(The Globe, Newcastle Upon Tyne. Sunday 26 March 2023)
The brainchild of composer and saxophonist Dee Byrne, Outlines is a strong set of fascinating original compositions realised by something of a supergroup of fine creative players. The impressive and technically accomplished intricacy of Dee Byrne’s soloing on alto saxophone and Tom Ward’s on bass clarinet and clarinet can be spectacular. Nick Malcolm’s trumpet speaks with a more spacious and phrasal voice compared to Ward and Byrne’s runs, and Rebecca Nash’s textural electric piano here helps to ensure that the music’s complications don’t feel like a chaotic clash of tempos, temperatures and temperaments. The confidence and authority of Olie Brice’s bass and Andrew Lisle’s drums drive the material and guide the shifting and sliding puzzle of the music.
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Spiky, contrapuntal, polyrhythmic, the compositions satisfy both horizontally and vertically. Robustly contemporary, Dee Byrne’s writing and playing is a touch more ‘jazzy’ compared to her Lume Label partner Cath Roberts (you might recall a stellar Lume double bill at King’s Place of Cath Roberts’s Sloth Racket and Dee Byrne’s Entropi). The tunes recall the sophisticated tonal language of Eric Dolphy but with playful motivations like the programmatic inspiration of “We are experiencing turbulence” (“Imagine you’re on a plane,” she says. “It’s going well. This is what happens next.”) and other ekphrastic impetuses. Ekphrasis is when a work of art in one art form is represented in a different art form, such as a verbal description of a visual painting, or in Dee Byrne’s compositional process for Outlines, whereby initial visual sketches she had made were translated into musical ones.
Many of the tunes have inspirations that are, dare I say, existential. “On The Other Side” she explains laconically, is “about what happens on the other side. You don’t know, you open the door and it’s like this.” Similarly, “Immersions” is “about fully committing to something and jumping in and seeing what happens,” which is an apposite description of the creative process generally and particularly relevant to Outlines.
“Flow State” is about “the state you get into doing something you really like – that lovely space” and requires something of a flow state to play it. The musicians agree that this one in particular is hard to play. Tom Ward explained to me that its intense complicated work with parallel chords (parallel harmony is when a sequence of chords consisting of intervals that do not change as the chord moves) feels a lot like dealing with the complexities of Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”.
That’s not all. “Turbulence” and “Flow State” develop material among the band and Dee Byrne then overlays melodic fragments over their parts but in different unrelated tempos. It sounds like multiple time signatures but, as Tom explained to me, in the way it comes together “it’s not really a polyrhythm but maybe a poly-tempo.”
Complicated, but the whole thing is actually a bunch of fun. The melodic writing is certainly appealing. “Liberation” is “an uplifting tune, possibly the most uplifting of the set, so…” she pauses, “savour it…” On “Don’t Mess With Me” the saxophone seems to solo in a different time signature or tempo or something to the drums, and then with Rebecca Nash’s keys the groove gets enjoyably funky. It’s clearly music that’s hard to play but it also has a lightness and a lot of feel (as well as feeling). “Immersions” and “On The Other Side” are built around smart rhythm figures (the former uncountable, the latter I had a long bar of seven alternating with a five, but I wouldn’t wager money on it). They reminded me of Shirley Smart’s work with Maqams where the rhythms are as distinctive and singable as the melodies.
“The Arrow of Time” is, you guessed it, “about the relentless passing of time” – which may be a slightly pointed reference to the fortunes of the Outlines project so far. The material was originally debuted at the Vortex in September 2021 (YouTube Link) and recorded in October. Their tour in March-April 2023 would originally have been an album launch tour, but now the album isn’t out until June!
It’s a remarkable achievement that despite the ongoing delay in releasing the Outlines record, and on only the second night of their tour, the band and the music sound both fresh and accomplished. The final show at the Vortex isn’t until July but given the group’s supernatural facility for keeping the music fresh despite the delays, and with the album finally released, it should be a belter. “We just blast through,” I overheard one of them say; “It gets better each time!”
LINK: Dee Byrne’s website
Outlines tour dates:
25/3 Listen, Cambridge
26/3 Jazz North East, Newcastle
28/3 Fusebox, Leeds
29/3 Jazz At The Lescar, Sheffield
4/4 Fringe In The Round, Bristol
4/7 Vortex Jazz Club, London
The Outlines album is released on Whirlwind Recordings on 20 June (probably)