Four years after 2004's Sweetness of the Water, where former drum'n'bass duo Spring Heel Jack (John Coxon and Ashley Wales) began playing their own instruments and enlisting collaborators to realize their own electronic jazz vision, they return to Thirsty Ear's Blue Series Songs and Themes. This time out, Wales works only with samples, while Coxon, plays guitar, violin, glockenspiel, and bass. The rest of the cast is a curious and exciting one: Vanguard jazz legend John Tchicai plays saxophones and bass clarinet, Orphy Robinson is on vibes, American ex-pat Roy Campbell plays various trumpets and flute, and the rhythm section consists of double bassist John Edwards (Evan Parker, James Hardway, Steve Reid, Paul Lovens), and drummer Tony Marsh (who has played with everyone from Kim Fowley to Mike Westbrook). The guests include J Spaceman on electric guitar on a pair of tracks, and drummers Mark Sanders and Rupert Clervaux on others. In the title lies the key to the album. It is a jazz record, but it is also a classical one; it is a moody, subdued, beautifully lyric and sometimes tense series of 12 charted tunes and takes.
The themes are obvious from the beginning, such as the opener, "Church Music," where glockenspiel, piano, a meandering violin almost on stun, all enter slowly, nearly processionally, before Campbell begins to articulate his motif to lend the proceedings body to hold the hovering spirit within. This is contrasted with "Dereks," a deeply moving elegy where samples and vibes, doubled violin, and rumbling bass drum effects are the frame for Tchicai's deep, soulful solo of a song that acts as both melodic frame and improvisational device. "Without Words" is another quiet, song-oriented piece with beautiful trumpet work by Campbell. The entire first half of the recording is very quiet and meditative but hardly boring. It's very English but only in the sense that Neil Ardley, Mike Gibbs, or Westbrook are. Things don't get outside or move up in terms of volume or improvisation until track five, "Folk Player," where Coxon's violin, subtle sonic samples, extremely interactive drumming, and Robinson's vibes wind through a series of themes and schematics allowing plenty of space for improvisation. Tchicai's bass clarinet is the focus of "Silvertone," a somewhat droning, quietly articulated piece where his breath control, pulse, and tonal flavor are in stark contrast to Coxon's violins. "Clara" is the most beautiful son here. Its gently flowing articulation and Clervaux's brushwork on the drum kits are beautifully asserted and may move slowly, but they are not static.
Things get wonderfully skronky and dissonant on "1,000 Yards" with Spaceman's guitar scree piled and soaring above violin and sampled drones and Marsh's drumming moving it all into a blur. The Eastern tinge in "At Long Last," with Robinson's sparse vibes laying a bedrock for the delightfully almost-off-the-rails solo of Campbell, who uses contrapuntal intervals and a restrained sense of dynamics to sing this theme, thereby blurring the very distinction between song and theme. The church organ touch is killer, too. This isn't an album that's going to appeal to everyone, particularly anyone who is still holding out hopes for a return to proper electronic music for Spring Heel Jack. Those interested in the Blue Series may find this a bit on the slow and quiet side, too. That said, there is so much here, in the minutiae: it is a truly involved, engaging, and even provocative recording on many fronts. This is a place where the sounds and spirits of Gil Evans' more skeletal material with Miles, the aforementioned Brit jazzers who studied composition, and fans of ambient music will find a very rewarding place to visit if not remain. This set should have been recorded by ECM: with its sound and these bleeding sonics and tunes, the match would have been made in heaven. Songs and Themes is beautifully done and worth the wait.