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Mike Walker: Ropes

Duncan Heining By

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Ropes is Manchester-based guitarist Mike Walker's second album as a leader and it couldn't be much more different from his fusion-oriented debut Madhouse and the Whole Thing There (Hidden Idiom, 2008). This album is a jazz-with-strings affair and a fine one at that. The mood is mostly gentler, more reflective and more pastoral than on his debut. With Ropes, Walker has also significantly extended his compositional palette.

Walker is an alumnus of the bands of George Russell, Mike Gibbs and Kenny Wheeler, and more recently one quarter of The Impossible Gentlemen with Steve Swallow, Gwilym Simcock and Adam Nussbaum. His guitar playing invites superlatives. It was easy to see why George Russell loved Walker's contributions to the Living Time Orchestra their fire and funk always coupled with finesse. What a musician plays must always serve the music self-conceit, not their own. These qualities will make Ropes one of the most played British jazz albums of 2019.

At the heart of this album is the gorgeous, pastoral three-movement title track. The piece is actually quite traditional in its compositional approach—theme, variations and recapitulations with different tempos for each movement—but none the worse for it. As Walker explains in the interview below, "Ropes" is a personal piece relating to his mother's mental health issues and his attempts to understand what she was going through. The word "poignant" hardly seems to do justice to its tripping melodies, gorgeous harmonies and strong and performances from Walker, saxophonist Iain Dixon, pianist Les Chisnall and Adam Nussbaum's subtle drumming. Walker's use of the 22-piece Psappha Strings is also remarkably effective, variously deploying the orchestra to state the melody, provide rhythmic support, offer a wide range of textures and provide counterpoint for the soloists. Gwilym Simcock replaces Chisnall on "Devon Bean" and "Madhouse and the Whole Thing There," his more expansive style well-suited to the fast-paced "Devon Bean" and the brooding, hymnal "Madhouse." The decision to deploy Dixon on the title track and elsewhere is a wise one. Yet the real find here is Chisnall: the delicacy of his contributions to "Still Slippy Underfoot" and "Wallenda's Last Stand" are beautifully weighted, feeding the solos of Dixon and Walker and contributing to the architecture of the piece.

Walker is wistful and elegiac on "Wallenda's Last Stand" and "Bound to Let Go," while he smolders on "Madhouse" and catches fire on "Knots." This is a very fine record that succeeds in being both approachable and thought-provoking. Quite an achievement.

Mike Walker spoke with Duncan Heining about Ropes.

All About Jazz (AAJ): "Ropes" resulted from a Manchester Jazz Festival commission in 2008. It was very well-received and broadcast by the BBC Radio 3. How has it taken so long to record and release it?

Mike Walker: I went to see Mike Gibbs with Adam Nussbaum and Steve Swallow the year before "Ropes" was originally performed in 2008. I'd already worked with Swallow on several projects and he introduced me to Adam. When the commission came through, I contacted Adam to see if he was available to do the "Ropes" performance, including a two-day rehearsal. Luckily he was available, and I had about six weeks to write and arrange the music. Shortly after, in 2009, I got the idea to hook up with, Adam, Swallow and Gwilym and we toured in 2010 with the newly formed The Impossible Gentlemen. That band toured and recorded for the next six years or so and my writing energies went into that. So "Ropes" a back seat but I was always looking to revisit it at some point. When that opportunity arose, I rewrote some of the string parts and got funding to record it.

AAJ: The three-movement title track is the CD's centrepiece, which shifts through a series of moods from the dark, theatrical opening harmonies on "Bound To Let Go" through the lightness of "Knots" to the more pastoral qualities of "Kiss The Hills For Me Just Once." What were you looking to achieve with the piece? Did you have any particular other jazz and strings recordings in mind when you wrote "Ropes"?

MW: The three movements are based on one melody. This melody is really just a sea shanty and I wove it into the three movements to give it a different hue in each setting. I like the idea of one face that takes on different characters and personalities. "Knots," for instance, is taken from the book of the same title by R.D Laing, who also wrote The Divided Self and did a lot of admittedly controversial work with schizophrenia in the '60s and '70s. My first album Madhouse And The Whole Thing There also references Laing's work and I was drawn to it through my own mother's long battle with schizophrenia. In this respect, the two albums are inextricably linked. "Ropes" is a direct reflection of these changing faces, of how we choose to see the rope as something that binds us, gets us out of a hole, takes our breath away or tows us home.

