CD REVIEW: Roger Garfitt (poet), Nikki Iles (composer) – In All My Holy Mountain

Roger Garfitt (poet), Nikki Iles (composer)-In All My Holy Mountain
(Restringing the Lyre. RTL 201601. CD Review by Alison Bentley)

The writer and poet Mary Webb (1881-1927) provides the common ground between Roger Garfitt’s poetry and Nikki Iles’ compositions, the words and music together showing each other in a new light. Iles was commissioned in 1998 by saxophonist John Williams, whose octet plays her music here. Garfitt weaves lines from Webb’s own writing into his own, as well as themes from her novels, and significant events in her life.

Westerly brings the atmosphere of Mary Webb’s Shropshire (where Garfitt also lives,) with its ‘dusting of blue.’ You may recognise the melody from Iles’ Printmakers’ Westerly album. In this new version, the flutes and clarinet echo the piano lines, with a pastoral trilling flute and lilting chords. The poem’s lines are like musical solos between the richly-textured ensemble passages. Karen Sharp’s resonant tenor solo and Dick Pearce’s plaintive, throaty flugelhorn drift in and out of the chords.

Trevor Tomkins’ delicate drumming accompanies the stanzas of Listening for the Sedge Warbler, the bird’s asymmetrical stepping (‘delicate as a moth’) enacted by the tumbling, boppish harmonies and exquisite recorder solo from Williams. Mary Webb and the bird are described in similar language (‘trailing wing of hair’) as she succumbs to illness; the music is slow and melancholy, and words and music are intertwined (Iles echoes the chaffinch’s song with piano notes.)

In Fatherless an elegiac bass clarinet accompanies the lines. Webb’s late father is described as part of nature; she:

‘…thought of the oaks

On Lyth Hill, old hulks

Roped with honeysuckle.’

The harmonised melody is deep-toned, with tense lines under the flute and piano. Dave Warren’s plangent guitar solo folds into Kenny Wheeler-esque backing lines.

The Wedding Breakfast opens with a summons from Pearce’s flugel, the ensemble playing as warm-toned as a brass band. The dance theme, like a folk song, (a reworking of Iles’ High Lands) is irresistibly uplifting as Mary (‘Miss Meredith of the Grange’) unexpectedly invites the poor of the village to her feast. A Latin groove emerges, with gorgeous layers of Wheeler-esque counter-melodies.

Slithery bass clarinet and rumbling mallets on toms open The Haunting. Free jazz evokes the chaos of war as Garfitt quotes from Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth. It’s a ‘sideways glance’ at Webb’s World War 1 novel, Gone to Earth. The language has an understated directness as the memory of the young soldiers haunts the village:

‘…who left the ghost-cuts

of their spades

in the potato patch…’

There’s a slow march of horns with a ghostly accordion, (Iles) and a heart-stopping moment as piano and bass come in with an urgency that expresses the poem’s imagery of hunting. Pete Hurt’s soprano solo is powerful over the driving folk-edged 6/8 groove, with Tom Mark’s thrumming bass.
The Part Song takes a theme from Webb’s novel Precious Bane, where the protagonist has been rejected by her lover. She imagines ‘all the women of the past murmuring in sympathy’. The sweet flute with darker harmonies alludes to Webb’s own bitter-sweet experience; you appreciate the sounds of the words spoken over just a resonant bass solo:

‘…the criss-cross

Of scripts, pairing like swifts

On the wing…’

Westerly recurs as a coda- a sense of completion.

The album repays many listenings; you see more as you get a sense of the narrative, and the way the poems’ images connect with the music. If you follow the poems in the CD booklet, where the lines are loosely grouped across the pages, you have a different experience from just absorbing yourself in the recording. ‘The librettist is only the springboard- it’s the composer who has to do the backflips and double somersaults,’ said Garfitt at one of their performances. This is a beautiful album which draws you in with intriguing poetry and luscious composition.

Roger Garfitt: poet; John Williams: director, baritone sax, bass clarinet, recorder; Dick Pearce: trumpet, flugelhorn; Pete Hurt: alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, bass clarinet; Bob Sydor : tenor saxophone (1, 2), flute; Karen Sharp: tenor sax (1 solo, 3-6), clarinet; Nikki Iles: composer, piano, accordion; Dave Warren: guitar, violin; Tom Mark: bass; Trevor Tomkins: drums, percussion.

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