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Spring Heel Jack - Songs and Themes

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Artist: Spring Heel Jack

Album: Songs and Themes

Label: Thirsty Ear

Review date: Apr. 11, 2008

After a lengthy sabbatical, Spring Heel Jack (a.k.a. John Coxon and Ashley Wales) return to Thirsty Ear with Songs and Themes, a new album that reflects the years spent on the duo’s own Treader label. The line-up includes seasoned collaborators Roy Campbell Jr., John Tchicai, J Spaceman, John Edwards, Tony Marsh and Orphy Robinson. But if the musicians are familiar, the music has evolved in the four years since Spring Heel Jack’s last release. Thirsty Ear labels it “jazz-ambient,” not a common description… and not entirely appropriate.

As before, Wales and Coxon construct sound environments for the ensemble’s improvisations, environments that often employ comparatively simple themes. In effect, the pieces are often concertos featuring the soloists, particularly Campbell and Tchicai. For some of the environments, the “ambient” tag is entirely appropriate; they evolve slowly, creating a mood reminiscent of modal jazz. The opener, “Church Music,” typifies this; the mood is set by piano chords overlaid with sawing violin and economically placed vibraphone notes. Here, Campbell’s trumpet has the same sense of space and economy that Miles Davis displayed in his modal phase. When Tchicai enters, the moment is straight out of Kind of Blue - it doesn’t last, as Tchicai isn’t John Coltrane, but it’s an illuminating moment, nonetheless.

While the label’s genre tag isn’t exactly fitting, the album’s title is. Songs and Themes is heavy on melody, far more so than any of the duo’s past Thirsty Ear releases. All of the players respond in like fashion, Campbell particularly. On “With Out Words,” he teases the listener, flirting with the melody of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” without ever explicitly stating it; on the brief interlude that is “Eupen,” he plays flute in a reflective, pastoral piece; “For Paul Rutherford” is a stately-paced duet between Campbell’s muted trumpet and Marsh’s low-key drums that manages to convey Rutherford’s skills as a melodist and acts as a fitting tribute. Altogether, Campbell manages to steal the show despite plenty of competition, most notably from Tchicai, whose bass clarinet on “Silvertone” is a sensual pleasure.

Unsurprisingly, the two tracks featuring J Spaceman’s guitar break out of the mold. “A 1000 Yards” is an anomaly, with more rock and noise influences than jazz or ambient, while the closer, “Garlands,” slowly builds tension before bursting into spaghetti western midway through, complete with trumpet, glockenspiel and whistling. A rousing climax.

At present, this feels like Spring Heel Jack’s best Thirsty Ear album to date. It explores combinations of influences and uses them in ways that no one else currently can.

By John Eyles

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