The saxophonist Nat Birchall is, alongside his friend the trumpeter Matthew Halsall, one of the instigators of the spiritual jazz scene centred around the northern British city of Manchester, two hundred miles and a lifestyle north of London. Birchall self-released his debut album, The Sixth Sense, in 1999. John Coltrane, Yusef Lateef, Pharoah Sanders and Alice Coltrane were among his formative influences and his music continues along the trajectory they mapped out.
Birchall last recorded with his own band in 2019, on the delightful The Storyteller: A Musical Tribute To Yusef Lateef (Jazzman), the first of possibly several tributes which may be released to mark Lateef's centenary in 2021. If so, it will be a hard act to follow. On the album, Birchall added bass clarinet, zurna, argul, balaphon, mbira, gunibri, bells, shakers and guiro to his battery of instruments. On Exaltation / Live In Athens Vol 1 he plays tenor saxophone only.
Exaltation was recorded in late 2018, a few months before The Storyteller was released. Pianist Adam Fairhall and drummer and percussionist Andy Hay are heard on both albums. Seth Bennett replaces bassist Michael Bardon in Athens, where on one of its performances the quartet was joined by the like-minded Greek musicians Harris Lambrakis on ney (Egyptian end-blown flute) and Nikos Sidirokastritis on drums.
The album opens with Lambrakis' "For Michalis," which takes up all of side one of this limited edition LP. It is followed by Birchall's "Exaltation" and "Humility." Birchall takes as his launch pad all but the furthest sonic reaches of mid and late period John Coltrane, and his solos are as gritty as they are seraphic. The album's subtitle suggests a second volume is in the pipeline. Let us hope so. (If you are reading this review, two recent AAJ articles which you may have missed might be of interest. An Alternative Top Ten Yusef Lateef Albums and an interview with Matthew Halsall).
Side One: For Michalis. Side Two: Exaltation; Humility.