Mammal Hands – Gift From The Trees (Release date 31 March 2023)
(Gondwana Records. Album review by Rob Mallows)
With a track record in mixing jazz sensibilities with elements of trance, ambient music and cinematic soundtracks, Mammal Hands – saxophonist Jordan Smart; drummer and tabla player Jesse Barnett, and pianist Nick Smart – are part of a tranche of modern British bands, such as Go-Go Penguin, who defy established jazz convention and find comfort in the repetitive, the small and the subtle.
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Their latest album, Gift From The Trees, is no exception. If it were a work of art, it wouldn’t be in with the impressionists or part of a riot of colour in the Pop Art section. Rather, it would be found in one of the smaller galleries, showing a Robert Capa retrospective.
That’s to say, they seem to play with the stillness and concentration of the photographer rather than the big, bold strokes of the painter. Their sound is about subtle shadows and mid-tones more than primary colours and bold lines.
While limited musical textures are available, the band largely make up for that with interesting compositions. This recording also has – deliberately, according to the press release – a more organic, unproduced live feel, where the raw power of each note and combination of notes emerges from the speakers. The band lacks a bass player; but the absence of bass frequencies is compensated for by a heavy bass sound from drummer Jesse Barrett and pianist Nick Smart’s mallet of a left hand.
Opener The Spinner is a hypnotic start, all piano with a compelling left hand motif from Nick Smart, allowing space for the rest of the band to come slowly in; Jordan’s sax at times sounds like a bowed cello and this track has the feel of the opening of a German new wave movie. Thin, but nonetheless intriguing.
Next track Riser acts as the name suggests, the melody rising up and down until the track moves to quietude towards the end as the sax creates a simple phrase and fades out. The gentlest of tunes on the album, Nightingale sees saxophonist Jordan Smart doing his best to impersonate the avian composer, with delicate, folk-y ideas and lots of vibrato and trilling.
The heart of the album is Dimu. A short introductory track throws up a hint of the desert, with middle eastern voicings on the sax over an opaque piano voice, which are propelled along in the track proper by chunky tabla rhythms from drummer Barnett and duetting between sax and piano over the main theme. It’s a classic ‘builder’ of a track and finishes on an upward trajectory.
Deep Within Mountains was recorded late at night, and the quiet opening and slight echo on the piano suggest the exploration of a cave, with the drums and percussion the water drip-dripping and forming stalagmites. Labyrinth is more experimental classical music than jazz – it starts with muffled piano strings that bite and jump, and this percussiveness builds into a repetitive tempo and series of single note piano notes.
While it’s not easy listening – it gives your ear plenty to grapple with – it felt at times a little too subdued. But I ended the playback struck with the ambience of it all. No, this is not an album of lush chords, but sometimes simplicity is a virtue and can be just as effective in stirring up emotions and creating a clear mood as an album offering more tonal and musical variety.