ECILA (Alice Humphries)
Review by John Hardaker
Elizabeth Bogoni’s striking cover of the new album by WA composer/arranger Alice Humphries’ ECILA shows a deep blue forest symmetrically reflected upon itself. The title across the image is, in fact, Alice’s first name spelled backwards, with the letter C reversed to give us a clue – as well as playing a little visual game-within-a-game.
These symmetries and mirror-maze games pop up throughout the ten tracks that make up ECILA, the ensemble’s self-titled debut album. Humphries’ compositions and arrangements are brimming with smart ideas that use all manner of reflections, symmetries, crab-canons and latticed textures to great effect. Australian composer Iain Grandage has mentioned the ‘rhythmic surprises and games’ in Humphries’ music.
But her charts are not some quasi-mathematical brainiac chess-game – far from it: the music here is bursting with life and fun – as well as great great beauty. And her 11-piece ensemble, made up of some astonishing young talent (check trumpeter Callum G’Froerer on ‘Through The Barrier’ for instance) from Perth and Melbourne, is perfectly suited to Humphries’ challenging arrangements, breathing them all into vivid and deeply-dimensional life.
No less a musical thinker than Mike Nock has described Humphries’ as ‘…a great talent with a highly original musical conception.’ One marker of this original thinking is her use of strings – viola and cello – amongst the usual jazz ensemble instruments. They shimmer on a piece such as ‘Processional’ but, played pizz., scratch at the back of your neck during the little-cat-feet scoring of ‘Blind Panic’. Humphries also uses toys – yes, toys – she and guitarist Brett Thompson employing them on ‘The Music Box’, the album’s nostalgic and evocative closer which brings to mind the atmosphere of Debussy’s ‘enchanted garden’ works, such as ‘Ma Mère L’Oye’.
As well as intriguing timbres, Humphries reaches into some interesting areas for her source material. Vocalist Allira Wilson is truly captivating on the two vocal cuts here – a cover of Billy Holliday’s heartbreaking ‘Don’t Explain’ and an idiosyncratic take on the early 20th century folk tune ‘Bury Me Beneath The Willow’. On the Holliday song Wilson is strong and clear over a glassy veil of instruments coming in and out like a breeze billowing and receding. On ‘Bury Me…’ the singer stays with the melody, hardly inflecting or bruising its strong, stately flow. It’s a nice demonstration of restraint and, for anyone with ears, it marks Allira Wilson as definitely a jazz voice to watch.
ECILA is a startling debut from an exciting new talent and a dazzling new ensemble. The gratifying part is that, here on their debut, we witness the beginning of a road that I truly hope will stretch far far into the future.
Mike Nock predicts that Alice Humphries is ‘…on course to make a big contribution to Australian music in the future.’ Over the years I have found myself agreeing with pretty much everything Mike Nock has thought, played and said. And I don’t intend to stop now.
Alice Humphries: composer/arranger/glockenspiel/toys
Allira Wilson: voice
Aaron Wyatt: viola
Anna Sarcich: cello
Callum G’Froerer: trumpet/flugelhorn
Tilman Robinson: trombone
Ben Collins: saxophones/clarinet
Mark Sprogowski: bass clarinet/clarinet
Brett Thompson: guitar/toys
Callum Moncrieff: vibraphone/glockenspiel
Nick Abbet: bass
Ben Falle: drum kit
See more information about ECILA on Alice Humphries’ website:alicehumphries.com.au/ecila
ECILA on Bandcamp alicehumphries.bandcamp.com