Lucien Johnson – Wax///Wane
(Deluge Records. Review by Adrian Pallant)
Mystical, a touch retro, and increasingly spellbinding, Wax///Wane is the work of New Zealand saxophonist and composer Lucien Johnson. It’s an album described as being inspired by the lunar landscape of the southern skies – echoed by Julien Dyne’s almost animated, Neil Fujita-like cover art – and feels, to some degree, influenced by the output of both John and Alice Coltrane.
That connection is not least down to the sextet being fronted by Johnson’s bountiful tenor improvisations and including the cascading iridescence of harpist Michelle Velvin, while completing the line-up are vibraphonist John Bell, double bassist Tom Callwood, drummer Cory Champion and percussionist Riki Piripi. In contemporary terms, the sound may be likened to Matthew Halsall’s Gondwana Orchestra as grooves are settled into and explored – but there’s something different at play, here. Firstly, what emerges is an effect which appears to mimic the degraded-tape crumble of analogue recordings, heard especially through the sustained colour of harp and vibes – and that cleverly seems to place Johnson’s six original numbers in the studios of yesteryear. Secondly, while this ensemble can coolly vamp and expand on a relatively simple sequence, there are moments when a luxuriant, composed figure begins to move forward, its resolution anticipated; but then it attractively retreats, unrealised, into the general sway.
Such a progression can be heard in the opener, Magnificent Moon – perhaps the most nostalgically evocative of all – suggesting an after-dark view across a bespangled, rippling lake, where Johnson’s low smoothness and higher, broken tones are a mesmeric delight, as is the bassist’s prominent, melodic pliancy. Conceivably the sextet is consciously representing the album’s lunar-cycle theme, as Dawn then interprets the awakening sounds of nature amidst soft hues of milky sunlight. In this aubade, the tenorist’s calming tones become more and more appealing, imaginably leading to a clearing and the onset of invigorating Blue Rain (or Train?). The Coltrane aura is, indeed, especially pronounced in this track’s momentum as drums, percussion and harp emphasise its splashing celebration. Johnson’s saxophonic style can be lively, even gently rasping, but remains unflappable throughout the elegant, uplifting chordal changes of these ‘jazz ragas’, whose foundational repetition and occasional non-resolving patterns never outstay their welcome.
In Forest Rendezvous, a sprightly, sparkling dance is summoned with some lovely phrases, one sequence in particular resembling the lyrical atmospheres of easy-listening songs of the 1960s; and Johnson’s free-flowing lines also bow to a central, sunlit meditation between his colleagues. More urgent Rubicon might be construed as a passage into the unknown – maybe the band’s next project or reincarnation – with much more of that impetuously searching tenor. To close, Awa’s airy oscillation is illuminated by vibes and harp, buoyed by cantabile double bass, as Johnson meanders through different key centres in his confident yet unshowy display.
Wax///Wane is a subtly enigmatic experience – as if we need to discover more, or have vaguely been here in our long-lost youth, but the spectacle is observed through a veil and not quite tangible. That certainly contributes to its feel-good magnetism.
Released on 1 April 2021 as a digital album at Bandcamp.
Categories: Album review