CD review

Babelfish – Once Upon a Tide

Babelfish Once Upon a Tide
(
Moletone 007. CD Review by Alison Bentley)

When is the best time to record a new album? Babelfish waited till the end of their 2018 UK tour, and the quartet sounds completely at ease with their material. Their distinctive blend of jazz, classical and improvised music sounds relaxed, poised and full of creative risk-taking, this time full of literary influences.

The two pieces not written by Barry Green (piano) and Brigitte Beraha (vocals) come from the jazz and classical repertoires. Ellington/Strayhorn’s Pretty Girl (The Star-Crossed Lovers) based on Romeo and Juliet, is like being in another world where time slows down. The piano echoes and enhances the laid-back vocal line. Chris Laurence’s strong bass and the rustle of Paul Clarvis’ brushes interact subtly with the Bill Evans-esque piano solo. The harmonies of Purcell’s songs lend themselves well to a jazz-inflected treatment, evidenced by other European singers such as Leila Martial and Simone Severini. Babelfish’s version of Dido’s Lament is exquisite: the voice is sometimes breathy, sometimes soaring with dreamy clarity, while bringing the lyrics to life.

Green’s The Inspector and the Collector recalls Azimuth in its leaping wordless vocal- Norma Winstone and John Taylor have been an influence. The gentlest of backbeats develops; the groove skips some beats to reel you in. Green’s solo draws out his cantabile style- some notes are emphasised, some slurred, like a spoken language. You want to hear what he has to say. His composition City of Glass creates suspense musically, with its unpredictable time signature, and lyrically, as Beraha sings the opening lines from Paul Auster’s novel.It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.” Dark insistent chords are sweetened by lyrical piano lines, till the bass starts to run urgently, as if chasing the piano over the rushing drum sounds. Green’s Casual Incompetence is anything but- a short, intense piece with a headlong bass groove and boppish drums, melting into free improv.

Beraha’s compositions are atmospheric and varied. The Book of Joy (based on stories by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu) has different sections, like different stories. She explores the possibilities of her voice: from vocal percussion and free expressive sounds, perhaps like Maggie Nicols, to laughter, deep drones and thoughtful melodies. You feel she’s waiting to see what will happen next, in a free section with exquisitely-toned percussion and laughter. The sinewy bass pedal pins the groove and the piano solo glows. There’s an affecting crackle in the voice as she sings: ”…heartbreak never breaks me…” Hobie’s lyrics are as complex (“…every piece tells a story…”) as the joyful tune- mostly in 5. The romantic Haven’t Met You Yet could almost be a Nick Drake song. A gentle piano riff keeps the surface glassy as the chords move underneath. Laurence’s solo seems to sing new melodies. The Sea, the Sea, inspired by Iris Murdoch’s novel, considers the sea’s mutability. In the slower parts, lilting Satie-sque chords roll like waves, as the piano explores the pulsing shape of the chords.  Clarvis’ cymbals are like sea spray as the urgency builds: “waves crashing violently into those hidden rocks by the unexpected shore”. Max Jacob’s French prose poem Vie et marée (Life and tide) is partly sung and spoken in a kind of dreamy jazz sprechstimme, or a gently whispered Pierrot Lunaire (Schönberg.)  Some phrases are sung as a jazz ballad, some have a stronger groove, and there’s a very lovely arco bass solo.

Once Upon a Tide is a beautiful and intriguing album, full of superb musicianship and thrilling improvisation. It has many moods, like the tide it describes.

Once Upon a Tide will be launched at Kings Place on 29 June 2019

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