Engines Orchestra + Phil Meadows Group – Lifecycles
(Engines Imprint. CD Review by Sarah Chaplin)
This album is a real feat. It’s the brainchild of human dynamo and 2014 Parliamentary Jazz Newcomer Award winner, saxophonist/composer Phil Meadows, who in less than 18 months secured himself a prestigious Peter Whittingham Jazz Award, wrote a powerful suite of music from scratch, formed a new 20-strong cross-genre ensemble of talented young players from across the capital to play alongside his own Phil Meadows Group, and recorded an ambitious debut studio album. They wowed audiences when the album launched at King’s Place during the EFG 2014 London Jazz Festival, and have now been nominated for a Parliamentary Award themselves. Meadows must be pleased as punch, and rightly so.
Lifecycles opens with a scene of tetchy domesticity: the urgent, insistent percussive skittering of what sounds like a bunch of kitchen utensils is supported by a low undertow of bass clarinet and a pad string section. Alice Zawadzki then supplies some lush vocals which stretch out over the top with evocative lyrics, turning the instruments into the hum of traffic, building in intensity. Conductor Matt Robinson skilfully steers a course towards a harp break before Meadows takes up his saxophone to provide a soulful melody, picking up the rhythmic feel again with Simon Roth on drums teasing alongside.
There’s an enjoyable filmic quality about the work, as if Meadows has conceived of it as a large multi-cultural city, where you might come across a lonely busker on one corner, some noisy skirmishes at a traffic intersection, before the sensory onslaught of a busy marketplace full of haggling musical phrases and rhythmic side deals. Meadows has a strong sense of form in his writing and gives the listener a generously proportioned kaleidoscopic soundscape, relishing the full range of instruments at his disposal, creating powerful settings for soloists and intriguing sectional textures.
Take Intoxicated Delirium for instance, which has an intentional untidiness and then in the midst of it all, something utterly controlled pierces through. It’s not specifically an orgy of mass improvisation as such, nor even about a strange clash of harmonies or cross rhythms, it’s more epic than that. You can hear the musicians gradually coming into spikes of alignment in the distance, creating the sense of an ambitious crowd scene that builds and builds and then comes to an abrupt end.
It’s followed by a deliciously restrained track called Euphoria, a more solitary piece using soprano saxophone and Tori Handsley on harp drawing out a plaintive lament. The strings hover above, bewitchingly watchful and edgy. The strings play a wide variety of roles: on Prelude they’re low and brooding, working their way through some dense dark harmonies, then on Remembrance they operate like a gang of gulls or monkeys in the distance calling to each other. As it develops fully into a tune, Elliot Galvin on piano takes up the lead with low, patient phrases that become bluesy and off-hand, ending with strong splashy chords as Zawadzki joins back in.
Celebration starts off like a vibrant folk tune played in unison, a happy dorian thing that then explodes like an unplanned firework, sputtering and fracturing into some weird turn of events, which after an exuberant piano break, sets off again at full tilt with a strong rock feel, showing us that Engines Orchestra really know how to construct a narrative. But it’s not only with a long-form tune that Meadows tells a story: Strife of Life is short and sweet, but it feels like you’ve been thrown into a bear pit only to escape within an inch of your life before encountering a divinely shy and contemplative trumpet solo from Laura Jurd. One of the most exciting moments on the album was the duo section on Twice the Man where Conor Chaplin takes a bass solo with Tori Handsley comping on harp.
Lifecycles has the energy of a live recording and the cleanness of the studio recording. There’s a wealth of of light and shade on the album, and the overall sense is that Meadows is continually pushing his collective out on a limb to search out something new. The music itself is a feat of ‘what-if’ type arranging, synthesising raw new blends, flavours and clashes of sound, which is probably why it comes across as a film score. There’s a whole range of moods on offer too, from exuberant, playful noisiness through to heartfelt interludes, yet despite the impressive production and mixing, it’s never too slick or hyped up for the sake of it. It’s one to keep, that’s for sure, but in terms of Meadows’ ambitious and exciting collaborative, it’s just the start of a mammoth new orchestral lifecycle.