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For a lot of people like myself, they now want to go back, full circle, and learn the traditional way [of creating and performing music] and re-invent it and combine it with modern technology and find some harmony between the two.

—Jason Swinscoe of Cinematic Orchestra*

During the mid-‘90s, Cinematic Orchestra’s founder, Jason Swinscoe, was a working DJ unsatisfied with the direction of his career. He was hearing sounds in his head — jazzy, moody, polyrhythmic sounds — that he couldn’t figure out how to get onto tape. Swinscoe began sampling old jazz records and then putting the sampled snippets back together like sonic collages. He still didn’t get the results he wanted. Then, as legend has it, he found several modern-leaning jazz musicians who agreed to replay his collages. Swinscoe then got the idea of sampling them. In other words, Swinscoe didn’t want the mechanical feel of his original samples but he didn’t want the ordinary sound of the live instruments either. What he wanted was jazz musicianship filtered through a modernist’s electronica perspective. It’s said that necessity is the mother of invention. In this case, we might say dissatisfaction was the mother of Cinematic Orchestra.

In a recent write-up about Cinematic Orchestra’s 2007 release, Ma Fleur, Kalamu said that “melody and mood are the band’s strong points.” That may be the case—in fact, it probably is—but paradoxically much of Cinematic’s sonic identity is based on drums, both sampled and live. Tracks like “Bluebirds” (from 1999’s Motion) and “Flite” (from 2002’s Every Day) seethe with rhythmic depth. But then there are tracks like “Burn Out” (from Every Day) and “Dawn” (from 2003’s Man With A Movie Camera). Both are evocative, melodic pieces which go a long way to proving Kalamu’s point. “Burn Out” matches an ominous bassline with the dominant keyboards, but “Dawn” is little more than the same long notes (it may be an actual string session; it may be samples) repeating over and over, becoming brighter and fuller as the track goes on.
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Cinematic Orchestra is a fusion band, but where ‘70s fusion was said to be between a mix of jazz and rock (and I do know many would dispute that categorization), Cinematic is a child of the 21st century and therefore their style of fusion is a union of jazz and electronics. For example, there’s the live version of “Kalima” (originally from Motion; the live version is a b-side), which, mainly due to Tom Chant’s beautiful sax work, sounds at times like a straight-up jazz record. Except that there’s also a DJ (Patrick Carpenter) cutting up a Neil Armstrong sample (“that’s one small step for man…”) through the entire second half of it. I also hear a jumpy sort of modernism in the looping nature of the bass and drums. That last part may be more in my head than on the record itself, but I can say for sure that I don’t know of any other jazz tunes featuring manipulated snippets of astronauts on the moon.

“Music has to touch people,” Swinscoe told an interviewer, “otherwise, it becomes contrived and fatigued. Once that whole excitement about a new approach dissipates, the question is: is there actually any good music there, or just some funky loops and breakbeats?” What makes Cinematic Orchestra’s music different than most electronica is the throbbing heartbeat, the feeling of warmth and life. Swinscoe’s melody- and beat-driven songs are sparse on lyrics (when there are any lyrics at all), but his songs  still make you think and feel as much as they make you dance or nod your head. These songs are, as the saying goes, ‘about something.’

“Swinscoe,” as one reviewer put it, “is looking to explore the epic inside the commonplace, the cavernous spaces that dominate our limited domestic lives.” That’s a great description of Cinematic’s thematic strength. Right away, I can think of quite a few their records that fit the description perfectly. Records like “Durian” (which quotes “Strange Fruit”: “here is a strange and bitter crop”), “Burn Out” (“when the money’s gone / they don’t come around”) and this week’s feature selection “All That You Give” (“all that you are / all that you have / all that you give”) all fit the mold. These songs benefit from the ability of the vocalists to build meaning through repetition. It isn’t just the vocalists though. Even when there are no vocals at all, Swinscoe’s compositions still give you specific—and strong—feelings of, as the reviewer put it, “the epic inside the commonplace.”
In the case of “All That You Give,” the circumstances surrounding the recording of Fontella Bass’ vocals give us insight into some of the feelings that lay deep within the record. The Ninja Tune website tells the story of what happened after Swinscoe and his bass player P.J. France flew to St. Louis to meet Ms. Bass who was still trying to cope with the recent death of her husband, jazz great Lester Bowie:
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Fontella was struggling with the music that would become "All That You Give" and J. [Jason Swinscoe] couldn't quite understand why. And then suddenly it clicked and she poured out the melody and lyrics in one amazing take, beginning to cry as the tape was re-wound. “It was the first time that she'd cried for Lester,” J. explains. “She heard it as a love song - I think she heard it and she found it reminded her of Lester which was why it was hard.” But it's also why the results are so beautiful, the kind of performance that comes out of trust and understanding between musicians. The song is dedicated to the memory of her late husband.

