Album review

Emma-Jean Thackray – ‘Yellow’

Emma-Jean Thackray – Yellow 
(Movementt. Album review by AJ Dehany)

Mercury is the planet that is said to rule communication, and Mercury presides over trumpeter and composer Emma-Jean Thackray’s first full-length album Yellow as one of a pantheon of planets, gods and influences that formulate its central theme, that of communication. It’s a jazz album that keeps it short and concise, with an appealing blend of sixties-style cosmic jazz with a contemporary flavour seeped in Thackray’s interest in electronica and her use of the studio to slice up and structure material. 

Yellow is a suite of tracks that communicates the arrival of a compelling talent. The album continues from and greatly expands the scope of 2020’s Rain Dance EP and 2018’s Ley Lines EP, pursuing a jazz sound with pop structures rather than the free jazz formula of last year’s UM YANG disc. “There’s so much in the word ‘jazz’ that it’s hard to define,” drummer Moses Boyd says in We Out Here: A LDN Jazz Story, which includes Thackray in a set of influential musicians whose work describes and directs the zeitgeist of the new Britjazz. 

I first heard the lead single Spectre on BBC Radio One, the super-compressed industry pop station, played on Future Sounds with Annie Mac. To hear ‘jazz’ in such a context seemed remarkable. Spectre is a smouldering stand-out track with a pop production, very much in the spirit of the SAULT project. A cinematic deployment of strings recalls Radiohead’s own Spectre, the one that lost the Bond theme job to a dismal sketch by Sam Smith. This trounces both. The shimmering, subdued sense contrasts the exuberance of much of the rest of the album. It’s more appealing for more of that and less of the cosmic vibe. Call me curmudgeonly but it can get a bit wearing to be repeatedly exhorted to open your mind, raise your consciousness, open your third eye, be mellow— in an album speaking to ‘Our People’ it seems like preaching to the choir. 

The choir in this case is the same sort of full cosmic Star Trekky choir we found on Kamasi Washington’s The Epic. On the handclap-driven title track Yellow, the vocal is sung but almost sprechgesang, influenced by rap. Thackray has a very strong R’n’B voice and a command of vocal arrangements to create her cosmic choruses, which are often multitracked. The whole album is created in the box, edited down from longer takes and constructed by Thackray into these coherent and focused jams. In opener Mercury the undulating three-note bass pattern layers up into chant: mer-cu-ry, and a short poem crystallising the album’s theme of communication, beginning “To speak to hear to know to love, our communities are bound by words by listening…” 

There’s plenty to listen to on the album, with the full band sound augmented at times by Tibetan bowls, and huge vocal arrangements. Our People is another two-bar jam out of the Sons of Kemet playbook and might even be a sousaphone bass-line. With another unifying message – ‘we are all our people no matter who is in your bed no matter who is in your borders’ – it is one of the most impressive tracks production-wise. It is high energy and constantly seems to be rich and full across the sound spectrum but then somehow break into another section that seems to take it up again, replenishing the energy without getting cluttered, and with some nice dynamic playing and variance as the rhythm players and keyboard open out into looser improvised touches. Golden Green takes a slower SAULT-influenced saturated production style with heavy bass and the woozy trippy millennial feel of Sam Gendel. 

Cosmic jive might be the jazz equivalent of pop’s vocabulary of yeah-yeah-nah-nah-love-love-love, not really signifying anything but primarily musical in sense and not meant to be parsed or analysed textually, but the personal-is-political unifying message of the album rings out strongly. Yellow is an album very much appealing to the soul jazz sensibilities of DJ Gilles Peterson, but at times there are appealing notes to a harder direction that I’d like to hear more of. Listen to Benji B’s Radio 1 show if you want to explore that area where hiphop and nu jazz directions collide with electronica and classic psych jazz. In the meantime, the album leads us out with a reprise of the opening track Mercury, with Mercury (In retrograde) complete with some backmasked vocals. When people are having a bad time in life, they often blame Mercury in retrograde, so for the album to end in retrograde hints at inescapable darker themes sometimes disguised among the album’s prevailing exuberance and brightness.

Yellow is released on 23 July

TOUR DATES start on 28 July in London (Colour Factory), then Antwerp, the We Out Here Festival near Cambridge, Paris, Birmingham, Cardiff, Bristol, Leeds, Hull , Liverpool, Manchester, Gatesehead and Glasgow.

LINK: Yellow on Bandcamp

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