December 21, 2023

Music

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

By Chris Johnston
Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Kora player John Haycock. Image supplied

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality

The new music I liked most this year came from the north of England. This was not surprising, given this has been the case for me, more or less, through the 1980s and 1990s and retrospectively the two decades prior. For the musically fevered region around Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and Sheffield, it’s a case of pick your band, pick your producer, pick your genre. And the pickings are rich.

But my favourite 2023 releases weren’t from any of the mad styles the region has been known for – pop and post-punk, electronica and club music. Instead, this largely overlooked trio of records inhabit the spaces in between, loosely gathered around a Northern jazz revival, but also going further, deeper, longer. Each album tremors with freedom, yet they do so quietly, calmly. This year has been hell in so many ways (must I name them?) and things ain’t getting better. Being immersed in beautiful, pure and largely unadorned music felt more than ever like a shelter.

Released in March, John Haycock’s expansive world-jazz album Dorian Portrait is based around the kora, a 21-string West African harp, which he treats and filters, and situates within a bed of soft, bubbling electronics. There’s no voices, no narrative, no opinion. Haycock is from Salford in Manchester, as were Joy Division, The Fall and the Happy Mondays. He’s young and wears Adidas trainers on stage. More importantly, he trained and now makes music with Manchester-based Gambian kora master Jali Nyonkoling Kuyateh, whose interpretation of a traditional West African piece from the 1960s features as the album’s final track, “Nyonks Jarabi”. Otherwise, Dorian Portrait is written and performed almost solely by Haycock.

Look at “Dissolution”. The intro is single bass notes – pure Joy Division – although not from a bass guitar. Then comes his clarinet, and the kora (which in Gambia is thought of as an instrument of nature, echoing the wind and the trees) before it all dissolves into a circular wash of electro-acoustics. Fusing ancient and modern, it sounds like the back corners of Sheffield’s Warp Records rinsed through a Jon Hassell “Fourth World” piece. (The critic and composer David Toop said of Hassell, when he found sampling in the 1980s, that he used “the perfume of ethnopoetics … and the advanced technology of hyperreality”.)

Also from Manchester is Matthew Halsall, a trumpeter and composer who is a centrifugal force in this Northern jazz-adjacent revival. His label, Gondwana Records, releases music from the region (and globally, including Melbourne’s Allysha Joy), all with the in-betweener code at hand – music somewhere within the Venn diagram of jazz, modern classical, world, soul, ambient and electronica. His own solo album, An Ever Changing View, released in September, is spiritual jazz at its core (reminiscent of Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders) but, again, refracted through very subtle electronics. I would call it an indication of electronica. He’s a Chet Baker–style trumpet player, a Miles Davis “In A Silent Way”–style player. Soft and serene. Naturalistic. There’s nothing agitated here, there’s nothing wrong. The title track is where it all comes together over six and a half minutes of gorgeousness: little chimes and percussion loops, a Zimbabwean mbira (or thumb piano), slight woodblocks, rim shots. Was that birdsong? And that trumpet, rising and falling like a seabird on the currents he makes.

Lastly, also on Gondwana Records, is an album by the extraordinary Ancient Infinity Orchestra, of Leeds, led by jazz double-bass player and composer Ozzy Moysey. I love the names, the terminology, the ciphers and symbols of some of these words. It seems fitting that the label releasing this music is named after Gondwana, the land mass that only existed before the continental drift, before nationhood, where nature was the only thing there – an “ancient infinity”. Moysey composed and pulled together the album River of Light, released in November, with a young 14-piece jazz ensemble. Matthew Halsall co-produces and floats in and out of the collective on trumpet as a kind of figurehead around Moysey’s worldly jazz excursions on mostly wordless meditations on peace and endlessness.

The epic, very cosmic-jazz track “Niyama” (huge Lonnie Liston Smith vibes) is initially a quartet of flute, piano, saxophone and double bass, but over eight minutes grows to encompass a softly chanting choir, harp, percussion, oboes and three saxophones. It builds and builds into a sort of ashram symphony, before settling, terrestrial again. The Sanskrit word “niyama”, commonly used in yoga, refers to a virtue, or good habit. I think of Alice Coltrane and her entire albums devoted to yoga practice. “Niyama”, and other moments from River of Light, hold these qualities of music for peace, music for quiet, music to soundtrack transcendence.

You can hear the love in this record – the devotion toward making properly deep, profound and beautiful music. The delightful “Michael & Zelah”, which follows “Niyama”, is an unembarrassed, unironic short jazz interlude of piano, strings and woodwind, a cute frolic set in the snow. It is not at all dark or hinting at anything not apparent. The centrepiece of the album is the long, considered “Equanimity”, with three separate parts (or “movements”) of stripped back, tender spiritual jazz, in which one of the Orchestra’s legion of woodwind players leads with a kaval (a traditional Balkan/Anatolian flute), before harp player and singer Georgie Buchanan joins in to duet and then supersede.

The best of this kind of music is extremely valuable. It acts as a kind of wash. A listener seeking relief might use it as an act of sonic washing, or cleansing. (It was interesting to see André 3000, the hip-hop star from Outkast, do exactly this with his flute album this year, New Blue Sun, even though he mainly uses a digital flute. Interesting also that he made it with Carlos Niño, the Los Angeles musician and producer specialising in a new form of new-age music.)

This year I’ve seen ambient music in all forms and in all contexts, including field recordings, become more popular than ever, as people seek to zone out and deprogram. Modern jazz is booming, and modern spiritual jazz is the biggest subgenre within that. Contemporary classical music now veers heavily toward meditations, drones and stillness. You might expect that kind of approach from California, which has long been the epicentre of spiritualism for the secular. So it was a nice surprise to find such graceful loveliness from the north of England, but maybe it’s no surprise at all given what we already know about the storied region and its musical reinventions.

Chris Johnston

Chris Johnston is a Melbourne/Naarm writer.

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