Emma-Jean Thackray – UM음 YANG양(Night Dreamer Records ND006. Review by AJ Dehany)
Composer and trumpeter Emma-Jean Thackray outlines the manifesto of her label Movementt in a way that is germane to a holistic, spiritually yearning cosmic tendency in improvised music: “It’s music that moves the body, moves the mind, and moves the soul. The coming together of the visceral, the cerebral, and music that nourishes the soul.” Over several releases, radio sessions and high-profile concert commissions during the last few years she has developed a diverse synthesis of influences from classical, electronica and jazz. The soul of her new two-track 12” release UM음 YANG양 is nourished specifically by open form, groove-based jazz. You have to try and dissociate the Rhodes-and-trumpet combo from Bitches Brew, but it pursues a more analogue feel in both timbre and production.
UM음 YANG양is a septet studio performance that was recorded direct-to-disc on two sides of ten and eight minutes. It’s a mad thing to do that makes it more nerve-wracking and exciting for the players and sonically gives the recording a sound closer to the experience of being in the room than more processed sound because the ear is given less direction. The soloists tend to slightly weave in and out as they spin around the microphone. The rhythm instruments are more consistent and come out more prominently than most typical western music mixes, where treble instruments tend to be prioritised over rhythms (which is precisely what bound the heels of the Youssou N’Dour BBC Prom). Overall the sound has a baked-in imperfection that gives it a distinctive and vibrant energy. The ‘balance’ of the record comes from its shared ethos; what I’ve heard composer and theorist Moss Freed call “choice of players as a compositional parameter”.
Side One – UM음 – opens to the stereoscopic ping of Lyle Barton’s Rhodes piano and washes of percussion and trumpet. From the moment the cowbell clave starts it’s a polyrhythmic treat with Dwayne Kilvingtonaka Wonky Logic on percussion, Crispin Robinson on congas and Dougal Taylor on drums, all locking together with tight short bass figures from Ben Kelly on the tuba-like sousaphone. It’s what Sons of Kemet might sound like with a trumpet added, and the Rhodes brings rich chordal colour. Side Two – YANG양 – opens with a more dense, aggressive free sound before leading into the groove. The toplines continue along the Bitches Brew paradigm with short fragmentary themes and intense unison wailing. Saxophonist Soweto Kinch’s playing sounds freer and more exciting than the bandleader, and thereby hangs a tale.
It’s notorious in jazz that improvisers might tend to play more freely on other people’s records. Players can get on with playing, but bandleaders might be straitened by the demands of their project manager or promoter role in directing the larger vision of the music. That’s not to say that Emma-Jean Thackray hasn’t proven herself to be exceptional in this role as ‘nucleus’. Ahead of London Jazz x LSO: Part I concert in 2018, a concert of astonishing scope and achievement in fusing jazz, classical and electronica (watch the 28 November 2018 livestream recording from LSO at St Luke’s) she said of the parts and ensembles she puts together: “I’m there to guide and to coax as a performer/conductor, but the unexpected is where the true excitement lies for me.”
Soweto Kinch says: “She’s got a really free yet specific thing that she’s got in her mind,” continuing: “It’s spiritually quite intense but quite relaxing under the circumstances too.” The balance and blend of the ensemble is certainly effective. The ‘balance’ concept is laid on thick; throughout UM음 Thackray chants the mantra “all must balance” in a vague sort of way that might make the whole seem less focused. Among similar artists elsewhere, Jaimie Branch’s similarly meandering use of chants can also drag. Lots of people quote Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and Sun Ra’s Space is the Place but the mantric power of those great moments comes from specific deployment rather than indiscriminate chanting.
The title UM음 YANG양 is Korean for yin and yang, the concept of balance, duality and harmony and that everything in the universe, the energy of all things, must balance. “Vibration is behind all things,” explains Thackray. “It’s geometry, mathematics that’s the foundation that my whole being is based on, a belief in the bands of energy. The music is about the universe. It’s about the energy of all things. And what’s more real than that?”
UM음 YANG양 is released on Night Dreamer Records on 31 July. AJ Dehany is based in London, locked down in Teesside, and writes independently about music, art and stuff.