|L-R: Alice Purton, Alice Zawadzki and Alex Roth
(Photo from the first performance of Songs to the Moon in May 2015)
Alice Zawadzki, Alex Roth, Alice Purton – Songs To The Moon
(St Mark’s Church, Dalston, 30 January 2016. Review by Peter Jones)
Josh Zvimba, the enterprising vicar at St Mark’s, has just begun staging a series of intimate gigs in his huge, exotic, mysterious, dimly-lit church whose every surface is richly coloured and deeply textured. Such a setting was ideally suited to the music of the Alice Zawadzki and her trio.
It was a performance of transcendent beauty. Lord knows whether you could actually call it jazz, but whatever it was, Zawadzki’s voice and violin, Alice Purton’s cello and Alex Roth’s electric guitar combined to create sounds that seeped into the brain and evoked a stream of otherworldly images and impressions. They had taken music from forgotten corners of Europe and beyond – Czechoslovakia, Crete, Hungary, Palestine – as well as a few originals by members of the group. If this suggests too much diversity, in fact the opposite was true: these Songs to the Moon had a distinctive unified character – quiet, delicate, ethereal and strange.
The first, Noches Noches, was an ancient song sung in the Judeo-Spanish language Ladino, in which Zawadzki’s microtonal singing was backed by an eerie drone. A similar technique was employed in Ha Folyóvíz Volnék, written by the 20th century Romanian composer György Ligeti, a gypsy tune with no chords, just a drone in E with tapped guitar strings to create rhythm. But for me the highlight of the first set was Purton’s composition Seasong, her interpretation of ‘what it’s like being under the sea’. Zawadzki sang wordlessly, and you could close your eyes and imagine yourself in an old documentary by Hans and Lotte Hass.
After the interval came Rusalka’s Song to the Moon, a rearranged version of Dvořak’s aria from his opera Rusalka, about a water spirit. Needless to say, Zawadzki sang this in the original Czech, in a sweet, powerful and – yes – operatic style, while playing some kind of tone generator. There was much more in this vein, but for me the most beautiful tune in the second set was Old Matthew, a piece she wrote herself based on an old Javanese Gamelan melody she apparently learned many years ago.
Songs to the Moon combined deep knowledge of the world’s folk music, perfect empathy between exceptionally fine musicians, improvisation and the techniques of modern minimalism to create something very special.