The Song of Many Tongues was the first album of the Grand Union Orchestra. Originally only available on cassette, this marks its first CD release and GUO's thirty-year-long history under the leadership of composer/director Tony Haynes. It's a testament to continuity and musical development but also to the commitment of its members to this unique vision. Of those present here, Claude Deppa, Chris Biscoe, Ros Davies, Andy Grappy, Carlos Fuentes, Gerry Hunt, Dave Adams and, of course, Haynes himself are still with the orchestra today.
Anyone seeing GUO more recently will be aware how that original vision has expanded into the ambitious 'operas' and song cycles of If Paradise, The Silk Road, The Rhythm of the Tides and, most recently, Undream'd Shores. But the building blocks are already presentan appreciation of jazz as an internationalist music of celebration and protest and an instinctive grasp of multiple genres that can be brought to bear in a jazz/world music context. And there is that same something I do not stress enough when writing about GUOHaynes' ability to provide the most sumptuous settings for the richly individualistic voices of the singers he brings to these dramas, one of whom here is the justly renowned Gail Ann Dorsey.
I'd forgotten that saxophonist Courtney Pine was with the band in its first incarnation but here he delivers a beautifully elegant, dancing tenor solo on the opening, lilting West African "I Live in the City." Here, as everywhere on the record, the tightness of the ensemble, the way the horns punch out riffs over the rhythm section and how the voices intersect with those riffs continually impresses. "By the Waters of Babylon" is given an entirely different takeforget Boney Mthis is a slower, almost legato version devoid of its reggae association and with fine, smouldering trombone from Rick Taylor. Reggae makes an appearance, however, with "Guinea Corn," perhaps the only track that hasn't dated too well on this collection.
"Dolce Catalunya" features a haunting vocal from Gail Ann Dorsey and, I think, Alison Limerick. Its tune and lyrics tell a tale of migration and exile, themes that will recur throughout GUO's history and musical output. Here, the tune draws on a Catalan folk song sketched subtly by guitarist Gerry Hunt on acoustic guitar with simple bass and drums accompaniment. Around 4'45," the horns enter majestically, firstly led by the soaring trumpet of Claude Deppa before Chris Biscoe's bop-derived alto solo. It's a classic GUO momentthat ease with which they slide between musical forms without it ever seeming strange or awkward. The record closes with another fine Biscoe performance on the Latin-inspired call for 'love, peace and justice' "Love That Day" and with Gail Dorsey's sinuous lead vocal.
However, The Song of Many Tongues also offers a first glimpse on record of the way that GUO would develop a theatrical/narrative form that is such a distinctive element in their work. The trilogy of "The Ballad of William L. Moore"/ "Hymn for the Homelands"/"Spidertown" opens with the East German dissident poet Wolf Biermann's tribute to the brave and lonely death of a civil rights activist shot by a Southern racist. Here, Vladimir Vega's voice and panpipes transform this lament into something truly special, with the addition of some Spanish-sounding brass. "Hymn for the Homelands." which follows, is a funeral march that uses a brass choir that echoes both Britain's brass band tradition and the ubiquity of this aggregation from New Orleans, through South America to South Africa, Italy, Spain and beyond. Think here of Charlie Haden's Liberation Orchestra and you won't be far from the mark. But then, just when you thought it had nowhere else to go, "Spidertown's" West African chant liberates us from racist violence and oppression with its outpouring of love and joy. As the horns of Pine, Deppa and Taylor locknot in combat but in celebrationit's a powerful reminder of this amazing band's rich and diverse history and its astonishingly vibrant present.
Tracks: I Live in the City; By the Waters of Babylon; Guinea Corn; Dolce Catalunya; Ballad of William L. Moore/Hymn of the Homelands/Spidertown; Love That Day.
Personnel: Tony Haynes: trombone, piano, percussion, composer, arranger; Gail Dorsey: voice; Alison Limerick: voice, percussion; Vladimir Vega: voice, charango, panpipes, quena; Avelia Moisey: trumpet, fluegelhorn, voice; Claude Deppa: trumpet, fluegelhorn; Chris Biscoe: soprano sax, alto sax, flute; Keith Morris: soprano sax, tenor sax, voice; Courtney Pine: soprano sax, tenor sax, flute; Rick Taylor: trombone; Ros Davies: trombone, piano; Ken Johnson: steel pans, percussion; Sarah Laryea: congas, voice, percussion; Carlos Fuentes: percussion; guitar, v; Gerry Hunt: soprano sax, baritone sax, guitar; Butch potter: bass guitar; Dave Adams: drums, percussion, trombone.
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