Album review

ALATI – ‘Ascending the Morning’ (settings of 8 poems by Alice Oswald)

ALATI – Ascending the Morning

(33Jazz / Bandcamp. Album review by Jon Turney)

ALATI are a trio brought together by Norwich-based trumpeter Chris Dowding who on this debut release weave some lovely music around poems by the brilliant Alice Oswald.

Cover artwork from workshop organised by Musical Keys charity

This is a tricky enterprise. Oswald, much lauded for her eight books and the current Oxford Professor of Poetry, creates work that cries out to be performed, as anyone who has heard her read can attest. She is prone to recite entire books from memory, and the experience is mesmerising. But, as some of the finest English poetry of recent decades, her work stands by itself. Any aural additions must enhance the words without impeding comprehension.

Trickier still, while by no means averse to rhyme, she rarely hews to strict forms. A song-like treatment is possible, but faces moments of awkwardness when the poet makes free with line lengths and breaks. The flexibility of jazz phrasing is most definitely called for.

ALATI’s approach largely succeeds on both counts. The settings are spare, typically offering the words against a backdrop of repeated piano figures from Dave O’Brien, with soft trumpet phrasing added to the texture some of the time. The written words come across beautifully. With one exception, the poems are rendered with crystalline clarity by Brigitte Beraha, probably the ideal performer for this project. She joins the others in gentle improvisations that extend the mood of each piece.

That mood is fairly even – the selection brings together eight poems from Oswald’s first and third books, involving sea, air, birdsong, and her enduring fascination with water and the movement of water. O’Brien’s insistent figures, which have some of Mal Waldron’s quiet deliberation, pace the poet’s lines but still let them breathe. The poems are rendered as written, with a little judicious repetition, which prompts a looser coda once or twice. The repeats are apt for the work, for a reason the critic Colin Burrow has suggested. Oswald the poet is much possessed by being in time, and the way moments one might want to dwell on are normally lost in the flow. Music, another time-based art, can both reflect that effect, and counteract it to some extent.

As a lover of the poems, I reckon the music draws the listener into a state of mind both can happily inhabit. The whole project is beautifully presented, with a CD from 33Jazz – to be released shortly but currently available on Bandcamp – complemented by a separately published booklet from Singular Publishing in Norwich, together with scores for each poem for anyone who wants to try and create their own musical realisations of Oswald.

Jazz and poetry are both usually minority sports, and a crossover project runs the risk of only appealing to folk who already like both. This promises to be one of the happier examples, that can speak to anyone who is drawn to words or music. Dowding’s sprightly, round-toned trumpet, O’Brien’s well-considered pianism and Beraha’s unignorable voice add up to a generous invitation to enter Oswald’s poetic world. More, please.

Tour poster design by Matthew ‘Morris’ English

Jon Turney writes about jazz, and other things, from Bristol. https://jonturney.co.uk  Twitter: https://twitter.com/jonWturney

LINK: Ascending in the Morning on Bandcamp

ALATI begin a short tour in Ashburton on 15 September, taking in Norwich and Birmingham and ending in London (St Paul’s, Church, Marylebone) on 25 Sep. Tour Dates

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