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Byzantines

Mr Exstein’s X-Ray Ears

LAKE LACD 249 [51:42]

 

 

 



The Dandelion Clock
Do The Yak
Horizons
Janet And John
The Sound of Autumn
The Station
No Need To Sing The Blues
The Red Brick Houses
Mr Exstein’s X-Ray Ears
Surface Of The Moon
Croquet In The Mist
Rhythm Boat
Dreaming Bird
Me And My Ego
A Painting
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 others besides.

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.

Jonathan Woolf



 



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