The Dandelion Clock
Do The Yak
Janet And John
The Sound of Autumn
No Need To Sing The Blues
The Red Brick Houses
Mr Exstein’s X-Ray Ears
Surface Of The Moon
Croquet In The Mist
Me And My Ego
Byzantines – Nick Gill (piano, vocals); James
Evans (clarinet, saxophones); Jake Gill (guitar,
vocals); Debbie Arthurs (percussion, vocals);
Malcolm Sked (double bass, sousaphone)
rec. Keble College, Oxford, February 2007
The band known as the Byzantines
is new but the players are old hands. Maybe
not quite "old" on reflection, at
least not in terms of carbon dating, but certainly
well versed in classic jazz, and I’ve reviewed
a number of their discs here in other guises,
under different names. This disc however is
a stylistic departure. It teams the clarinettist
drammatico James Evans with composer-pianist
Nick Gill and a clutch of like-minded colleagues
– Debbie Arthurs, Malcolm Sked and Jake Gill.
The result, as I said, is a long way from
the usual fare one would expect from a group
of such personnel.
The cover photographs show
the band larking on a merry-go-round, some
of the chaps emblazered and sporting deerstalkers.
Is this a Holmesian fantasy? The answer lies
in the songs, almost all penned by Nick Gill.
Do the Yak sounds like a varsity rag
number from the 1920s in the days when Doing
the Raccoon was all the rage; stylistically
it sounds like cross-pollination between the
Temperance Seven and Vivian Stanshall, egged
on by James Evans’s rather Pete Brown jump-style
saxophone playing. Elsewhere I sense an Evans
debt to Kenny Davern’s more virtuosic undertakings
on a track such as the pun-filled No Need
To Sing The Blues. I can pay Gill’s Horizons
no better compliment than to say it’s perfectly
crafted in period style and sounds securely
rooted in the lineage of popular song.
Janet and John though
sounds like the kind of thing that Pete Atkin
might have penned – popular, quotidian, evoking
funfairs and rock-pools, and with more than
a hint of melancholy. In fact melancholy and
nostalgia are seams throughout this disc.
The title track though has some macabre things
going on amidst the whimsy; the style of the
song seems to be couched in a kind of Parisian
vernacular but possibly the song pays oblique
homage to T.S. Eliot as well ("Old Mr.
Exstein hears all the voices…") Rhythm
Boat has some Walleresque work from Gill
and is a more straight ahead number. The net
is cast wider for the Andean folk song, with
words and music by Gill, called Dreaming
Bird – rather beautiful. Why not some
de Falla next, Mr Gill?
I wasn’t taken by Croquet
in the Mist and some of the booklet introductions,
where things can get rather (perhaps deliberately)
sticky. Me and My Ego offsets this
– a saucy go at university humiliations, depressions
and sadnesses. Nice wood blocks from Debbie
Arthurs as well and a jaunty swing that offsets
the bleak and the Gothic.
There is some overdubbing
throughout; and as a result Evans’s saxophones
add greater colour and depth to the arrangements.
Influences? The ones already mentioned; varsity
rags, twenties popular song, a touch of classic
jazz, impressionism, and perhaps some Brassens,
Stanshall and the Bonzos, Jake Thackray, and
In short then, something
of a real departure for the Gill crowd. Adherents
of their classic jazz will find some here
but probably not enough to keep them satisfied.
But one would hope that open minded listeners
will be intrigued enough to follow Gill’s
path – a sort of chanson, pop, mordant, lyric,
nostalgic, crest-fallen, cock-eyed, very English,
fey, touching, and eccentric path. In his
notes and in the name of his band Gill invokes
Yeats’s poem Byzantium but it’s surely
Betjeman who haunts these songs; a laugh on
the lips but a tear in the eye, stations and
sea shores, birdsong and meadows and the endless
blue of the sky.