who was running a festival on the Arron Islands off Galway Bay—heard some of Engel's more experimental music on Soundcloud.

"He offered me a budget, and this allowed me an opportunity to do something that I'd always wanted to do," Engel explains.

"I'd been working with electronics as a kind of solo thing and in commercial dance music for a long time, and I really loved bands like Jaga Jazzist, but I was not getting the opportunity to use the whole potential. I thought, how cool would it be to put together a band to explore other roles that the saxophone could perform within the band? Not only being the soloist, the melodic instrument, but possibly also being a supportive instrument, an instrument that contributes to creating a soundscape."

Engel recruited like-minded improvisors in drummer Matthew Jacobson, keyboardist Darragh O'Kelly and electronics musician Shane O'Donovan to help him realize his goal.

But after almost eight years in the Irish capital, playing and recording in bands such as Umbra and Phisqa, and founding BigSpoon, Engel upped sticks and moved south-west to Cork, to start a family. "The likelihood of us being able to build the quality of life that we aspire to would be higher in Cork than in Dublin," says Engel.

Through trombonist Paul Dunlea, a galvanizing figure in Irish jazz, Engel soon met like-minded musicians in Cork and started going to jam sessions. Moving to Cork, however, by no means meant severing ties with Dublin. "Most of my long-term, stable projects were Dublin-based," Engel explains, "so I was traveling for them."

BigSpoon, happily, was top of Engel's list of priorities.

Listening to The Return of the Prodigal Son it is clear that Engel, who was weaned on Cannonball Adderley and Sonny Rollins, is stretching the traditional role of the saxophone. There are a couple of typically robust solos from the leader, to be sure, but these are the exceptions rather than the rule.

For most of the album's suite-like thirty-eight minutes—the length of an old vinyl LP—Engel plays an almost orchestral role, blending in with the other instruments, filtering his alto sound electronically and generally blurring the lines between keys, electronics and saxophone.

"I was very conscious when putting the set together of not getting to a stage, as a listener, where I was saturated with saxophone playing all the time, even if I am changing the sound of the instrument. I also wanted to engage and showcase the different elements of the band. "

Engel's intent is telegraphed from the outset with the powerful album opener, "The Introduction." Here, he alternates between clean, acoustic melodic lines and electronically masked play that becomes part of something greater—an all-enveloping group sound. It is this sound that gave the band its name.

"The name BigSpoon came out of my vision for what the musical landscape would be. I had this vision of the listener being enveloped in the music; the listener is the small spoon, and the music is the big spoon."

At times, Engel is content to take something of a backseat role, particularly on the synthesizer-led 'Beyond Reasoning.' "I do very little on that track other than play a bass line," he explains. "I also thought it would be cool to explore how, if you mask the sound of the saxophone, how that would translate musically. I think it's really interesting to hear people go, 'Is there any saxophone at all on this track?' And you're going, 'Yes, there's saxophone all over it!'" Engel says, laughing.

"I guess the question is, do you need to know exactly what every element to every instrument is all the time, in order for the music to speak to you?"

The ambient synth track "Beyond Reasoning," and to some extent the rawer and more raucous "Bucket List" explore similar territory to Brad Mehldau and Mark Guiliana's Mehliana: Taming the Dragon (Nonesuch Records, 2014). It's an influence that Engel acknowledges. "I really loved the Mehliana album. That's such a polarising album, but I loved it."

On "Alice in Wonderland," on the other hand, Big Spoon roars like a 21st-century incarnation of Weather Report, creating music that is somehow of, and yet ahead, of its time.

That Joe Zawinul's influence should have seeped into The Return Of the Prodigal Son is perhaps not a surprise, as Engel, O'Donovan and O'Kelly all play in Plaza Real, bassist Barry Donohue's Weather Report tribute band. "I love Weather Report—that was a huge influence on this, in a way," Engel happily admits.

Yet more than any one band, or any one influence, Engel sees the music on The Return of the Prodigal Son as a synthesis of all the music he has channelled creatively over the years. "It is the closest thing to a representation of what is going on in my head musically and what I aspire to musically," he surmises.

"I love being a sideman, I love contributing to other people's seed and helping it grow into a tree that we all discover, but one of the nice things about being a leader and having control over the direction that the music is taking is that you get to indulge these things that you've never been able to indulge in any other project you've been involved in. And it's so fulfilling because you're getting to say what you've wanted to say all of this time," laughs Engel.

"It doesn't matter what happens to it then, you've gotten it out of your system. Hopefully the band members like it, hopefully the people who listen to it like it, but even if they don't, the more important thing is that I am happy with the output."

One of the strengths of The Return of the Prodigal Son is the way in which Engel hitches the individual voices of Jacobson, O'Donovan and O'Kelly to his vision, while at the same time allowing their musical personalities to shine through.

With such strong musical personalities in the mix, this balancing act is maybe harder to achieve than it might seem to an outsider.

"At times it was incredibly challenging," Engel concedes. "They've all got so much music to contribute, they've all got personalities that I wanted to access, you know? I spent lot of time thinking about how to write the music, to coordinate the geography—where we're coming from, where we're going to—and how much detail to put in, how much detail to leave out. Or if there was an open space, how to communicate that open space to each of the individuals so that I could access that personality."

In a sense, The Return of the Prodigal Son has been a work in progress, a continual evolution, since the band first came into being.

"Sometimes over the five or six years I was successful at accessing those personalities, sometimes I wasn't. Sometimes I thought we all understood where we were going and sometimes it became clear that we didn't, "admits Engel.

"In the rehearsal room and on stage, people are often hearing different things. You've no idea what people are hearing because it's so complex to get the live sound right. Everybody's reference point, at certain times, was completely different. Recording the album was quite beneficial, because it was like, 'Oh, this is what we were going for!'" Engel laughs.

"A lot has changed over the years, you know. Shane, for example, has had so many different electronic set-ups before the one that he used on the recording. The same with Matthew and Darragh—every gig, every rehearsal, because they're also trying to keep it fresh for themselves, new ideas are coming into everything. You'd have to ask them the degree to which they feel they've been able to imprint their personalities on the album, but I certainly think that they've made the music come alive."

For the recording of The Return of the Prodigal Son Engel tapped into BigSpoon's natural habitat, the live arena, in order to capture the essence of the band's sound.

"We recorded the album in the same way we would perform live, as one set, and then re-recorded tracks we weren't happy with. We wanted to try and bring a live energy and continuity through the album. It's for that reason there are no pauses between tracks. We wanted the offering to be one thirty-eight-minute experience—a journey that you go on," Engel explains.

"The last thing I wanted for the music was for there to be a lull in momentum. I really wanted to trim the fat from the material and to make sure that this story was going to grip the listener from start to finish. I really feel as if we've done that."

Striking the right balance between compositional form and improvisational freedom on the album was a central concern for Engel.

"What things to pin down as hard and fast rules and which things to leave open, that's the challenge. People who love to compose spontaneously, that's where the kind of risk-reward aspect of the music comes from because there is a chance that we may connect on this level and there is a chance that we may not," Engel laughs, "and that is what's exciting about it."

The risk factor is ever present, but Engel was acutely aware that any improvised sections on the album had to make sense within the context of the tune and within the broader context of the set. Parameters had to be set.

"The goal is for those parameters not to be inhibiting, but to be a catalyst to explore somebody's ability to create within that framework. I also want there to be intent behind what I'm doing. "

The intention behind the music is a theme that peppers Engel's discourse.

"Strength of intention is huge. It's a phrase that has sat in my mind for ten or fifteen years, particularly when thinking about various forms of improvised music. If you don't have that then it's all kind of random. That intent was a huge determiner when deciding how to curate the set. It's the reason the album is thirty-eight minutes long, and not forty or fifty minutes.

"In the improvised sections we had to get out of there as soon as that moment ended; don't hang around to see if you can create something the next time round because as a listener that's where my attention wanes."

The music is significantly colored and shaped by post-production cut-and-paste and layering of sounds, an artistry that Engel recognizes as an essential part of the album's aesthetic.

