A song cycle that uses the months of the Czech/Slavic calendar as a compositional starting point is not the sort of subject matter we usually see from modern jazz singer-songwriters. Yet on this marvelous debut album Erica Bramham
has used that unlikely theme as a starting point for her poetic lyrics, giving the collection a satisfying coherence. It doesn't hurt that the passing of the seasons is a classic metaphor for the themes of birth/death/renewal, used here in the context of relationships, but it adds depth and resonance to what is an extremely well thought out album.
Being a song cycle the album is designed to be listened to in a single sitting, with the 7 tracks being heard in the set sequence of the CD. While it would not be impossible to cherry pick favourite tunes, the sequence does add a pleasing sense of progression from the early days of the relationship in "A Low Heavy Sun," to the realisation of cumulative damage to the heart in "Unor of the Heart" and the concluding, autumnal, "Two Acorns/Cerven." It is the latter track which is the most striking on first listen being based on an East European tradition of young lovers carving their names on two acorns which are then placed in a bowl of water. If the acorns drift towards each other they have a future together, if not they don't. It's a striking image and a strong idea that Bramham and her band execute atmospherically, veering close to the sort of modern folk song that you could imagine appealing to the late Sandy Denny.
If that reference raises questions from 'purists' as to the jazz quotient here there is no need to be concerned on either the improvised content or the quality of the compositions. Bramham studied jazz at the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne and while she has said that her creative process is typically prompted by an initial lyric, the jazz emerges ..."in my arrangements, as I find it more interesting to leave things quite open for the ensemble to interpret as they wish, with plenty of room for improvisation... my music is hanging around somewhere in the murky middle ground of several genres and can't be slotted neatly into any of them." If that seems to hark back to a different era, before radio programming became entrenched in specialised ghettos, then you'd be right. This is music made for the enjoyment of the participants without thought for marketing strategies or hunting for crossover appeal and is all the better for it. If it has a parallel in terms of its artistic singer-songwriter approach, spirit and ambition, Joni Mitchell's late 1970s period would perhaps be closest although the overall sound here is more organic, acoustic and while well recorded has clearly had the merest fraction of Ms Mitchell's studio budget.
The danger for music that does not fit the pre-conceived critical genre boxes is that it gets filed under "difficult," when here nothing could be further from the truth. Bramham has a warm, appealing voice and a sense of melody that draws the listener into her lyrics and the sound world conjured by the band. The musicianship is excellent, reveling in the space that the compositions allow, without overpowering them with unnecessary pyrotechnics. Take for example the breezy, appropriately rhythmic, contrast the band provide to Bramham's lyric of missing a loved one through a day of dead end job tedium in "High Above the City." Perhaps the finest ensemble piece though is the languid "Bohemian Heatwave" that perfectly communicates slow, lazy summer days with heavy, thick, air that makes it almost impossible to function. Adam Spiegl's bass over Justin Olsson's subtle brushed drums here are gorgeousadd in Bramham's vocal and Nathan Liow's piano solo and the effect is magical.
The little bit of chili that adds an experimental edge to the collection is the fractured lyric technique that Bramham employs on a couple of pieces. The best way to describe it is that fragments of the lyric are progressively revealed like someone reviewing an old fashioned Dictaphone tapeelements are highlighted, phrases returned to adding emphasis, until the full picture of the narrative emerges. Van Morrison, among others, have used this 'talking in tongues' effect in the past and while high risk, it can be extremely effective at creating tension around a lyric that is released by the melodies. The technique is high risk because it needs there to be a strong enough lyric with the ability to construct a narrative flow around it and this is thankfully the case here.
The only concern is the degree of open-mindedness of the potential audience. Will a jazz audience accept the folk elements of Bramham's sound, will a folk audience appreciate the more experimental parts? It is a measure of our fragmented musical world when it can be so difficult for new artists to get noticed without the support of specialist label or DJ. Nonetheless, Bramham and her band have made a fine record of forward looking modern vocal jazz that shows a way to make interesting, lyrically inventive improvised musiclet's just hope that the world is listening.