Deep River
For full track listing see end of review
Andy Sheppard (saxophones)
Joanna MacGregor (piano/keyboards)
rec. 11-13 July 2005, Christchurch Studios, Bristol

Sidewalk Dances
For full track listing see end of review
Joanna MacGregor (conductor/piano/harpsichord)
Andy Sheppard (saxophones), Kuljit Bhamra (table/percussion/speaking),
Neville Malcolm (bass/upright bass), Seb Rochford (drums/percussion),
Shri Sriram (Indian flute)
Britten Sinfonia
rec. 20-21 April 2006, Angel Studios, London

What we have here are two pills, a pink one, and a blue one. Even those of us not acquainted with drugs beyond the occasional aspirin will probably guess which of these is the ‘upper’ and which the ‘downer’, the advantage with these little mood-altering discs being that there is plenty of in-built contrast and relief from the ups and downs in each, and you can take your emotional trip with them as often as you like without frightening and unhealthy side-effects. Joanna MacGregor is one of those rare musicians who crosses between musical worlds with the ease and freedom of a hedgehog moving under the barbed wire of politically set borders. Current educational thinking is supposedly encouraging musicians to widen their experience beyond the narrowly set fields of specialism which still form the clearly defined boundaries of artistry: jazz and classical for instance, with their subdivisions frequently as clearly separated. The truth is that musical worlds beyond lessons and departmental projects are all too frequently seen by reactionary students and teachers of the older generations as peripheral, and at worst as a necessary evil. There should be and will always be space for exceptional specialists, but exceptional musicians who are enthusiastic about learning as wide a variety of styles and genres as possible are more often than not the ones which you hear more from after leaving education. Sadly however, performers who can create convincing and inspirational music from ranging from Messiaen to Moondog are rare, but one thing is sure, Joanna MacGregor is one of these rare individuals, and actually so rare as to be unique.

In sequence of recording date we begin with Deep River, a collaboration between two musicians who have worked together frequently, and who have a superb empathy for each other’s artistic vibe and sense of direction, both in the concept of a performance and in the minutiae of its execution. I suggested this might stand for our ‘blue pill’, and there is a feeling of soulful seriousness which infuses the album. The fact is that if you put almost anything against the Moondog album it will tend seem soulful and serious, but with Deep River we do search the less upbeat side of human emotions and experience. Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child sets the tone, with a still and gentle intro on the piano, and Andy Sheppard crying over those chords like an abandoned infant. Wringing us out emotionally is however not the only intention of these musicians, and there are surprises in store. About four minutes in we change radio channels into quasi-looped saxophones and a piano ostinato over which the soprano sax and piano trills call out like a distant train whistle. This is a serious emotional journey, though one which doesn’t outstay its welcome. Everybody Help the Boys Come Home opens with William and Versey Smith’s vocals reaching out to us from 1927, soon to be joined by rhythmic damped bass strings on the piano, and built on as if the voices were a drum backing track with a powerful range of variations. The ‘remix’ version of this introduces doom-laden drums, and samples the voices in extended ‘noise’ blocks. This serves as an introduction to Up Above my Head which introduces contrast by way of a recorded loop of an infectious slide guitar loop, and some harmonic additions to the sax sound. This is also given a ‘remix’ treatment later on, with added drums and vocals, and an interesting treatment of the sax which makes it sound like a tuba. Johnny Cash’s Spiritual is taken tenderly at first, Sheppard’s reeds taking on the whispering quality of Ben Webster. This builds into a mighty improvisation over the song’s elemental chords. Tom Waits’ Georgia Lee by contrast remains restrained, the last tune before the lights are turned off in a bar which has seen enough of angst-ridden hormones and wine for the day. The title track, Deep River, becomes a rumbling undertow of piano over which the saxophone can elaborate. Bob Dylan’s Ring Them Bells becomes another tear jerker here, the deceptively simple material speaking directly to some part of us which wants to believe, simultaneously trying to disarm that part of us which claims to be too sophisticated for such sophistric subtexts. The Mercy Seat is given plenty of filtering and echo effects, with the piano given a harder ‘rock’ feel and Andy Sheppard’s sax momentarily turning into a mixture of Don Ellis’ trumpet and Terry Riley’s Phantom Band. The final track, Picture in a Frame, is another Tom Waits portrait of life-worn longing, of which the duo emphasise the more tender sentiments.

