Album review

Tom Skinner – ‘Voices of Bishara’

Tom Skinner – Voices of Bishara
(Brownswood Recordings BWOOD0257CD. Album review by Graham Spry)

Drummer Tom Skinner has been a significant force in British jazz for over a decade. He first came to the public eye as a member of Hello Skinny; then later as co-leader and drummer with the enormously successful Sons of Kemet; and now as a co-equal member with Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood of The Smile.

Tom Skinner album cover abstract pattern in red and white

But this is the first time he has released a record in his own name. Voices of Bishara is a relatively short album of just 31 minutes, but like Shabaka Hutchings’s similarly short African Culture earlier this year, it is perhaps only as long a record as it needs to be.

In many ways, the genesis of Voices of Bishara was determined more by chance than design. The original session was recorded at a regular event called ‘Played Twice’ at Dalston’s Brilliant Corners where a classic album is first played on high-quality audio, and then the musicians present their response. The album that Skinner chose to play on that date was Tony Williams’ classic 1964 album Life Time.

The ensemble he put together on that occasion could hardly be more elite. Along with Skinner himself, the truly exceptional ensemble consisted of Nubya Garcia on tenor saxophone and flute, Shabaka Hutchings on tenor saxophone and bass clarinet, Kareem Dayes on cello and Tom Herbert on acoustic bass. It must have been an especially memorable night.

Skinner obviously thought so, and chose to not just release a recording of the session, but to employ the editing skills and techniques of Makaya McCraven, who reassembled the improvised music in the studio to create new compositions. In this way, the completed tunes have both the fresh dynamic qualities of improvisation as well as a satisfying overall shape.

The title of the album and the opening track, Bishara, is an Arabic word meaning ‘good news’. It’s also the name of the record label on which the cellist Abdel Wadud released a solo album in 1978 that Skinner obsessively listened to during the pandemic. Unsurprisingly then, Dayes has a leading role on this tune, which invokes John Coltrane’s most passionate and free conceptions of what spiritual jazz could be.

The following track, Red 2, is the only one that makes an explicit reference to an original from Tony Williams’ Life Time album (Two Pieces of One: Red). It is a strangely sinister tune where Dayes’ cello and Garcia’s flute are played together to great effect.

The title of The Journey may have been inspired by the distinctly eastern timbre of Dayes’ cello over the hypnotic rhythm of Skinner’s drums. Herbert’s bass dominates on the slow-paced The Day After Tomorrow followed by the insistent rhythm of Voices (of the Past), where mesmeric dance patterns from loops and chopped-up beats might be a tribute to the production techniques of Detroit producer Theo Parrish. The final track Quiet as it’s Kept has two distinct parts: the first half sounds like an oddly subdued Sons of Kemet and the second half just fades away over a weirdly restrained rhythm section.

Skinner shares a vision with Makaya McCraven of how modern jazz can continue to thrive as the home of spontaneous creativity while the compositions still retain structure and coherence. This is a more jazz-orientated album than fans of The Smile might expect and much more satisfying to jazz enthusiasts as a result. If the sleeve notes hadn’t revealed otherwise, listeners might imagine that the process had been more orthodox, one of musicians improvising over the leader’s tunes. The fact that this was not the case somehow makes the final result that little bit more impressive.

LINK: Voices of Bishara on Bandcamp

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