Ambient Jazz Ensemble – London Fields
(Here & Now Recordings. Review by AJ Dehany)
Ambient Jazz Ensemble is a provocatively misdirecting moniker – not so much ambient as atmospheric, closer in kin to soul than jazz, and the ensemble is primarily the brainchild of composer, writer and producer Colin Baldry. The latest in a string of rich soul-jazz albums – Suite Shop (2014), AJE (2017), and Aura (2020), London Fields (2022) is a heartfelt widescreen evocation of the sprawling musical life of a city that is home to a rich heritage neatly evoked by the album’s blend of vocal pop and strong themes with atmospheric writing for brass and strings.
The starting point is the jazzy orchestral soul sound of classic Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield, but as a paean to the English capital city, it absorbs some of the urban sensibility of the more ruminative moments of Moses Boyd or the strong brass blast of Steam Down or SEED Collective, with a cinematic appeal that goes some way toward capturing the eclecticism and romanticism of life in the big smoke. London Fields is part of Hackney, the North London heterotopia that punches big, more associated perhaps with hiphop forms than the nu-jazz that tends to congregate around South London locales; though Hackney does have its jazz names and places, with the Kansas Smitty’s on Broadway Market and of course neighbouring Dalston is home to the internationally esteemed Vortex Jazz Club.
If you wanted a new Moses Boyd album and couldn’t wait, the opening track Signature picks it up in a crisp contemporary groove by Baldry’s son Sam Baldry that wouldn’t be out of place on Boyd’s Mercury-nominated debut Dark Matter. The second track Locked introduces the powerful vocals of LIPA-trained singer Lynsey Ward (of trio Exploring Birdsong). The quality of her vocals and the vocal writing tend to dominate the album despite the richness and lushness of its orchestrations, which scintillate with the talents of the Adderbury Ensemble and appearances from saxophonist Ollie Weston and pianist Sam Crowe. The sax solo in the title track comes so late in the album that it’s a surprise in a generally closely notated composition.
Standing On The Edge of the World takes time to build the atmosphere, but, coming after a big vocal track, does feel like an instrumental. We as humans tend to privilege the voice over other sounds. With the presence of several very strong vocal tracks sometimes the non-vocal tracks in the sequence can feel like instrumentals in a vocal album rather than the sense of it being an instrumental album with vocals; so you might feel like you’re waiting for the next song.
Ensoul develops the cinematic jazz feel enriched by those characteristic soulful vocals, but at times the tracks fly dangerously close to elevator dance music or that politely sexy electronic holding music on the fizzier side of new age. Into The Unknown (no relation to Frozen 2!) builds slowly and atmospherically into an arresting blast of brass but when the dust settles doesn’t quite feel complete to its vaulting emotional ambition. But those two final tracks London Fields and When The Dust Settle are huge, vast, epic. The album really impresses with its powerful and yearning sense of seeking, and its urgent sense of scale, but the programme doesn’t outstay its welcome. Whether it is or isn’t ambient, jazz or ensemble, it doesn’t matter. The sprawl is all.