Mike Walker – Ropes
(Madhouse 002. CD review by Mike Collins)
Ropes is a Mike Walker album, right down to the last perfectly crafted melodic twist and rhythmic kick. It’s his imagination that has crafted the eight pieces in this set, and his hand that’s steered the small band and 22-piece string ensemble Psappha Strings through their twists and turns.
Walker’s guitar is not in the foreground however, we hear his voice mainly through the writing and arranging for the expanded palette of the ensemble and soloists, who are notably Iain Dixon on reeds and mainly Les Chisnall on piano with Gwilym Simcock on two tracks.
The opener, Still Slippy Underfoot is a reworked piece from Walker’s only other release, 2008’s Madhouse and the Whole Thing. This version starts with rich piano chords, before the evocative melody is sketched first by the piano, then by cello, then by Dixon’s clarinet over thickly textured strings.
The centrepiece of the album is the Ropes suite in three movements. The first, Bound to Let Go, has a mesmerising quality. A wash of strings rocks gently between two chords as the guitar makes its first entrance with quietly propulsive chords, Adam Nussbaum creeps in on drums, somehow insinuating a pulse. A melodic fragment is hinted at by staccato strings and clarinet. The second movement, Knots, starts with a piping dance-like theme that shifts and distorts. The evenly grooving development with a fluid, lyrical solo from Dixon takes another turn as the strings weave through the pulse and Walker spools out a solo of characteristic invention, the groove acquiring a rocky edge with the strings turning choppy. In the third movement, the clarinet twists and and spirals through introspective, melancholic shifts and colour from the orchestra.
Devon Bean changes the mood with an urgent, twisting theme. A scintillating solo from Simcock, swirls with the strings to a thrilling climax. It’s followed by another re-worked tune, the stately, wonky bossa Wallanda’s Last Stand from the Impossible Gentleman’s repertoire, strings adding colour before, with a piece of alchemy, they give Iain Dixon’s soprano a lift as he takes flight before re-introducing the theme.
This recording has had a long gestation, starting life as a commission for the 2008 Manchester Jazz Festival. There is a distilled quality to it. Ideas are given space to sit and grow, there’s rarely a sense of hurry and rush – a consistent, thoughtful mood suffuses the whole set. It is music to really listen to and absorb the subtle shifts and movements, as well as the always affecting melodic lines. It’s taken time, but the wait has been well worth it. Let’s hope Mike Walker keeps working on this bigger canvas alongside his many other projects.
Mike Collins is a pianist and writer based in Bath, who runs the jazzyblogman site. Twitter @jazzyblogman
LINKS: Interview with Mike Walker explaining the origins of Ropes
Ropes is available via Amazon and Marketsquare
Categories: CD review