Tony Stamp reviews the debut of local jazz super-ensemble The Circling Sun, West Africa-via-Nashville musician Peter One's first LP in 40 years, and Dictaphone Blues' return to noisy fun.
Spirits by The Circling Sun
Recent scaremongering about AI - specifically the way it can emulate vocalists and musicians - got me thinking about other technological advancements, and how they were folded into existing paradigms rather than replacing them.
Acoustic guitars are still very popular all these years after Dylan scandalously plugged in an electric. Drummers are still busily tapping alongside their machine counterparts. Gregorian chant might not be setting the clubs on fire, but relatively old modes like folk and jazz still do, and still operate separately from laptops and the like.
One such jazz outfit has been playing in NZ since the mid-2000s, a formidable lineup of performers who have congregated their not-inconsiderable roster on record for the first time.
Recently I reviewed the debut from The Lahaar, a record assembled by local drummer Julien Dyne, featuring Australian musicians Horatio Luna and Lachlan Stuckey. That record was jazz-inflected but contained elements of funk and soul.
Spirits, the first release from The Circling Sun, also features Dyne at its core, but is more purely jazz - or as they say, "progressive Afrocentric-inspired jazz".
Ride cymbal shuffles rub up against double bass, saxophones, flute and trumpet, as well as vibraphone and Rhodes piano. It’s music indebted to the past with an eye on the future, layering in modular synth on ‘Veneer’, and on ‘Bliss’, peppy Latin percussion.
There’s a part in the liner notes which refers to the solos here as "improvisational storytelling". It’s an interesting notion, and every member gets to tell their story within these buoyant arrangements.
Alongside Dyne are Ben Turua and Guy Harrison from Avantdale Bowling Club, Yoko Zuna’s JY Lee, Cameron Allen from Opensouls, Finn Scholes of Carnivorous Plant Society, Kenny Sterling, and guest spots from Cory Champion.
There’s a focus on texture and timbre and with so many contributors, a degree of variety. ‘Spirits (Part 2)’ lives up to its title with heavenly bells and reverbed vibraphone.
In keeping with their inspirations, the band tracked live in-studio, playing all at once, and captured on vintage microphones. The results boast a degree of warmth that‘s rare, with as much attention paid to creating pleasant sonics as tunes - but those are also strong, alternating between sturdy repetition and flights of fancy.
It also impresses with its logistical ambition - alongside all the players they occasionally find room to include a full choir, as on ‘Kohan’.
Jazz can sometimes feel like opening an encyclopaedia at random and trying to get up to speed, but like any art form, I think the key is to give yourself over to it and not worry too much about context.
On a base level, Spirits is just very pleasant to listen to, with six comfortable beds of sound performed by some of the country’s best players. The musical knowledge clearly held by members of The Circling Sun informs their rich compositions: the many iterations of jazz history filtered through one South Pacific ensemble.
Come Back to Me by Peter One
In 1985, two musicians from West Africa’s Ivory Coast released an album that would go on to have a long life. Our Garden Needs Its Flowers merged African and French pop with American folk and country influences, and propelled its creators Peter One and Jess Sah Bi to fame in their native country, appearing on TV, and radio, and performing to stadium-sized crowds.
When forced to leave his home due to political unrest, Peter One emigrated to America, where he’s been working as a nurse for the past thirty years. And now, aged 67, he’s released his first solo album, made up of the same blend of musical influences, and infused with the wisdom and weariness he’s acquired in the nearly 40 years since he last released music.
When the pioneering label Awesome Tapes From Africa reissued Our Garden Needs Its Flowers in 2018, it gained Peter One a new generation of fans, among them songwriter Jason Isbell and the band The Walkmen, and was reviewed in Pitchfork and Rolling Stone.
Peter One had moved from New York to Delaware and finally Nashville, where he says he landed and immediately thought "This is a place for music".
He never forgot his dream of becoming a working musician again, and buoyed by the reissue, worked his way to this major label release. It’s called Come Back to Me, which could be read as a message to fans. But the music here is rarely mournful - rather it’s consistently cheery, hitting a peak on the whistle-assisted ‘La Petite’.
Hitting play on this album is an instant mood-improver. Acoustic fingerpicking, layers of vocal harmony, and brushed drums set a gentle template for Peter One’s stirring melodies, delivered in his rich, slightly weathered voice. He sings in French, Gouro (a local Ivory Coast parlance), and English, telling stories of adversity and success.
Even when I’m not sure what he’s saying, as on the track ‘Kavadu’, it makes me feel a very specific way. Elsewhere on songs like ‘Eije’, Peter One allows a more sombre tone to creep in, and the results are quietly devastating, tenderly hopeful chords leading his hushed voice to the point where it hits a falsetto and dissolves in reverb, sounding downright otherworldly.
Peter One is a lifelong fan of American music like country and folk, and the moments where he leans into it are the ones that lose me somewhat amongst the harmonica and honky tonk.
Those moments are brief though, and for the most part, Come Back to Me is quietly revelatory, and consistently comforting, the kind of music you want to climb inside of and take a nap.
He chooses to sing the track ‘On My Own’ in English, appropriate given that it seems to tell the story of his journey back to music in America. Looking back after all these years, he sings “I came a long, long way”.
Greetings From Glen Eden by Dictaphone Blues
The last time we heard from Tamaki Makaurau musician Edward Castelow, he’d released an album under his real name for the first time. Ornate and thoughtful, it was a change from the less serious music he’d previously made under the moniker Dictaphone Blues.
He’s now returned under that name, with sense of humour fully intact, and a new lineup in his live band. This EP seems to be a direct response to that solo album, as noisy and brattish as possible, signalling its intentions from the outset - the first thing we hear is the sound of guitar cables plugging in, amp noise, and a bit of feedback.
The thing about Edward is, he writes really good songs. ‘Chasing After an Echo’ quickly hits an anthemic chorus, and throughout the EP there are echoes of great power pop groups of yore - Teenage Fanclub springs to mind while listening to that one.
It’s all drenched in distortion but powered by Castelow’s particular sense of fun, and enthusiasm. There’s a palpable joy every time a chord is left to ring out, and my suspicion that 90s music (and in particular grunge), was an influence here was confirmed by the liner notes.
The collection is called Greetings From Glen Eden, which signals how affable it all is, and the nifty naming continues within on tracks like ‘Exist to Insist’.
There’s a bit of Dandy Warhols-style swagger to that one. I was taken with the interplay between instruments throughout the EP and assumed they were performed by different members, but it’s actually Castelow playing everything.
That’s even more impressive on the song ‘No Beef’ - mostly instrumental but easily engaging.
It’s also worth pointing out how accomplished the production on Greetings From Glen Eden is. Attention is paid to what’s mono and what isn’t, leaving the margins for noise to bleed outward, and making room for all that fuzz.
The final track is called 'Blow', and reads like a tribute to Edward Castelow’s infant child. It’s no ballad though but as raucous as everything else here. To keep making comparisons it sounds like golden-era Weezer (or one of the bands they were influenced by).
On another track, there’s the line “I’m being loud when I should be quiet”, which seems to be about parenting a sleepy youngster.
It halfway applies to the EP as a whole, though, and luckily Dictaphone Blues are great at being loud.