Gonimoblast – Live with Arve Henriksen/Maja Ratkje
(Stoney Lane Records. Review by AJ Dehany)
Samplers have been around since the ’60s, so why do they still seem so futuristic? It seems to have taken forever for electronics to gain a foothold in jazz, but maybe their time has finally come. Composer and bass player Chris Mapp started Gonimoblast in 2013 with electronics wizard Leafcutter John, pianist Dan Nicholls and percussionist Mark Sanders, to explore improvisation with electronics. The nascent group supported Polar Bear in 2014 but it was support from Birmingham promoters Jazzlines and Jerwood Charitable Foundation funds that gave them the dirty time to develop the strong focus and unity of purpose that have characterized their performances since the start of 2015.
Live was recorded over two nights in November 2015 at The Crossing, an expansive black box theatre among the evocative dereliction of warehouses and canals in the former industrial district of Digbeth, Birmingham. The group’s activity earlier in the year has been represented on three online releases, Always Darkest Before Dawnn (with trumpeter Sam Wooster), The Depths, and Flatland (with Shabaka Hutchings). This is the first Gonimoblast recording to be released by the Stoney Lane label, in a lavish, limited edition screen-printed by artist Tom Tebby.
This double live album is a plateau from which to view the group’s dizzying progress. There’s a symphonic sense of overall form that develops and emerges from the group’s strong discipline and cultivation of intensity over the discs’ slowly burning two hours. Each disc is centred around a guest. The first is Norwegian vocalist Maja S.K. Ratkje, performing with discreet microphones and several layers of processing.
The group opens with quiet abstraction: pointillist daubs of percussion and sound in a discrete integrated sound world. There is a deliberate blurring of electronic and acoustic elements. A sound you might ascribe to the kit might come from Leafcutter John, and vice versa. With the whole group apart from Sanders using electronics there is an enjoyable uncertainty in not being sure who is doing what, what is improvised, what is live, what is created in the box and what has been fed back and reprocessed. It takes a couple of listens to separate out the threads and even then you’re never completely sure.
As the interactions develop, more typically “musical” and tonal elements are introduced, with electronic whistling, mechanical drones and intense playing from Sanders and Mapp. Material gathers and loops in thorny clumps of texture, thickening and driving forward with darker intent. Maja Ratkje’s vocals become a larger presence; speech particles patter through delay pedals, half-thoughts are churned into glossolalia; and only in the first hour’s climactic finale is there conventional singing, in a beautiful clear Scandinavian voice. You can picture the players silhouetted against columns of light, which they were on the night. Hurricanes and helicopters crescendo, synths sweep incandescently across the sharp horizon of a white sky with an inscrutable universal emotionality reminiscent of Sigur Rós.
The second disc features trumpet player and vocalist Arve Henriksen. It launches almost in medias res into an unsettling sound world of throaty vocal phrases underpinned by clattery arrhythmias. It has more of the doomy sense of Chris Mapp’s work prior to Gonimoblast and to be found in the heavier moments of Fram from the second album The Depths. Even with electronic manipulation Henriksen’s trumpet is inescapably tonal but the more conventionally musical sense of the second hour complements the first’s sonic abstraction — though any provisional key centre keeps shifting, approximating a modernistic atonality between moments of suggestive tonality: the sort of thing scholars argue about with regard to harmony and modality in Debussy and Stravinsky. Compared to the sensational but more obviously free jazz impetus such as we heard in their intense work with Shabaka Hutchings mere months before, Live is an impressive and satisfying integration of supposed opposites: tonal and textural, sonic and musical, electronic and acoustic, composition and improvisation. It’s slow burning 21st-century music for a time of ceaseless noise.
Gonimoblast Live is available from the Stoney Lane Record’s emporium.
AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk