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Stephen PLEWS (b.1961)
Extracts from Infinity
God’s Mates Revisited [3:22]
Industrial Language [3:31]
Theme – Highland Clearance (1992) [9:08]
Lament for Synesios [3:29]
King’s Casualties [4:27]
Five Etudes (2001) [14:32]
On The Street Where You Died (In Memoriam) [4:55]
Mourning The Death Of An Illusion Parts 1 & 4 [5:10]
Interrogation – A Quick Sketch [3:00]
March of Disorder/Inner Migration [4:44]
Echoe’s Bones [3:15]
Evolution (1994) [4:47]
Stephen Plews, Stewart Death, David Jones, Stephen Pruslin (piano); Roberto Bellatalla, Jeff Clyne, Steve Berry (bass); Bill Eyden, Trevor Tomkins, Peter Fairclough, Phil Clark (drums); Andrew Long (violin); Roger Heaton (clarinet); Iain Dixon (bass clarinet); Duncan MacKay (trumpet); Mike Walker (guitar); Ed Jones (saxophone).
rec. Dates and locations not given, mixing/mastering done at ASC Recording, 2003.
CAMEO CAMPION CAMEO 2029 [64:25]

Experience Classicsonline



Stephen Plews was a new name to me, until I was offered a selection of Campion label discs for review from the ASC stable. This is however not the first time that several of the titles have been seen on MusicWeb-International. Roger Blackburn’s review of this CD refers to “a generally somewhat bleak atmosphere”, which the first track God’s Mates Revisited seems not to uphold, being an upbeat jazz number in the European virtuoso tradition. This at least shows that Stephen Plews has seriously well developed chops when it comes to piano playing, but also serves up another problem – what’s a jazz CD doing in the ‘classical’ section of these pages?

Although this programme is something of a chimera, with jazz and contemporary ‘composed’ music mixed with cheerful abandon, the energetic creativity of its progenitor does give the disc a certain consistency of idiom and approach. Industrial Language is a kind of dance for violin and piano, but with the violin given some rather cheesy delay to the sound there is a commercial feel to the work which goes well enough with the other numbers. I don’t feel the ‘rage and disappointment’ which the composer feels is expressed in this piece – it seems rather jaunty and cheerful to my ears. Theme – Highland Clearance is a dramatic response to descriptions the composer heard of the Highland Clearances. The recording is a mix of instrumentalists recorded over a period of time, but the overall sound is that of sampling technology and a rather all embracing rich halo of artificial reverb. The opening ‘orchestral’ section to this piece could do with a decent recording using real instruments. The second section is a jazz movement which segues neatly from the introduction, and fits in with grander jazz projects by the likes of Mike Westbrook and Kenny Wheeler, with a healthy dose of early Steve Reichian minimalism thrown in.

Lament for Synesios is another jazz piece, but with some spooky sampled effects to enrich the imagery and provide a sense of ancient Greek mystery. Despite the added effects, this is quite a straightforward ‘standard’ style, and with King’s Casualties we hear Plews exploring Lyle Mays soundalike keyboards and more added notes in the bed of chords which emerges. “An anthem to all those people killed in war”, it doesn’t overtly shove this aspiration down our throats, but the sentiment is well put.

With Five Etudes played by pianist David Jones, we are back in the world of ‘classical’ composition, with a jazz background. The pieces were worked out on a dummy keyboard while the composer was on vacation in Salerno, and their expression of beautiful landscapes no doubt reflects what was being fed into the composer’s retinas as he mused. Intended as exercises in subtlety of touch at the keyboard, I can have little doubt as to their effectiveness. They also form an attractive clutch of rhapsodic pieces for piano which are far more fun than Czerny. On the Street where you Died is described as a straightforward jazz ballad, and a very nice one it is too. When it comes to good music, I am firmly of the opinion that there is no such thing as ‘straightforward’, and this is another one of those haunting pieces which can effortlessly take your imagination through a dozen rain-soaked movie images, both in the way it is written, and the way it is played. Mourning the Death of an Illusion melts jazz and a kind of Charles Camilleri organ chorale in a beautiful memorial for the composer’s father.

Interrogation is more ‘non-jazz’ than ‘jazz’ when compared to many of the tracks on this release. While having an entirely different energy, the piece strangely shares a kind of ecstatic luminosity with Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the End of Time’ in the melodic shapes in the clarinet. March of Disorder/Inner Migration opens with a hard-hitting groove and some mean bass clarinet playing from Iain Dixon. As Theme – Highland Clearance goes from virtual/sampled music to a ‘real’ jazz recording, the procedure is reversed here, the track entering a rather thin and phasey sounding ‘symbolic escape from the march’; nonetheless with some elegant alto-flute playing and an effective rhythmic drive. This is another section of the album which could do with a solid and costly big-band arrangement and recording.

The title Echoe’s Bones refers to poems by Samuel Beckett, but the music claims no direct programmatic associations. This is one of the few pieces on this album where I felt little relationship between the grandiloquent piano gestures and some pleasantly meandering bass clarinet. The absence of this piece would be no loss to the album as a whole. Evolution on the other hand is a very interesting jazz piece, with a recurring electronic/sampled ostinato as a basis, and some well structured counterpoint, Bill Evans style piano sounds, walking bass and more elsewhere. If it wasn’t for the rather trebly recorded sound I could go for it more, but it does have the kind of quality which makes me go back to people like Jon Hassell and Joe Zawinul – or should that be Wayne Shorter – for the occasional fix.

Despite any preconceptions and my first impressions, I have enjoyed this CD more than I expected to. The only problem remaining is one of definition. It seems to sit a little strangely among other releases from Campion’s ‘British Composer Series’, and I wonder if it wouldn’t have been wiser for Plews to pin his colours to the mast and release this as a jazz album with experimental elements, rather than as a composer who happens to work in a jazz idiom. Track for track this remains more of a jazz CD than a contemporary music one, so, if you are reading this on the classical pages of MWI and don’t like jazz, you have been warned. If you are reading it on the MW jazz pages, you are more than warmly invited to give it a try.


Dominy Clements

see also review by Roger Blackburn


 

 

 


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