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Blue Touch Paper: Blue Touch Paper: Drawing Breath

John Kelman By

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It's difficult enough for an artist or group to deliver their sophomore effort, but it's even more of a challenge when their debut is as strong as Blue Touch Paper's surprising Stand Well Back (Provocateur, 2011). Blue Touch Paper is the brainchild of British keyboardist/composer Colin Towns, who has already garnered plenty of acclaim for his Mask Orchestra and Quintet, as well as his series of big band looks at the music of the Mahavishnu Orchestra on Meeting of the Spirits: A Celebration of The Mahavishnu Orchestra (In + Out, 2006), Miles Davis on Visions of Miles: The Electric Period of Miles Davis (In + Out, 2010), and, curiously, the best of the bunch, his large ensemble arrangements of largely post-Beatles music on John Lennon— In My Own Write (Provocateur, 2011). But in the two years since Stand Well Back, despite Towns remaining the group's sole composer and producer, the inevitable has happened: Blue Touch Paper has become a band.

Of course, such things don't happen without the opportunity to get out on the road and gig, and that's exactly what Blue Touch Paper has done, including what was heard to be a festival-defining set at 2012's ELBJazz, in Hamburg, Germany. If Stand Well Back was the shot across the bow, and a promise of even better things to come, then Drawing Breath delivers on that promise, an album that's even more eclectic, electrified and electrifying.

When it comes to Towns, few press sheets mention his less-than-humble beginnings as keyboardist for Ian Gillan's band, Gillan, which sparked an interest in composition that, even as early as the mid-'70s, was already stretching beyond the ex-Deep Purple singer's metal predilections and towards film soundtracks like Mia Farrow's Full Circle (1977; also released as The Haunting of Julia). That Towns spent the next couple of decades largely scoring for film and television is something that clearly defines his writing for Blue Touch Paper; much of the music is episodic, though some charts, like the vamp-driven "Neon Shadows," rely more specifically on the group's evolving improvisational acumen to bring them (in this case) to gentle, pulse-driven life.

The title track is also groove-centric, but this time with much greater attention to drummer Benny Greb and Stephan Maass, the latter applying some subtle effects to his percussion work as the track leads to a theme from Lockheart that opens up to some of his most vibrant tenor playing of the set, bolstered by Towns' astute choice of keyboard tones, that include sampled women's voices and strings. When Montague picks up the baton for a solo, he demonstrates a virtuosity far greater than anything he's shown to date, as he literally shreds his way through the tune, even as its theme returns and ultimately fades out with the tick-tock of a clock.

"Isadora" begins with Towns alone on grand piano, but over the course of its 10 minutes, as Towns introduces the sounds of a bandoneon (sampled) over bassist Edward MacLean's hypnotically simple but absolutely appropriate bass line, it moves through a number of fundamental shifts: a rapid temporal pick-up during Lockheart's tenor solo that leads to a scored middle section of cinematic proportions that also provides some space for Greb and Maass before taking the tempo down again; Towns' acoustic piano entwines with MacLean's freer tendencies, only to conclude with a closing section that combines the Mediterranean vibe of a joyful Italian wedding with some reggae-infused Irie; a soul-drenched solo from Lockheart that, despite the myriad of influences, navigates Towns' less-than-simple changes with ease—as does Towns himself, when he takes a closing solo that hints at a greater encyclopedic mind at work.

"Fair is Foul" features three vocalists delivering chosen words from William Shakespeare's Macbeth over Towns' particularly abstract writing—a thundering, backbeat-driven groove gradually emerging only to dissolve into abstraction once again, with Lockheart's soprano engaging in some quirky interplay with Greb and Maass, where electronics also create a swirling dervish of voices, saxophone lines and slowly diminishing percussion.

Like Stand Well Back, Drawing Breath combines a myriad of collective interests, ranging from the rock-inflected opener, "Attention Seeker," which also leans clearly towards the more progressive side of the fence, to the gentler "Heaven," a brief, atmospheric duet for Towns (on piano) and Lockheart (on tenor) that, nevertheless, reaches into ambient territory akin to some of Brian Eno's early ambient music with pianist Harold Budd. A bright-tempo'd "Suddenly a Tango" is, in fact, only one to a point, its middle section turning pure Canterbury, with a gritty Montague alternating solo spots with Lockheart, their relentless inventions wrapped throughout in Towns' knotty keyboard arrangements.

It's clear that, as often happens, Towns wrote the music of Stand Well Back hoping it would be what it ultimately did become. With that knowledge, Drawing Breath's writing is more clearly and specifically for Towns' band mates. Others might well be able to play the music of Blue Touch Paper and Drawing Breath, but it would simply not be the same, as the group's intrinsic chemistry continues to grow and define Towns' music well beyond anything he actually scored on paper. That Blue Touch Paper has managed to evolve a collective voice over the course of such relatively little time only means that what's yet to come can hardly be anticipated...but wherever it ultimately goes will, no doubt, be well worth following.

Drawing Breath capitalizes well on lessons learned from Stand Well Back while, at the same time, demonstrating clear growth—for Towns, as Blue Touch Paper's writer, and for the group itself, whose inimitable collective abandon—even in the context of some of Towns' toughest charts—causes the music to virtually leap off the written page and, just as literally, burst from of the speakers, sounding better and better—and revealing more and more—with each and every spin.

Track Listing: Attention Seeker; Isadora; Heaven; Suddenly a Tango; Juggling With Strangers; The Joke; Fair is Foul; Watch Out; Drawing Breath; Neon Shadows; Yes But No; 48 Prefabs and Forks No. 60.

Personnel: Colin Towns: keyboards; Chris Montague: guitars; Edward McLean: bass; Benny Greb: drums; Stephan Maass: percussion, electronics; Mark Lockheart: tenor and soprano saxophones. Hedydd Dylan: voice (7); Antonia Kinlay: voice (7); Katie Elin-Salt: voice (7).

Title: Blue Touch Paper: Drawing Breath | Year Released: 2013 | Record Label: Provocateur Records


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