AAJ: "Ropes" got another performance in Manchester in 2016 alongside compositions from Steve Reich and Gavin Bryars. What was it like to have your work appear alongside theirs?

MW: It was interesting to have my work alongside theirs. Those particular works are overtly repetitive whereas mine is more covertly repetitive. I have melodies sneaking around all over the place. I like the idea of listening to my music and finding out secrets the more you listen. A little like seeing a face and thinking, "Have we met before?" The pieces by Reich and Bryars are more hypnotic and I think they gave good balance over the course of the evening.

AAJ: The album features "Still Slippy Underfoot" from your debut album and the rather Bacharach-like "Wallenda's Last Stand" from the first record by Impossible Gentlemen. What made you realise that these two earlier pieces would work in this context?

MW: I've always loved Bacharach's melodies and his cheeky non-conventional forms. Joni Mitchell, too. Their music seems to come before the form. It's much more organic. It finds its own form. This is very much how I write music." I re-arranged "Still Slippy" and "Wallenda" for Ropes with the sea shanty melody hidden in there. Those two pieces seemed to sit well alongside the three movements of "Ropes." Karl Wallenda was a tightrope walker, and slipped to his death on his retiring walk at age 73, which spoke well to the narrative of "Ropes" and the precarious nature of our existence.

AAJ: Ropes has been given life by some wonderful playing from a number of friends and colleagues: Iain Dixon, Gwilym Simcock, Adam Nussbaum, Les Chisnall and, of course, the fabulous Psappha Strings. Yet you were composer, arranger, performer and producer. I have a vision of you towering above the project like a surreal puppetmaster. How did it feel pulling all these different elements together?

MW: It's been a ride for sure. A lot of hard work and some good lessons along the way. Integrating the strings with the quintet in a way that would give a more symbiotic, holistic and organic feeling was a challenge. It would be easy to have the strings just back the improvisers, as many "Jazz with Strings" albums do. There is some of that on this record, obviously, but hopefully on repeated listens one might discover more hidden in the shadows.

AAJ: In a way Ropes is a tribute to the very healthy jazz scene in Manchester and the northwest of England, where you live. What is it, in your opinion, that has enabled jazz in the area to establish such a foothold?

MW: Manchester has a long history of Trad Jazz and, obviously in the north of England in general, a tradition with brass band music. The connection of brass to big band is an easy one to make and, as we know, big bands are fertile ground for young musicians. I played with seasoned beboppers as a lad of 18 as well as young funksters cutting their teeth on Headhunters and Weather Report. Plus I was immersed in the blues and Manchester was—and still is—alive with blues venues that welcomed young whippersnappers like myself.

AAJ: So, Mike Walker, having conquered the sonata, what's next? An opera? A requiem mass?

MW: Conquered? I should cocoa. Much to learn yet where form is concerned. My next thing is a follow up to my 2008 album Madhouse And The Whole Thing There. I've written the music and I have a title: The Things That Make The Darklings Sing I have the artwork in my head. I have the arrangements in there too: more brass and horns, I think. I need to get this music out so I can get to writing for smaller units, trios, quartets and the like. These magnum opuses are too draining.

George Russell must have had Duke Ellington, Stravinsky, James Brown and Stephen Hawking battling away in that amazing insomniac head of his. I miss being in the middle of all that. I loved splashing paint through his prismatic landscapes. My music has the spirit of George moving through it. I learned much from him, and Kenny Wheeler and Mike Gibbs, about doing my own thing. I love those guys for imparting that, without a word spoken.

Track Listing: Still Slippy Underfoot; Ropes Movement 1 – Bound To Let Go; Ropes Movement 2 – Knots; Ropes Movement 3 – Kiss The Hills For Me, Just Once; Devon Bean; Wallenda’s Last Stand; Madhouse And The Whole Thing There; Slip Not…

Personnel: Mike Walker (guitar tracks 2-5, composer), Iain Dixon (clarinet, saxophones tracks 1-6), Les Chisnall (piano, Fender Rhodes tracks 1-3, 6, 8), Gwilym Simcock (tracks 5, 7), Steve Rodby (bass tracks 2, 6), Steve Watts (bass tracks 3, 5, 7), Rob Mullarkey (electric bass track 3), Adam Nussbaum (drums tracks 2, 3, 5-7), Mike Wilson, Steve Gilbert (drums track 3), Paul Allen (percussion track 3), Psappha Strings (tracks 1-6).

Title: Ropes | Year Released: 2019 | Record Label: Madhouse

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