"It's obvious that the four band members were pivotal and integral to the album, but the people that you don't see are [producer] Nick Roth and [sound engineer] Rían Trench. They worked as much and as hard as us and put their stamp on the album to just as great a degree."

The post production work, the layering of Jacobson's drum parts on "Alice in Wonderland"—inspired by Joey Baron and Michael Vatcher's dual drumming on John Zorn's Spy Vs. Spy: The Music Of Ornette Coleman (Elektra/Musician, 1989)—for example, raises the question as to whether BigSpoon will be able to reproduce its more complex music on stage. Engel has no doubts.

"Everything that was done in post-production could be reproduced. We could ask Matthew to play more erratically. As one drummer he could just be busier. Shane is also a drummer, so we might incorporate Shane playing more drums and electronics. There are solutions. The phasing in of the acoustic sound and the distorted sound, that's something that's very easy to do live using an expression pedal that controls the degree of effects."

Engel talks of the potential need for bringing in a sound engineer as "a fifth member of the band" to ensure the best possible live sound every time. Even then, there is no guarantee that great sound is guaranteed as some venues are simply too small and too poorly equipped to cope with BigSpoon's powerful, multi-layered dynamics.

Engel knows all too well that one the biggest challenges facing BigSpoon is to find the right sort of venues. It's a challenge, he says, faced by many contemporary jazz and improvised music groups.

"More and more, what would have been considered jazz venues don't lend themselves to the aesthetic that a lot of bands are putting out these days. They are more acoustic venues, and a lot of bands are experimenting with electronica and sequencing and all sorts of tools.

"It will be interesting to see how the various scenes in various countries deal with this new challenge—how they find new spaces for the music and how they curate festivals so that bands are being put on the right sort of stages and the right sort of venues for the music they are making, rather than thinking, 'This is my headline act so they have to be on the biggest stage," regardless of whether or not that stage suits what they are putting out. Yeah, those are things we just have to try and figure out moving forward."

The story behind the album's title track, which Engel wrote as far back as 2007, while studying in Norway, is one that connects him to his South African roots.

"The groove for the acoustic version was heavily inspired by Bheki Mseleku's "Angola." It was born out of the sounds that represent home for me. It was called "The Return of the Prodigal Son" because it took me leaving home to realize the things that were so special to me about home, going back now," Engel explains.

"I was going back, kind of tail between my legs, going 'Actually, there's a lot home has to offer musically.' Not that I didn't know that, but when you're young and you're pursuing any discipline, it's very natural to think that the magic lies abroad, you know, for jazz in New York or in Scandinavia because they had all this cool ECM stuff and improvised music going on. But there's a lot of really cool shit happening," Engel laughs. "Don't discount what is going on at home."

There is indeed a rich vein of South African jazz talent, with many artists making waves internationally.

"There is some really great stuff happening and it's great that it's getting that sort of attention. Maybe it has been spurred on by the attention the South African scene has gotten from the American scene," Engel suggests.

"There have been some collaborative projects where Jazz at Lincoln Centre has gone down to South Africa, where South African artists have been involved in projects at Carnegie Hall and conducted workshops around the States. Nduduzo Makhathini signing to Blue Note has kind of opened the door a little bit to what is going on with other musicians in South Africa."

The current wave of South African jazz artists, however, is merely following a long tradition, as Engel is quick to point out, citing the likes of Zim Ngqawana and Louis Moholo-Moholo as influential to the development of today's scene.

"Those guys have been the cornerstone of this new wave. And obviously Bheki Mseleku is what Abdullah Ibrahim was for the previous generation of South African jazz musicians. If you ask any South African musician today who has influenced them I'd be very surprised if his name didn't crop up."

Institutions like Jazz at Lincoln Centre and the mainstream jazz media are undoubtedly taste makers, but just how broad a spectrum of South African jazz they promote is open to debate.

"Not to paint all South African jazz with the same brush but definitely what I see as being popular or getting a lot of attention is still heavily influenced by the modal, [John] Coltrane, McCoy Tyner period," attests Engel. "High energy music, that because of its openness and with clear foundations it appeals to both serious jazz listeners and more casual jazz listeners, those 'drop-in-and-drop-out' listeners. The music gets a response on different levels."

