Review: The Jazz Mann


Keyboard player and composer Dan Nicholls was born in Staffordshire and gained a first class degree from the Jazz Course at Birmingham Conservatoire. He subsequently studied for his Masters at the Rhythmic Music Conservatoire in Copenhagen under the tutelage of Django Bates, one of the many leading jazz musicians who have expressed their praise for Nicholls’ full length album début (others include saxophonist Iain Ballamy and pianist Liam Noble).

I’ve encountered Nicholls’ playing intermittently over the years beginning with an appearance at the 2008 Cheltenham Jazz Festival where he lead a quartet featuring Robin Fincker (reeds), Ryan Trebilcock (bass) and Simon Spreyer (drums) through a set of promising original compositions. I’ve seen him perform in a twin Rhodes duet with Birmingham pianist Steve Tromans at the city’s Harmonic Festival and as a member of saxophonist Lluis Mather’s group Noose.

Although he retains strong connections with Birmingham Nicholls is also a key member of North London’s Loop Collective of young musicians and leads the ensemble Mirror, the members of whom also form the personnel on “Ruins”. The seeds for this current project were sown on Mirror’s eponymous 2010 EP. The well travelled Nicholls also leads groups in Copenhagen (In Ruin) and Berlin (Strobes) and has made a study of both West African and Indian music.

This ambitious new album brings the many strands of his musical development together in a merging of jazz, modern classical (particularly minimalism) and prog rock influences in a style that also owes something to the New York Downtown scene. “Ruins” is a concept album of sorts, nine thematically linked pieces that segue into one another and act as commentary on contemporary political events and the media coverage surrounding them. There’s a broad anti war agenda but Nicholls’ political views are implied by the music rather than hammered out by polemic or rhetoric.

The album makes use of tape manipulation, samples and field recordings with electronics artist Matt Calvert acting as Nicholls’ co-producer. Meanwhile the leader plays an assortment of keyboards (Rhodes and Wurlitzer pianos, Roland sh-101, organ) with Kit Downes also doubling up on Hammond. James Allsopp plays tenor sax and bass clarinet, Shabaka Hutchings also features on bass clarinet and guest Tom Challenger provides alto clarinet on the opening two tracks, at one point forming part of a clarinet trio. Loop founder member Dave Smith adds greatly to the success of the album from his position behind the drums. The blend of unusual instrumentation plus electronica makes for some fascinating colours and textures as Nicholls succeeds brilliantly in generating his own unique sound world. Live performances have sometimes seen the music accompanied by visuals but there’s no doubt that the music fully convinces on its own account. “Ruins”, the album succeeds brilliantly as a stand alone entity.

The press release accompanying my copy of the album offers informative insights into each composition. Opener “Blinkers” is described as “bustling” and “cyclical”, the music emerging from a sampled collage of news items and interviews. The music is described as having a “heterophonic pattern”, this being expressed via the interlocking lines of keyboards and reeds, slowly growing in intensity as Smith’s brisk drumming urges the piece forward.

The opener segues abruptly into “Chaos Happens”, a piece inspired by the unpredictable nature of riots and uprisings. Amidst the interlinked written themes it also includes an improvisation featuring the three clarinets of Allsopp, Hutchings and Challenger. It’s fascinating to hear this earliest of jazz instruments augmenting the use of electronica in such a contemporary context. The piece concludes with a towering Allsopp tenor solo above swirling keyboards and Smith’s urgent drum grooves.

“The Scrolling Banner” is a brief passage of tape manipulation that references themes heard elsewhere on the album. The press release suggests “it as if Stockhausen had met up with the Scottish group Boards of Canada”, an apt comparison.

The title track opens with a keyboard pattern that variously recalls a ringtone or the musings of a computer. Layered keyboards and long, suspended horn lines give the piece an appropriately post apocalyptic ambience. Gradually an insistent, lurching horn/keyboard riff emerges, the kind of thing that wouldn’t be out of place on a Van Der Graaf Generator record. This is punctuated by eerie electronic episodes before the piece is climaxed by a barnstorming bass clarinet solo courtesy of Hutchings who bring with him something of the intensity of his own Sons Of Kemet group.

“Missing In Action”, dedicated to journalists killed or missing in war zones continues the noirish, post apocalyptic mood with Allsopp improvising on tenor above spidery keyboards and electronica plus Smith’s atmospheric, subtly treated drums. The closing “chorale” features more strident tenor soaring above Hammond driven keyboard swells and Smith’s increasingly dramatic drumming.

“Withdrawal” is inspired by video coverage of rioters during the Arab Spring and London riots. Nicholls’ love of West African music is expressed by use of the clave rhythm and the piece features a rare Nicholls keyboard solo. There’s little conventional jazz soloing on the album as a whole, earlier features for Allsopp and Hutchings notwithstanding. Instead the ensemble sound is paramount with producer Calvert very much a key component.

“Strobes On The Ascent” is described as a “musical description of the space inside a concrete tower block”. If that all sounds rather dry and academic the music is strangely beautiful with its shimmering keyboard textures and long mournful horn lines. It includes an ethereal dream like sequence that makes effective use of electronics and clarinet multiphonics.

Growing out of bell/kalimba like Wurlitzer piano patterns “Voice Intercepts” alludes to phone hacking and other examples of invasive press techniques. Samples lifted from press inquiries posted on Youtube are then inserted amongst rumbustious drum and keyboard grooves plus Allsopp’s squawking tenor.

The album concludes with “idontknow”, Nicholls recorded solo, his keyboards augmented by cassette tape manipulation and Space Echo. It’s spacey and ethereal, reminiscent of minimalist composers such as Terry Riley. It’s the sound of Nicholls reflecting on the subject matter of the album and concluding that he actually has no concrete answers. Indeed the theme of “non resolution” is a constant throughout the album.

Taken as a whole “Ruins” coheres beautifully and the album constitutes a major statement from Nicholls, a culmination of many years of musical progression. It’s an imaginative and ambitious record with the focus on the overall concept and ensemble sound rather than mere demonstrations of instrumental virtuosity. Having said that everybody plays well and Calvert’s contribution is also vital. “Ruins” represents an ambitious and brilliantly realised début.