Sunday 24 May 2015

Matt Owens: The Aviators’ Ball (All Made Up Records)

The Aviators’ Ball, as conceived, composed and arranged by Matt Owens, co-produced by his backchatting muse Kirsty Almeida, and executed by the finest musicians and singers from Manchester environs, is a masterwork that outstrips genre. There’s nothing as transcendent as a melody, and Owens is a gifted melodist and arranger. As a jobbing bassist, he’s the anchoring presence of song-based jazz trio The Magic Beans and the rock steady heartbeat of Baked a la Ska. The pieces on his long awaited debut as leader are as indelible as the merry melodies of pop, come arrayed in the colours of the chamber orchestra and are executed with jazz freedom. Naturally, jazz soloists go where they will in their bravura way, whilst the classical players remain tethered to their music-stands. This is the first law of jazz/classical crossover. 

‘Raindrops On Our Rooftop’ is a sprightly opener and sets the tone: quietly exultant with a hint of drollery. The music is an extension of the man, being benign, sanguine and without a hint of angst. You feel that Owens observes the world with indulgence and gentle pleasure, and these are just the qualities he induces in his listeners. On ‘Raindrops’, Neil Yates’ tin-whistle soars above woodwind and tuned percussion like a bell ringing in the empty sky. It’s very shakuhachi, and very Manchester. The music nicely evokes the feeling of being warm indoors as rain patters outside.

These tunes and arrangements were aired as far back as the 2009 Manchester Jazz Festival and an advance copy of the CD has taken pride of place on my shelves for several months now. An alternative title (not so eloquent as The Aviators’ Ball) might be Matt Owens’ Greatest Hits, it’s so familiar and consistently excellent. There are three superb songs. Yes, songs. This is more than most contemporary jazz albums can muster (where the custom is to include a single song among the difficult stuff as a sop to the masses, and it’s usually horrible) and a better tally than most Greatest Hits collections. 

Tom Davies’ ‘Mouse Song’ celebrates togetherness even as it acknowledges its difficulties. It focuses on the domestic side of the dream of love, with the lover cast as interloper, perhaps analogous to a mouse, lightly raising the dust and unwittingly intruding into private spaces. The composer’s delivery is tender and expressive, as his voice meshes into a shifting kaleidoscope of woodwind. It’s adventurous and witty, and errs on the sweet side of bittersweet. And Rioghnach Connolly’s interpretation of the traditional ‘Black is the Colour’ stands comparison with those other great interpreters of that song, Margaret Barry and Nina Simone. These are two very disparate artists, and Rioghnach Connolly – so steeped in the Irish tradition that her vocal melismatics slip seamlessly between folky embellishment into bluesy paraphrase – is unique in her ability to combine the qualities of both. Add a Gil Evans-like arrangement, with Neil Yates invoking Sketches of Spain with a lorn trumpet, and the spell is complete.    

‘Going Back to the Village’, has carolling, creamy voices and a piano poised between precision and passionate abandon. This is the wonderful Edward Barnwell, whose ease at straddling the worlds of classical and jazz make him mutually simpatico to Owens’ aesthetic. Happiness is notoriously an elusive emotion to capture in music (and other rarefied art forms), but this is a trick Owens manages time and again. Owens and pianist John Ellis shadow each other in unison on the pretty, courtly ‘Every Wish Is For You’, until Neil Yates’ cuts through with a trumpet that is surely deeper and more sorrowful than required. 

Owens knows his musicians’ strengths and characters intimately, and is as keen as Ellington to devise settings that show them to best advantage. Sometimes a cameo is succinct but telling, as when a stratospheric lap steel guitar-lick from Billy Buckley puts the seal of joy to the bustle of ‘The Peanut Train’, a homage to Charlie Brown, or, particularly, to Vince Guaraldi. 

And the elegiac charm of ‘The Aviators’ Ball’ is a natural fit for Steve Chadwick’s cornet, always elegant, replete with warmth and composure, and moving. Chadwick’s lyricism ignites Barnwell to give his best, and Barnwell’s best is astonishing. Formally, ‘The Aviator’s Ball’ is an achingly beautiful waltz: it serves as a poignant salute to lost aviators and lost pioneers from a vanished world (the video does it full justice: you can find it here – Owens, it seems, has saved his best writing for the title track. 

Actually ‘Monsoon’ (the third of the immortal song trio: ‘Going Back to the Village’, being wordless, doesn’t count) is a candidate for that honour too, with the woodwinds in full spate on a dramatic ballad, that oscillates, like its moods, between major and minor. This is surely the most accomplished song yet to spring from the pen of Zoe Kyoti, an extremely personable jazz singer who here unleashes elemental forces, and waxes philosophical: “Nothing comes for free, even freedom itself…” This must be the nicest expression of the paradox since ‘Me and Bobbie McGee’. 

‘Violet’, the album closer, sweetly restores the balance of equanimity and wonder. 

An album refreshingly free of narcissism and angst (not counting Kyoti’s compelling contribution, that is), and, incidentally, a recording of stunning audio clarity, ‘The Aviator’s Ball’ works as program music, jazz, pop, whatever. It’s chiefly a pure expression of a unique sensibility, one wonderfully sympathetic to his fellow musicians. Was ever tunefulness more tuneful, or charm more graceful? 

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