As for most people, COVID caused serious disruption to Engel's way of life. And not just in terms of lost gigs. There was, more significantly, perhaps, a loss of confidence.

"I think one thing that I didn't realize before that I certainly learned from lockdown is that practice, individual practice is formative; it's really, really important to honing your craft, but so is regular performing, gigging. I underestimated the level of confidence and the quality of execution that regular playing gave me. Lockdown made me very anxious and nervous about upcoming gigs, which I didn't have before at all," Engel reveals.

"I was almost delusionally confident in not worrying whether or not I'd screw up. I'd just kind of brush it off. Not that I didn't care, but I was a big risk taker in my approach to playing. I always have been. It's partially cultural I think, and I didn't realize how gigging and performing regularly contributed to the confidence I needed to be that sort of musical risk-taker in the way that I improvise."

Are South African jazz musicians greater musical risk takers than their counterparts elsewhere?

"I can only speak from my experience, but the playing that I heard from contemporaries of mine, or people that I would have listened to growing up in South Africa, people like our common references, Chris McGregor and the Brotherhood of Breath, Dudu Pukwana—that music is very raw. One phrase that you wouldn't use with those musicians, those improvisors, is 'clinical execution.' That's not what that music is about, whereas I think in other cultures they maybe incorporate a little bit more of that," Engel ventures.

"Don't get me wrong, I think that being able to execute is very, very important, and it's something that I would aspire to in practice, but I think that on the bandstand or in the recording studio sometimes instinct takes over. Sometimes if you take risks it doesn't always work out. A line or phrase that could have sounded complete had you not gone for that extra little bit—suddenly it falls apart ever so slightly. And that's okay, sometimes that's part of the sound, the music, and other times it's disappointing. I think that's cultural."

Engel has lived big changes in the last few years—the move from Dublin to Cork, getting married and becoming a father. COVID also forced Engel's hand in another way. "When lockdown hit in 2020 and I was doing the on-line thing for a while, but after three months I just really struggled to keep my level of motivation up with no in-person work to look forward to."

For Engel, it wasn't so much the audiences he missed playing for as the personal connection made playing with his bandmates, on stage and in rehearsal.

"That's why I play music, you know. The saxophone isn't really a solo instrument. It requires context. It's a melodic instrument, but for the most part you rely on the context of the rest of the band to make your contribution to the whole. That's where I get my kicks, musically speaking, that interaction."

It was in these enforced circumstances that Engel took a major decision. "I decided to embrace the opportunity to do something else and I ended up getting a 9-to-5 job at Apple that I still have. It's been interesting."

Music might not take up quite so much of Engel's time as it used to, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

"I'm still playing, but I don't have the luxury of as much time as I had before, so I guess I'm a bit more selective about what I get involved in."

For Engel, these days it is all about being busy with the right kind of projects. "That was what was so great about Umbra and some of the other projects—they all kind of pushed me in a different way and got me to practice with a different focus."

Engel happily admits that playing music now is more fun than it was previously when the cold reality of economic necessity often meant taking on numerous less—than-inspiring gigs, just to meet the bills. He welcomes the security that comes with a full-time job. But does it perhaps come at a price? "I think I miss the edge that regular play would have given me at my busiest," Engel muses.

Making The Return of the Prodigal Son feels like the end of the first chapter for BigSpoon. Going forward, Engel's focus is in trying to promote the album, his musical concept, at music expos and to secure bookings on the sort of stages that will show BigSpoon in its best light.

"To me, BigSpoon is a festival band," Engel affirms. "It's not the sort of band that could play in small jazz clubs. So, we need to strategize and to see what makes the most sense in terms of partnerships."

BigSpoon may have come into being through happenstance rather than by grand design, but given Engel's musical drive, it was probably only a matter of time.

"There's a lot about one's musical journey that involves timing and luck..." Engel recognizes, "the good fortune of having the right motivation to keep spurring you on to achieve, musically speaking."

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