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REVIEW: Julien Wilson Quartet – This Narrow Isthmus

By John Hardaker

Julien Isthmus1Now. The place where the best improvised music lives.

‘Now’ is the reason we go to check live music, especially in those small venues, up close so we can live in this small slice of super-heated or multi-coloured or deep-blue Now.

The recording of jazz has long been an anomaly – once the performance is frozen in the frozen time of a recording, it loses its Now. We have, of course, all of our favourite live albums that we listen to over and again, but it is a rare thing for a live jazz album to match that Now, simply because it was Then. (Doesn’t make John Coltrane’s Live at The Village Vanguard any less headfucking though).

Julien Wilson is a player who can always bring a strong sense of the Now into his recordings. His is such an immediate take on the music that the freshness of his playing binds itself to the music. Like all of the best in jazz his recordings always retain their power and energy.

Wilson’s new album, This Narrow Isthmus, has the Now all over it. From the title, taken from Thomas Moore’s quote “This narrow isthmus ‘twixt two boundless seas/The past, the future – two eternities” to drummer Allan Browne’s inspirational mantra “Hold onto the now, through which all future plunges to the past”.

Julien Isthmus2Wilson elected to record this set of compositions live at Sydney’s Sound Lounge, to keep the Now factor to the fore. The almost telepathic empathy of his Quartet helps – Barney McAll piano, Jon Zwartz bass and dear and departed Allan Browne on drums (Browne left us mid-2015, This Narrow Isthmus was recorded mid-2014); the same lineup which recorded Wilson’s dreamy and luscious This Is Always in 2013.

Yet whereas This Is Always leaned deep into the moodier indigos of jazz, touching on standards and their fine romance, This Narrow Isthmus is all-original Julien works and pulls from every compass point stylistically.

Opener ‘Rainman’ establishes the deeply romantic strain in Wilson’s music – too many modern badasses are afraid to show some sweetness and beauty, and this tune is one of the sweetest Wilson has dreamed up.

The Monk-ish blues ‘McGod’ has an intoxicated and intoxicating abandon to it that Wilson and McAll both dig deep into, blue to the elbows. The hard thrust that Browne pushes the tune with belies the fact that he was badly ailing – in fact, his doctor had told he couldn’t fly to Sydney for the gig, so he hopped in this car and drove the 900k’s – ha!

One of the aspects I have always enjoyed in Wilson’s music is his impressionistic side – even though a player who resonates with the deep history of the art form, he never baulks at going where the music takes him, whether an un-jazz place or not (see Swailing, the album that came out in tandem with This Is Always). ‘Barney & Claude’ here came out of two Debussy-flavoured chords and grew into a gorgeous ballad – you can hear those two chords rolling around each other like pale suns at the end fade of the track. You can also hear, even though it is a live album, no applause at the end of this fade; any applause was snipped off during mixing (as with ‘Aberdeen’) so as not to break the spell.

This Narrow Isthmus casts many spells – ‘Weeping Willow’, a retooled ‘Willow Weep for Me’ begins with a beautifully conversational bass solo from Zwartz; ‘Bernie’ is a hello-up-there to McGann; ‘Cautiously Optimistic’ throws caution to the wind and grins bebop optimism right in your face.

‘Aberdeen’ has that lovely dark-cocoa sermonising that Coltrane’s McCoy-quartet preached so deep and meaningful. This tone-poem was composed with the Scottish town of Wilson’s childhood in mind, but I swear this Quartet makes jungle vines grown up Brooklyn brownstones before my very ears.

‘Farewell’ is Wilson’s farewell to us and to those who have left us to ‘continue on to the next adventure’ – absent friends, such as Dave Ades. He plays clarinet here, and the deeply human voice of this sadly neglected woodwind blows through veils of nostalgia in a deeply affecting way.

Once again I find myself saying I have found the album of the year and it is barely half-past February.

This Narrow Isthmus will be hard to beat – it is everything I always expect from Julien Wilson, but this time it holds even more of that precious and beautiful thing, the Now.

LISTEN & PURCHASE

Julien Wilson’s “This Narrow Isthmus” will be launched at the St.Kilda Summer Jazz weekend.

About John Hardaker

John Hardaker is a musician and writer who also posts regularly at his site https://wordsaboutmusic.wordpress.com/.