THE CINEMATIC ORCHESTRA / “Breathe”
Constantly looking for new jazz music. Real jazz music. Deep music. But finding a lot of other kinds of beautiful music. Deep and serious. However, as they say, precious little jazz. Jazz as the genre that I knew has damn near 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. “Later” never came in terms of actually giving the whole album another listen. But a couple of weeks ago, while trying to track down a recommendation from Mtume, I came across a notice for a new live EP from Cinematic. 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 EP (which contains a shortened version of the performance) is available from the Ninja website, but the whole concert was only available as a limited edition CD. (I’m certain somewhere the full concert is available as a download). 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 nevertheless I am 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 (or should I say, I hope?) 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 into the deep. And comforts us. And comforts us. —Kalamu ya Salaam From the inside out Damn, Baba. You're in quite a reflective, poetic mood this week, huh? Anyhow, let me just say up front that I really like the Cinematic Orchestra. One thing Kalamu didn't mention was how the band got started. Initially, they were an all electronica, post-hip-hop type of band. They used tiny sampled bits of old jazz records to create new compositions that were one part jazz, one part drum-n-bass and one part (for lack of a better way to put it) atmospheric soundscapes. It was interesting music. Maybe more interesting than good, but they were definitely a band to keep an eye on. The next time I heard from them, Kalamu stopped by my apartment with a live recording. The music had the same vibe, something that Kalamu described as "simple repetitive harmonic vamps on the bottom that are cycles rather than progressions," but now, instead of being sample-based, cats were actually playing. It seems the only way Swinscoe could reproduce his music live was to hire musicians to replay all the samples. Except that the only cats who could actually play his complex blend of jazz samples and electronic beats were jazz musicians. So now we have a band with jazz chops and pop hooks, but filtered through a hip-hop-inspired sensibility. It's quite a combination. If you like what you hear, I recommend their 1999 album Motion. Two quick stories - one from a few years ago; the other from earlier today. Sometime around '04 or so, I was sitting in my car listening to Cinematic Orchestra while I was waiting for my son Jahi to get out of school. One of the other parents (who I recognized as a local New Orleans musician...although I'm sorry to say I don't know either his name or what instrument he plays) happened to park next to me. As soon as the song I was listening to faded, he asked me what the music was. Before I could answer, he said, "No, let me guess." He named four or five fusion groups from the early Seventies. I kept saying no. He noticed me smiling, and realizing he was on the wrong track, he started throwing out the names of actual jazz cats. I started laughing then. Thing is, I heard Cinematic Orchestra as an electronica band that dabbled in jazz, not the other way around. I was really surprised to hear him guessing all of these jazz groups. Finally, I told him the band's name and a little of their background. Judging from his reaction, he had no idea what I was talking about. I don't think dude had ever heard the phrase electronica. The other story is, earlier this morning, I was listening to "Familiar Ground" when my fiancée Beth came downstairs. She listens to a wide variety of music, but even for her, my musical tastes are all over the place. She doesn't usually comment on what I'm listening to, so I never know when she's actually liking something or when she's just going about her business. Beth stood behind me for a few minutes as I messed around on the computer. Then, as Eska was singing "how near / how far" for about the twenty-millionth time, Beth said, "Next time you make a mix CD for me, put this one on there, OK?" Look, these songs might not grab you at first listen, but give them half a chance and they'll grow not just on you, but into you. Like Kalamu said, it's music that effects you from the inside out. It's not surface-level music and it's not particularly easy. But it's deep and it's real and it's hypnotic. I can't tell you how many times I've popped in a Cinematic Orchestra CD with the intention of listening to just one or two songs and then ended up listening to the entire CD over and over and over. Cinematic Orchestra, y'all. Don't sleep. -Mtume ya Salaam
This entry was posted on Sunday, September 2nd, 2007 at 2:03 am and is filed under Contemporary. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
2 Responses to “THE CINEMATIC ORCHESTRA / “Breathe””
Leave a Reply
| top |