I’ll start from the end, from the album’s final track, ‘Liberation’, which is lingering in my mind and to which I find myself returning constantly, since the first time I listened to this album, a couple of weeks ago. The album, of course, is Cheryl Durongpisitkul’s ‘Follow me through the red ash’.
‘Liberation’ is the conclusion of this journey – more on that later – and I can’t think of a more aptly titled tune. It’s a soothing melody, oozing wisdom and serenity – or at least this is the effect it has on me; it comes as an answer to my thoughts and worries and concerns, it heals me at a time that I need music to heal me, to help me make sense of the world. Of course, that’s just me and how I relate to music, putting it into a very personal context.
Within the context of the album, ‘Liberation’ also comes to offer a much-needed catharsis, the sense of accomplishment after you have made it through an adventure. ‘Follow me through the red ash’ is exactly that; an adventure, a story of trials and tribulations narrated through music – although there are written words, as well. The liner notes offer fragments of a kind of mystical environmental fairy tale, about the balance of power within an ecosystem. It’s interesting to read this story, while listening to the album, which is meant to be heard as a whole, a musical narrative where each track dissolves into the next – which is also how Cheryl Durongpisitkul chose to arrange it, creating an intricate sonic texture, weaving threads of melody into a tapestry. You will want to follow each thread as it evolves, coming to the foreground, then getting buried under other threads, only to resurface later on, mutated into something else.
The orchestration is brilliant and it makes testament to Cheryl Durongpisitkul’s qualities as both a bandleader and composer – choosing the instruments that will tell her story and the musicians for whom she composed, writing to the best of their abilities: two guitars (Marcos Villalta and Lincoln McKenzie), a trumpet (Felix Watson), a trombone (Josh Bennier), keys (Harry Cook), bass (Stephen Hornby), Drums (Leo Kavanagh) and reeds, played by the composer herself, showcasing her mastery as a saxophonist.
‘Follow me through the red ash’ is inspired by a ballet, Igor Stravinsky’s ‘Petrushka’; when I first saw a performance of (part of) it, at last year’s Melbourne Women’s International Jazz Festival, I did not think so much of Stravinsky, but of Sun Ra with a bit of Jaga Jazzist and a bit of early, western-era, Morricone. It’s all there in the recording, as well, along with a lot of other overtones. In fact, I don’t know how much distance there is between Carla Bley and Frank Zappa, but Cheryl Durongpisitkul covers it with ease. And, however helpful references and namedropping might be to describe a sound, in the end, all this talk is mostly just noise. Because, the loudest, clearest, most assertive voice here, is that of Cheryl Durongpisitkul herself. And it is a voice that needs to be heard.
I can’t believe that ‘Follow me through the red ash’ is a debut album. I don’t know what it says about her – or about me, for that matter – but this is by far the most impressive debut I remember listening to, in any genre. I can’t imagine what the next step might be. But I’m looking forward to it.