In the club scene, trends come and go like wildfires. Musical fads sweep in unannounced, instantaneously getting everyone hot and excited. But just as quickly as the new styles appear, they disappear, most never to be heard from again. A few years ago, Cinematic Orchestra was born into one of those trends. Their jazzy, polyrhythmic records seemed de rigueur for the new style people were calling ‘future-’ or ‘nu-jazz.’ Notice though, nearly all of the other nu-jazz acts are either moribund or dead. Meanwhile, Cinematic Orchestra’s music remains listenable even though it’s no longer fashionable. We may not have known it back in ’99, but these cats can simmer just as much as they burn.

—Mtume ya Salaam

* Full interview available at Radio Free Canuckistan.


To live is to wonder about not living, and finally to choose to keep living, to stick with being alive in the here and now regardless of how disconcerting, how oppressive the present may be. To live is to stay here rather than to go to the great, unknown not here, not now.

Cinematic Orchestra. They touch something. Vulnerable places where the still waters sit. Where lotus flowers are rooted in the mud of our emotion lakes. I’ve been following them for a long time now, over a decade. And sharing their music with others.

Here are “Familiar Ground,” “Evolution” and “Breathe” from a 2007 limited edition CD, Live At The Big Chill, an English music festival.
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This set features vocalist Heidi Vogel. These are new versions of major TCO songs. I have previously written about my favorite version of these songs, while not quite as moving as the earlier versions, these are quite good (particularly if you overlook the distracting outdoor crowd noises).

Mtume, I don’t know why you choose to feature TCO. I’m glad you did.

We need to be reminded we are real; check out Tom Chant’s solo on “Evolution.” Phoenix ashes. An offering. Every ascension requires sacrifice. Requires we make a burnt offering. How much of ourselves are we willing to leave behind in order to become better than we now are? Not just the imperfections but also past pleasures, the delights that tie us to suffering. (You know how we put up with a lot of shit just to have some money, or some sex, or some something we decide we desire enough that we are willing to live in debasement just to be able to own some momentary sweetness.)

Our weakness is familiar ground. If we are to evolve we must breathe newness, be true to change. Evolution is based on change. No matter how comfortable the cocoon, breaking out is better because ultimately comfort is a coffin unless we crack it open and fly.

That’s it.

—Kalamu ya Salaam

This entry was posted on Monday, January 14th, 2008 at 1:11 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.

3 Responses to “CINEMATIC ORCHESTRA featuring FONTELLA BASS / “All That You Give””

Jinaki Says:
January 20th, 2008 at 11:03 am

Thank you for this introduction! Loving it! It feels soo good and so true!

Andy Says:
September 11th, 2008 at 3:41 pm

I asked myself one day after listening to Burn Out by TCO, “what does this mean?” my friend who was nearby said fairly matter of factly, “Jazz doesn’t and isn’t supposed to mean anything, it’s just jazz”

I am glad I read this article, partly because it proved me right and also because at the heart of all TCO tracks I now know there is the meaning given to them by the artists conception. Thanks!

Jason Dunbar Says:
November 27th, 2009 at 1:34 am

I was absolutely mortified to see the Cinematic Orchestra track Feat. Fontella Bass appearing on a “Chilled Bar Grooves” box set.

If only people knew the meaning of the music they listen to as they sip their cosmopolitans.

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