Dizzyingly eccentric and prolific, Moondog, born Louis Thomas Hardin in 1916, lived and made his music on the streets of New York for about 30 years starting in 1943. Blinded in an accident at the age of sixteen, his formative years included experiences with Indians on the Arapaho reservation and an education in harmony and counterpoint in Braille. His own performing involved self made percussion instruments, but while living rough on the streets he still managed to mix with top jazzmen and gain recognition as a composer. His own recordings are often quite grungy and basic, but possessive of an unavoidable sense of energy and drive. Joanna MacGregor admits that the re-arrangements on this recording are “re-imaginings for larger forces”, developing on his own “short and snappy” originals but with the intention of retaining the integrity of the originals. In almost every case this ‘pink pill’ does just that, kicking in with resonant energy with Single Foot, one of a number of pieces which grow out of a single note or chord. All of these pieces are given an extra twist of nuance, through intriguingly arranged winds, the characteristic ‘talking’ tabla, and the refinement and poise of MacGregor’s own piano contributions. As with Deep River there are a few fun samples, such as the drum riff on which Dog Trot is built in typical jazz format, with space for a saxophone solo in the middle. An oasis of stillness appears like a shock with the miniature All is Loneliness, paired with Voices of Spring, a round or canon given 1960s clappy-hippy colour with vibrato-laden flute, harpsichord and recessed voices. Rabbit Hop revives our ‘up-ness’: described as a “whelping, dustbin-lid-banging double canon.” Invocation is an intriguing incantation-like canon on a single tone which in concept calls to mind the first of Ligeti’s Musica ricercata. Reedroy was written as a saxophone solo for another great player John Harle, creating a vehicle for extemporisation over a compulsive ‘Charleston’ string chaconne which I’ll bet Michael Nyman wishes he had written. Further highlights include Good for Goodie, a remarkable counterpoint in swing dedicated to Benny Goodman, and the final Heath on the Heather, another irrepressibly up-beat canon over a cracking ground bass, and including some of Kuljit Bhamra’s raga-rhythmic vocals.

How to sum up this recording? Think of Loose Tubes mixed in with a bit of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra and you might approach something of an impression. This is all great fun, but I do have one or two mild and subjective criticisms. A bit like Ensemble Modern’s expert performing of Frank Zappa’s The Yellow Shark, the Britten Sinfonia and soloists are so well disciplined and superlatively impeccable that I tended to long for a few more of the rough edges which make the originals so distinctive: proud pedigree-trimmed poodles rather than whiskery mutts which are appealing and repulsive at the same time. I’m afraid there is also one track to which I can’t listen with equanimity. One of my all time favourites, Bird’s Lament is played here f a r t o o s l o w l y, losing all of that upbeat quarter-note = 120 march character which makes it such a glorious original. I can imagine that they wanted to do something different with the music than just reproduce the famous recording, but here it’s turned into more of a sad quarter-note = ca92 New Orleans funeral procession, like the one done by the London Saxophonic. I suppose this is a valid approach given the Charlie Parker memorial subject of the piece, but is not the one I want to take home.

With Joanna MacGregor’s influential creative input and superb musicianship, both of these nicely produced CDs have an undeniable imprimatur of quality and are a highly enjoyable listen. I’m not sure whether they belong in the jazz more than the classical category, but that’s partly the point – they can belong in both, and are capable of widening the ears and experience of either.

Dominy Clements

Full track listing

Deep River
Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child [7:39]
Everybody Help the Boys Come Home [4:40]
Spiritual [4:51]
Georgia Lee [5:55]
Everybody Help the Boys Come Home (remix) [2:10]
Up Above My Head [3:24]
Deep River [7:05]
Up Above My Head (remix) [2:33]
Ring Them Bells [3:37]
The Mercy Seat [5:26]
Picture in a Frame [3:38]

Sidewalk Dances
MOONDOG - (Louis Thomas HARDIN 1916-1999)
Single Foot [2:23]
Bumbo [3:56]
Sextet [2:20]
Dog Trot [4:08]
All is Loneliness [1:24]
Voices of Spring [2:53]
Rabbit Hop [2:57]
Invocation [5:28]
Reedroy [1:47]
Double Bass Duo [2:38]
Good for Goodie [2:34]
Birds Lament [3:54]
Theme and Variations [3:30]
Heath on the Heather [4:09]