Listening to ‘When The World Was One’, the new album by Matthew Halsall (to be released on the Monday following his St George’s performance), it’s easy to be reminded of why he’s such a special figure within contemporary British jazz. Indeed, for his growing number of admirers, many of whom may not be ‘proper’ jazz fans at all, Halsall’s music strikes a very personal chord, each new release furthering a developing relationship between player and listener. The latest album, credited to Matthew Halsall and the Gondwana Orchestra (actually an octet, at least five or six of whom should be present at St George’s), takes that relationship deeper still, while also appealing to those who haven’t yet heard the four previous recordings. Like them, it appears on the trumpeter/composer’s own Gondwana label.
The collection of seven tunes begins with the title track. After the opening bars by the band, the first lead instrument you hear is the soprano saxophone of Matthew’s fellow Mancunian Nat Birchall, who tootles mellifluously on a modal, almost jazz waltz, mid-tempo theme so timeless it could belong to any of the last five decades. After two choruses, the chirpy opening slows down into Taz Modi’s gently twinkling piano solo, then all goes eerily quiet before Matthew’s own trumpet solo, which starts softly before building steadily through brief, stabbing phrases to a restrained climax that in turn leads back to Nat again, and the eventual close. Throughout, Rachael Gladwin’s harp burbles away in the background like the trickle of a mountain stream, while Gavin Barras on double bass and Luke Flowers on drums keep the pulse simultaneously taut and loose, ensuring forward momentum with maximum flexibility.
It’s the most straightforwardly jazzy number on the album, and testifies to Matthew’s abiding belief in melody, and to an aesthetic of thoughtful reticence rather than show-offy display, favouring the sound of the ensemble and the shape of each composition over individual virtuosity. Despite the relatively lively tempo and chirpy theme, there’s still a slight sense of emotional distance to the tune, the kind of residual melancholy that once made me call Halsall’s music “rain-streaked spiritual jazz”, in a trite bit of phrase-making for the papers. For as current practice goes, particularly the sort of muso-jazz that perhaps privileges nifty time-changes and clever-clever stuff over emotional content, Matthew Halsall’s compositions establish a direct communication with the listener through evoking a particular mood or set of feelings, which of course is what most music has done ever since music began.
Exactly where the spirituality of Halsall’s “spiritual jazz'” comes in is an interesting point. As with Nat Birchall’s own albums, all of which are well worth investigating (), there’s a strong regard for the open structures, modal themes, thrumming bass-lines and passionate soloing to be found in the original spiritual jazz associated with the Impulse! recordings of John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders in the Sixties. By departing from the dominant, pick and mix-style post-modernism of recent jazz in favour of a relatively simple and modest dedication to space, mood and melody, Matthew’s music also favours a goatee-stroking meditative air that might well translate into contemplation of the infinite. His own trumpet style (clip here) – typically wrapped around a generous dollop of acoustic space or silence – carries inevitable echoes of the spare and soulful Miles Davis of ‘Lift to the Scaffold’ or the later Chet Baker’s vulnerable air of Romantic agony, while the restrained temper of the tunes might recall emblematic English folk music and the recessive sadness of Nick Drake ). Click here to listen When I saw him perform with the massed ranks of the Brighouse & Rastrick Brass Band at the Holmfirth Festival two years ago, it was hard not to feel that this Northern tradition expressed a special kind of English soul music; a Non-Conformist, Industrial Revolution equivalent to the holy-rolling roots of Southern Baptists in the USA.
Matthew is also interested in Buddhism and has travelled in Japan, which brings another element of spirituality into the mix. ‘When The World Was One’ deepens his previous concern with exploration eastwards, the Gondwana Orchestra featuring not only the Shakuhachi (end-blown flute) sound of Lisa Mallett but also the classical plinky-plonk of the koto (a Japanese stringed-lute with 13 strings strung over 13 moveable bridges) played by Keiko Kitamura. Here, while the correspondence might well be entirely coincidental, the music sounds like a very attractive contemporary gloss on the excellent (and criminally overlooked) albums made by the clarinet player Tony Scott in the Sixties: ‘Music For Zen Meditation’, and ‘Music For Yoga Meditation’.
But whatever the echoes of the past, the most important thing to remember about Matthew Halsall’s music is that it’s happening now. The sources it references have been incorporated into a context where the Cinematic Orchestra or Gilles Peterson might carry as much weight as any historical example you care to mention. And heard live, Matthew Halsall is something else. To hear him at St George’s (where he’s appeared once before and loved it, sharing a double bill with Nat Birchall), and playing acoustically too, the exultant sound of his trumpet glorying in all that natural reverb, will be a very heady experience, spiritual or not.