Saxophonist Nat Birchall has always been something of an enigma, a sublimely soulful saxophonist hidden from view in the Northern hills of England. His debut album Sixth Sense (1999) first announced him to the jazz world as an urgent tenor saxophonist with a feel for pulsing modal hard-bop. But it was his cult hit and now highly sought after soulful slice of spiritual jazz Akhenaten (released on trumpeter Matthew Halsall’s label, Gondwana Records, in 2009) that suggested that the spirit of Coltrane was alive and well in Northern England. Acclaimed by the critics (MOJO for one hailing its ‘spacial sunship beauty’ and ‘lyrical heat haze hypnotism’) Akhenaten together with Halsall’s own releases ‘Sending My Love’ and ‘Colour Yes’ helped create the unique sound that the Independent On Sunday described as ‘rain soaked spiritual jazz from Manchester”.
Growing up in a Northern Village, Birchall was hardly exposed to jazz but through some friends fell in love with roots reggae and dub in the early ‘70s and it was the legendary Jamaican jazz-influenced saxophonists, Cedric Brooks, Tommy McCook, that inspired him take up the saxophone and through them that he discovered the music of John Coltrane. Lessons with an enigmatic local player, Harold Salisbury, followed as well as playing with various bands including Akay Temiz’s Zaman. Birchall led a hip-hop influenced jazz band Corner Crew in the early ‘90s and started to make a name for himself on the local scene but felt unsatisfied with the music and despite some encouragement from the legendary record producer Tony Hall (Dizzy Reece, Tubby Hayes etc) Birchall resisted the call of the London scene and continued to search for the music he felt inside. Meeting trumpeter Matthew Halsall and a group of like minded players (including pianist Adam Fairhall, bassist Gavin Barras and drummer Gaz Hughes) gathered around Matt & Phreds in Manchester proved an inspiration ‘Suddenly I felt something special in the music. My music is very simple, harmonically and melodically, so you have to play with as much conviction and soul as possible because there's nothing to hide behind, just the truth of how you feel the music.” And it is this soulful elegance that illuminates both Akhenaten and Birchall’s more expansive follow-up Guiding Spirit.
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