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Songs of the earth

From left: James Mainwaring, Fergus Quill, Michael Bardon, Aby Vulliamy, Steve Hanley (photo: Andrew Benge)

In a quiet, almost sidelong way, the new album by the British saxophonist and composer James Mainwaring is a meditation on the damage inflicted by the Anthropocene epoch on the ecosystems of its host planet. Its title, Mycorrhiza, refers to the interaction between fungi and trees, a scientifically observed phenomenon that allows trees to communicate with each other in order to aid their individual and collective survival in the face of threats.

This might not be an obvious topic for a composer whose work is rooted in jazz, but it’s a good one. Charlie Haden and Carla Bley reflected similar environmental concerns on Time/Life, the last album they made with the Liberation Music Orchestra, but Mycorrhiza finds its own tone and trajectory, largely through the discreet use of field recordings and of the possibility of occasionally and subtly using the organic sounds of free jazz to evoke — but not imitate — the noises of the natural world.

Apart from Mainwaring, who doubles on flutes and keyboards and also sings briefly on several of tracks, the players are Aby Vulliamy (viola, voice), Michael Bardon (cello), Fergus Quill (double bass), Steve Hanley (drums) and, on four of the 13 tracks, Chris Sharkey on electronics.

Mycorrhiza is a programmatic piece with a message, but the narrative content never feels didactic or overbearing. The first section is not even a minute long: a mood-setting hustle of free bass and drums under held notes from saxophone and viola. There’s a sharp cut to the rustlings, scrapings and chirpings of post-SME improvisation, followed by a sort of chamber chorale for bowed strings and saxophone, like a gentle English pastoral version of the Sauter/Getz Focus suite. A piece called “Roots” uses harmonics to suggest organisms communicating and growing together. “Machines”, 28 seconds long, introduces staccato syncopations from strings and horn. “Statues” is full of melody before Mainwaring and Vulliamy intone a lyric — “Did you hear the latest news / Shaking hands in marble rooms…” — in bleached-out unison tones that would fit nicely on to Robert Wyatt record. Against the restrained, finely phrased urgency of Quill’s bass and Hanley’s drums, the composer takes the first real solo of the piece, a rhythm-hurdling saxophone improvisation carefully blended into the ensemble architecture.

That description gets us halfway through a set of pieces that continue through a further variety of dovetailed moods and approaches, gathering in intensity through the scrabbling of “Web”, the etherised tintinnabulation of”Our Lungs” (its lyric a haiku-like four lines) and the baleful agitation of “Globe” until it reaches the finale, “Woken by Dogs”, the longest track at six and a half minutes. After a lyrical piano opening, Mainwaring sings: “Woke up by dogs / Barking in my ears / And just as I feared / The men in black and white are here / Road full of signs / Warpaint ’round my eyes / As they cuffed my hands / Ripping the Superglue began…” Short, fast saxophone-led unison figures are undercut by jolting drums and slowly rising string glissandi until all sounds evaporates into silence.

The warning is not new, but such a creative restatement as Mainwaring achieves in Mycorrhiza is welcome and necessary. You could, I suppose, mentally switch off the message and just enjoy the sounds for their own sake. But since those sounds in this form are driven by a belief in the necessity of repairing the damage done by the human race during its time on earth, and thereby extending the lease a little longer, that would seem foolish.

* James Mainwaring’s Mycorrhiza is out now on the Discus Music label.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Colin Harper #

    Sounds like an interesting recording, Richard. Your words make me want to seek it out! Have you changed your own views, though? A few months back you expressed the view, maybe in a reply to a post rather than in a post, that ‘the earth always sorts itself out’. I don’t recall the exact words but I was surprised.

    September 14, 2021
    • No, Colin, I haven’t changed my mind. My view is that, in the long term, the planet has proved capable of looking after itself. It’s the human race that needs to worry.

      September 14, 2021
  2. Paul Crowe #

    These names are new to me, Richard, but your splendid review encourages me to seek them out. Thank you.

    September 14, 2021
  3. Sedat Nemli #

    A beguiling album, conceptually akin to what Matthew Herbert might have attempted. Thank you, Richard.

    September 18, 2021

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