Feature/Interview (PP)

Kevin Figes – Wallpaper Music

Bristol-based multi-instrumentalist, composer and educator Kevin Figes’ new album, Wallpaper Music, with eight original compositions written during lockdown is released this Friday 3 December, with a launch gig at the Vortex in London. Feature / interview by John Fordham:

Kevin Figes (centre) and bandmates for Wallpaper Music. Photo credit: Janinka Diverio

What had begun as an inviting story about an inventive UK musician operating outside the metropolis in a dynamic local jazz community, turned out to harbour an unexpected twist when Kevin Figes and I last talked jazz and other matters for LJN in June 2020 – in the first months of the lockdown’s seismic impact on the working lives of musicians.

Figes, the Bristol-based multi-instrumentalist and composer, was naturally as alarmed as anyone by the prospects of this emergency for live performers – but he just happened to be tentatively travelling the other way when the news broke, in the early stages of a journey of creative emergence from a protracted confinement of his own, occasioned by family bereavement and some tough self-questioning about his musical directions. 

The clues to a Figes renewal came with 2020’s Changing Times, his first release in four years, a wide-ranging and personal collection of influences from prog-rock and film noir to Hermeto Pascoal, Paul Hindemith and Soft Machine, and the hook for our LJN story that year.

This month sees the even more fearlessly exploratory Wallpaper Music (a wryly ironic title, unless your idea of wallpaper is pretty avant-garde), once again featuring the leader on saxes, flutes and voice, with long-time Bristol partners Jim Blomfield and Mark Whitlam on keys and drums, virtuosic jazz/classical innovator Ashley John Long on bass – and an ethereally powerful presence in Italian-born singer Brigitte Beraha, a Norma Winstone admirer but with a distinctive muse of her own, and one of the most idiomatically agile vocal weavers of lyricism and edgy free-improv on the UK jazz circuit.

When Kevin Figes and I reconnect on the phone in November, and quickly pick up where we left off 18 months before, it’s immediately apparent that the raft of new composing he had mentioned in passing back then as a possible follow-up to Changing Times had turned into much more than simply a sequel – a radical extension of the composer’s fast-expanding new vocabulary might describe it better.

“I’d worked on Changing Times during 2019 and earlier, but Wallpaper Music was all written during the first lockdown,” Figes observes, “and because musicians couldn’t get together, I did it pretty much without any collaboration except for with my keyboards colleague and neighbour Jim Blomfield, who would often suggest all kinds of alternative sounds we could use to express the notes I was writing. But otherwise, these were very extensively through-composed pieces developing ideas I was discovering from 20th century classical composers like Stockhausen and Luciano Berio, and from the 1970s experimental rock group Henry Cow. Because of the circumstances, I also composed all this music at one time, which is different from most of the music I’ve made in the past.”

The sense of music initiated from an idiosyncratic and often very unjazzy confection of sources, and then recorded with the headlong energy of spontaneous performing artists let off the leash after long seclusion, is apparent all over Wallpaper Music. The long opener, ‘More Equal Than Others’, slams together fast, twisting postbop sax figures (the late Elton Dean, and New York downtowner David Binney are among Figes’ significant models), Beraha’s dreamy high-note tiptoeing amid diaphanous flute lines, staccato vocals against explosively short sax figures, fast and startled wordless improv, and tightly convoluted reeds-and-keys ensemble parts suggestive of Henry Cow, Zappa, or Soft Machine.

‘Half Sunk, A Shattered Visage Lies’ takes lines from Shelley’s famous all-things-must-pass ‘Ozymandias’ sonnet reinvented as a mix of ruminative vocal drifts and tightly hooky ensemble music, ‘Alt. View’ a rich harmony of flute, keys and voice, bursts of crunching metal-guitar mimicry and Hammond organ chords. Interlude-like episodes barely a minute long unfold vocal-ballad tones against tolling piano chords or low flute purrs, while ‘Song; Meaning’ mixes jazzy phrasing from Figes’ soprano sax with bleepy electronics or organ drones. If Wallpaper Music doesn’t sound like a generic jazz set of any familiar kind – or any creation predictable from Kevin Figes’ work in the past – that’s an accurate assumption. But the composer has come to this point by an unflinchingly personal route, and it’s evidently one that he intends to stay on wherever it leads.

“I was thinking harder about lyrics this time,” Figes says of Wallpaper Music, “and particularly about literary references that have been important to me. A significant one is George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’, a book that seems quite relevant to the present time in that a lot of people are shouting about what freedom is, but the outcome might end up being the opposite. My dad introduced me to Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, and – being someone who’s always thought a lot about life and death – it stayed with me as an image of the ways we try to ignore the fact that we all perish.”

Alongside Figes’ regular instrumental soul-mates, Brigitte Beraha sounds like a significant presence in the pursuit of his personal muse on this project – and it unsurprisingly turns out that their story goes a long way back.

“Twenty years ago, Brigitte and I were at the Guildhall School of Music together,” Figes says. “We stayed in touch on and off over the years, and when Emily Wright (the leader’s local vocalist on Changing Times) couldn’t do this session because she was having a baby, I asked Brigitte. It had been a long time, but I felt we’d always thought the same ways about music, and when she came in for the four days of the recording at Rockfield Studios in Monmouthshire last January, she was absolutely brilliant. Some of this material is all over the place in the way different rhythms and shapes jump about, but she was completely on it, and she’s a fantastic free-improviser too.”

If you invite him to describe the biggest single influence in his musical transformations of recent years, Kevin Figes unhesitatingly puts his finger on the difference between patterns and sound. In meticulously studying the work of Luciano Berio, Krzysztof Penderecki and other 20th century non-jazz composing luminaries, Figes has increasingly shifted his thinking towards the qualities of sound, and away from the familiarities of hooks and songlike chord progressions.

“I started trying to think about a sound I liked, and then to a way of naming it, not the other way around,” Kevin Figes says. “The composers I’ve been listening to did that, I think. If you think about familiar patterns first and the sounds you want to make afterwards, you very easily slip back into old habits. I’m going even further down that route with an album that will follow this one next year, which includes sampled sound I’ve taken from a local blacksmith, spoken voice recordings, some pieces played by a terrific Bristol classical pianist called Steve Kings, and the sound of a transistor radio that meant so much to me as a kid just discovering music. As I’ve got older, I guess I’ve stopped second-guessing what popularity might be, and just wanted to express what’s affecting me.”

Kevin Figes’ Wallpaper Music is released on December 3 on Pig Records, and launched that night at the Vortex Jazz Club, London

LINKS: Wallpaper Music on Bandcamp

Launch gig at Vortex

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