James Beckwith – Long Distance
(SE 10 Music. Album review by Rob Mallows)
As a fellow proud resident of south London, I felt compelled out of a sense of geographic loyalty to check out this album by south of the river resident James Beckwith.
He’s a keyboardist and composer and Long Distance is his debut album. The music is inspired by the (very) long-distance relationship between him and his partner, in Montreal.
Long Distance is fresh and eclectic, and certainly not your common or garden jazz album. The epithet ’synth jazz’ is referenced in the press release and straightaway on the first track Topimpa it’s evident from the vocoder vocals and dialled-up synth sounds that Beckwith is open to using every technological trick to realise his sound.
Elements of soul, rock and straight-ahead piano jazz come through from the off, and no single style dominates – it’s like a Christmas pudding mix: warm, with lots of flavours, dense, and rich. The vocals are stylised and (mostly) unobtrusive, complementing but not overpowering the underlying melodies, with high-altitude harmonising on a couple of tracks from Zoe Kypri.
While ostensibly a solo album, Beckwith’s surrounded himself with a very competent band, including twin sax support from Chelsea Carmichael and Alex Hitchcock, intense grooves from bassist Joe Downard and solid beadwork from drummer Harry Pope. They all provide a great platform for some trippy and fun keyboard ideas, particularly when the electric piano is wheeled out.
Retro Machines has a soft funk super-structure, with breathy sax and an unhurried rhythm over which Beckwith goes to town. The title track Long Distance introduces strings and is the most conventional piano jazz track, and is pleasingly melodic, particularly when things speed up about two minutes in.
There’s a Bill Laurance vibe on Things we Do, all vocoders and synths to the fore, and the energy levels are upped a notch on the fast-paced With You, in which Carmichael and Hitchcock are given more space and Beckwith again busts out the vocoder. After a while it can grate as a sound, but thankfully he uses it just sparingly enough on these tracks that it doesn’t become a burden or distract from the top-notch instrumentals.
The cover of Pink Floyd’s Money sees afrobeat bass and trippy drums replacing the loping 7/8 signature to the extent that it’s almost unrecognisable; but once your ear catches the melody, it’s fun to spot where the original and cover intersect. A brave choice for a cover but it’s sufficiently distinct that it kinda works. I also picked up at times on this and other tracks a very slight hint of the band Shakatak, the most uncool but also fabulously catchy 80s jazz-funk survivors.
Night City is, as the title suggests, more moody and introspective, and offers a canvas on which Beckwith has fun with a wide range of sounds; SAAD uses a south Indian Tanpura drone underneath a really vibrant core melody that’s irritatingly catchy; while All Yours goes back to the vocoder-heavy sound backed by different cuts of sax and a tighter drum’n’bass-lite drum track.
It’s not a perfect album by any means – some of the tracks I found a little cloying, and these were where Beckwith went all in on the vocoder sounds to the detriment of the overall track – but overall, for a debut, there’s strong evidence of a clear creative voice and some quality tracks that bear repeated playing.