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Review: The Cinematic Orchestra's 2007 Barbican Concert 

 

 

Sunday, October 21, 2007


By Kalamu ya Salaam of Kalamu.com

 

 

Jazz, the genre that I knew has nearly disappeared. Notice I did not say “dead,” just not within our sight at the moment. Anyway I had Ma Fleur, the new release from The Cinematic Orchestra. Though I was not immediately impressed, I added the tracks to my iTunes library with intentions of getting back to them a little later.

In general I much prefer their live work to their studio recordings so, of course, I was intrigued, curious and hopeful. I ordered the EP and, after more searching, I found the whole
2007 Barbican concert—the EP
 
The 2007 Barbican concert is strong music. Very strong, in fact. The band now has three vocalists: Patrick Watson, who is heard on “To Build A Home”; Heidi Voge, and featured vocalist, Eska Mtungwazi, who is lead vocalist on “Child Song,” “Familiar Ground” and “Breathe.”

 

They have also added a guitarist and pianist to the line up that now is: Jason Swinscoe – band leader; Phil France – bass; Stuart Macallum – guitar; Luke Flowers – drums; Nick Ramm – keyboards; and Tom Chant – saxophone. Additionally, the live concert included a string quartet of Jote Osahn, Antonia Pagulatos, Stella Page and Esme Gaze.
 
A brain child of Jason Swinscoe, The Cinematic Orchestra is a band that fuses post-Coltrane jazz, minimalism, contemporary pop and electronic music into a coherent and distinctive whole. Undoubtedly, melody and mood are the band’s strong points but I'm equally enamored of their jazz chops; especially drummer Flowers, bassist France and saxophonist Chant.

The post-Coltrane element is there in the improvised passages, in the way the bass and drum lock forces - the bass pulsing strong time and the drums crashing powerful waves of rhythmic noise - all of that under-girding the ferocious energy of Chant’s saxophone wails.

 

The thickness and heft of Chant’s soprano is a direct descendent of Sidney Bechet. Actually, Chant’s most similar reference is Joseph Jarman of the Art Ensemble of Chicago rather than directly Trane-song. The blowing passages are power jazz of the most visceral and virile sort.

The minimalism is due to the way Swinscoe composes. The emphasis on simple repetitive harmonic vamps on the bottom that are cycles rather than progressions. The repeated figures establishing definite moods, usually introspective or subdued.

 

But even when passionate, the melodic passages suggest the urges that make one cry at specific moments, moments like death, like life-changing experiences, or like connections so momentous that the energy these connections invoke leak out through the eyes and take visible shape as tears or the involuntary trembling of flesh.

 

A shaking hand, a leg that won’t keep still, a clenched fist. Although such melodies are not technically challenging, actually crafting them is as difficult as cutting diamonds, and requires a similar technical precision to achieve.
 
I mention the pop: the hummable phrases that encourage repeating. Cinematic’s hooks are easy to remember to the point that you find yourself singing them subconsciously. Strange that the hooks should be so memorable, because most of the song lyrics are not narratives. These are not stories but exact and evocative snatches that capture the mood rather than relay a tale.

 

When listening to the Cinematic Orchestra, we seldom know what happened, yet we feel the weight of whatever it is that did happen. Again this is no easy feat. And for the vocalist there is an immense challenge. Wordless passages. Or lyrics consisting of four words that are sung over, and over, and over.

 

This fragile skein could quickly fall apart into fluff or melodramatic sentimentality of the most cloying sort, yet the songs hold together because the singers breathe them. The songs capture us like a lover’s stare locked onto the limitlessness of our caring. The appropriately named Cinematic Orchestra has been at it for a little over a decade now; their achievement is no accident.

They use less electronics now than they did in years past but there is still a strong surge of electric experimentation coursing through their mostly acoustic music making. Each of these elements is not only expertly rendered, the specific pieces are also meticulously mated, one on another: skin, flesh, bone, sinew, blood all working as one organism. In the end, we appreciate the whole body, not just one or two of its constituent parts.

Finally, one way that I judge that this is living music of the impressive experience is that it is best rendered before a live audience rather than in the sterility of the studio. That the Cinematic Orchestra’s music can be made live is also testament that the music itself is alive and not an artifice crafted in seclusion to be consumed in the seclusion of one’s privacy.

I know this write up is thorny in some of its expression and in the intricacy of the points I am trying to get to. I think though that I have given you a way to examine a music which needs no examination to be appreciated but whose achievement nevertheless does merit examination.

 

We need to really know that this is not to be confused with pretty music or pleasant music or anything else easily comprehended at a surface level. This is music of the human experience, music that expounds the fulsome fullness of human existence - into the deep. Beautiful music that comforts us and comforts us.

 

Kalamu ya Salaam is a New Orleans-based writer and filmmaker. He is also the founder of Nommo Literary Society - a Black writers workshop. 

 

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