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John Ellis: Evolution - Seeds and Streams

Phil Barnes By

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There's a temptation to assume with evolution that all of history has been leading to this point, that today's dominant species or situation will continue as such forever. Nonsense of course, think of the changes in the lifetimes of current generations and it's clear that evolution is not a defined end point but a dynamic, continuing process. If nothing else our planet has finite resources, so continuing on a fixed path is unlikely to work forever. Musically the risks are similar, if of a different order, stay static in a comfortable style or genre and you need to have something distinctive or be a whole lot better than the competition to get heard. But the musician who forces changes risks the irrelevance of following the herd too. Better then to take your own path, to do what is right for the work, and accept the consequences in both evolutionary and critical terms. Which brings us nicely to John Ellis UK and his fine first solo album.

As a significant contributor to those wonderful albums by the Cinematic Orchestra "Everyday" and "The Man With the Movie Camera," terrifyingly more than a dozen years ago, Ellis showed himself as a musician who was not afraid of unusual combinations of sounds or juxtapositions of instrumentation. Here the approach is to draw you in with familiar sounds or references, before throwing some inspired, unusual, combinations into the mix. Take the way that the decayed synthesizer and cymbal of "Interlude 2" sounds like the ambient wash of some great lost mid-90s LTJ Bukem production but leads into "The Ladder" with its prominent use of the kora. The synthesizer rhythm is every bit as deep as something on, say, St. Germain's classic Boulevard, yet the clever use of instrumentation takes us somewhere different.

This is a very hard balance to strike and harder still to execute well, but Ellis succeeds because of the love and intensity in the work. Opener "Flight" also uses an analogue synthesizer pattern as a base but builds into something restrained, flowing and rhythmic. Layering birdsong, piano, bass and kora the piece conceivably supports both the literal interpretation of birds in flight, but also a metaphorical freeing of the soul. Ellis' piano solo on this piece is particularly good, a high altitude glide lifted by the musical equivalent of thermal currents. "Unidentical Twins" builds from the opening kora and bells through rippled clusters of notes from Ellis into a gently insistent theme. There's a wonderful optimism about this as if emerging from darkness into the pre-dawn of a changed world or state that is completely absorbing and beguiling.

The project was a commission for the Manchester Jazz festival, where the music was combined with striking visual projections from filmmaker Antony Barkworth-Knight. Some of these can be found on the internet and the addition of the animation certainly adds a further dimension to what was already a visual music. Add to this the Gondwana records attention to detail from the sound quality of the music and mastering to the striking artwork by Daniel Halsall and you have a package of the highest quality.

For Ellis the evolution works on multiple levels. While the global macro level is clear, there is a personal level of evolution in terms of stepping away from the habits and thought patterns that fitted a previous situation onto a new creative path. 'Evolution: Seeds & Streams' emphatically succeeds at both this and the artistic level as a memorable and thoughtful collection. In a troubled 2016 when spirituality and thoughtfulness have been at a premium, Ellis' collection stands out unambiguously. Highly recommended.

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