CD review

Zoöphyte – “Signs of Life”

Zoöphyte – Signs of Life
(Howlin’ Werewolf 004. CD review by Andrew Cartmel)

Signs of Life is the first album by Zoöphyte, a flexible collective of musicians under the leadership of vocalist Peter Jones, who has co-written all the songs with his regular collaborator Trevor Lever: “Trevor starts the tunes off with a chord sequence or a groove or a riff, then I lay a melody on it and write the words,” Jones told me.

The results are impressive. The album is an exciting and memorable piece of work which immediately grabs you with its clean, punchy sound. The opening song, Los Retablos, has a commanding, insistent Afro-Cuban swagger that dissolves into a shimmering dreamy soundscape, sweetened by the first hint of Kitty Whitelaw’s virtuosic backing vocals. Rob Luft’s elegant electric guitar judiciously punctuates the track, accompanied by Vasilis Xenopoulos’s tenderly cutting tenor.

Pretty damned quickly, indeed as early the second cut, Fusun, it begins to dawn just what a truly great combo this, with Ross Stanley’s piano seamlessly stitching the group together and standout solos like Xenopoulos’s set piece on Stone Cold Killah, while House on the Corner finds Stanley drenching us with warm waves of Hammond organ.

There’s a sweet echo of prime Steely Dan throughout this album — although Peter Jones is a more supple and expressive vocalist than Donald Fagen. Inevitably, it’s a comparison that carries with it the highest commendation. The brainchild of Fagen and Walter Becker, Steely Dan spent the 1970s and 80s crafting music that moved far beyond fusion to achieve a sophistication, intelligence and feel that was true jazz, using the finest session players in the business to achieve these results.

Which is also Peter Jones’s philosophy. “My technique is to spend the money on the very best,” he says. And he’s not exaggerating. In addition to Luft, Stanley, Xenopoulos and Whitelaw, the lineup here consists of Sophie Alloway on drums, Andrew Cleyndert on bass and Will Fry on percussion while the horns boast Graeme Flowers on trumpet and Nick Mills on trombone.

Where Jones doesn’t emulate Steely Dan is the length of time spent in the studio — Becker and Fagen would disappear down a rabbit hole for literally years. Zoöphyte run a much tighter ship. “We recorded at Eastcote, North Kensington, in about six and a half hours, with another day for vocal overdubs and guitar parts. This was at Heart of Gold in Colindale. I then rerecorded most of my vocals in Somerset just prior to mixing.” (This latter rural idyll might account for the very brief guest vocal spot by some ruminant quadrupeds.)

But in a sense none of these details matter. A listener doesn’t have to know any of the background to revel in a song like What’s Your Favourite Planet with Luft’s acute and beautiful electric guitar and ghostly, ethereal vocals by Kitty Whitelaw, lending the piece a fabulous space age exotica feel — think the original Star Trek theme by Alexander Courage, with its otherworldly wordless singing by soprano Loulie Jean Norman.

When I mentioned this to Jones, he smiled. “You have definitely battened on to what was going on there. There’s certainly a hint of Star Trek, but more specifically Barry Gray’s themes for the Gerry Anderson TV shows like Fireball XL5.”

This cultural correction is telling. What Peter Jones has achieved here is a valid and worthy 21st century British riposte to the greatest American jazz rock outfit of the 20th. He’s also picked up the Steely Dan trick of writing enigmatic, tip-of-the iceberg lyrics instead of, say, rote heart-on-the-sleeve relationship songs. With the result that this album is endlessly listenable, allowing the gorgeous musicianship to grow on listeners — and it deserves many.

LINK: Zoöphyte on Bandcamp

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