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Geoff Leigh (ex-Henry Cow) teams up with Japanese singer and keyboardist Yumi Hara for this album of experimental ambient-jazz fusion.
Leigh has always been at the forefront of pushing the boundaries of music since his days playing with Henry Cow's brand of freely-improvised jazz and complex modern composition. Hara moved to the UK in 1993 and has since played with ex-Soft Machine bassist Hugh Hopper and with ex-King Crimson violinist David Cross. By night, in her alter-persona of Anakonda she spins as a drum 'n' bass DJ! Put the two together and you can immediately tell that you are not going to get an hour of easy, comfortable listening! You'd be right!
Indeed, the promotional notes accompanying the CD say that "it's difficult to discern whether Geoff Leigh and Yumi Hara are improvising freely or if they've pre-composed pieces on their collaboration. If it's the former, then their spontaneity has generated a good degree of melodic invention. If the latter possibility is so, then their works have an untethered nature, working through a succession of encounters that often sound ritualistic or meditative". Hmmm...Upstream was recorded in two days, so I'd suggest it is improvised – it sounds improvised, though I'd agree with the statement that there is plenty of "melodic invention". But let me just share this other gem from the promo notes with you, because it did make me laugh out loud: "Leigh coats his small gongs with an effects burnish, spangling into infinity"! I wish I had written that!
Anyhow, back to the music, which I'm calling ambient-jazz fusion. If you take a look at the album cover and the song titles then you could easily imagine that this is a concept album. Not that there are any real lyrics to guide you - although "Stone of the Beach" and "At the Temple Gate" do feature words by Japanese poets – but the album is coherent musically and its amenability to ambience also makes it amenable to creating images associated with the title concepts, should you wish to do so.
Leigh plays flute, soprano sax, zither, percussion, nose flute, voice drone and "electronics" and Hara tackles keyboards (mainly piano, but some keys and synths to good effect) and vocals/vocalisations. The instruments are often pushed to, and through, the limits of what is "normal", so that one can say that there is a certain amount of experimentation going on here. Similarly, Hara pushes her voice in the same way, treating it just like on of the other instruments of the ensemble. This leads, at times – thankfully few – where the vocal becomes unpleasantly screechy and, in my opinion, detracting from the music. Let me put it this way – should you be listening to, for instance, "Something About the Sky" on your iPod whilst travelling on public transport, and you decide to "sing" along, then you can be sure the men in white coats will be waiting for you at the next stop! The ambience created on these occasions by these "sung" sections comes close to that of the bells being tolled at the gates of Hades! Such is the nature of exploratory, adventurous, progressive music!
Notwithstanding this slight criticism, the majority of the album is extremely pleasant: the sonorities created are interesting and work well together, and there is much melody as well as discernable, enjoyable rhythm that creates comfortable ambiences.
If you're looking for an easy entry into exploratory ambient/jazz crossover, then this album could well be it!
1) Upstream (7:12)
2) The Mountain Laughs (5:28)
3) The Strait (7:41)
4) Stone of the Beach (5:41)
5) A Short Night (5:08)
6) At the Temple Gate (7:43)
7) Something About the Sky (3:45)
8) Dolphin Chase (10:52)
9) The Siren Returns (5:39)
September 20th 2009
Reviewer: Alex Torres