June 1997 – album reviews – Blowpipe’s ‘First Circle’ (“the first impression of “cool-school jazz for acid housers” is too simplistic….breath-driven futurism”)

3 Jun
Blowpipe: 'First Circle'

Blowpipe: ‘First Circle’

The saxophone is the ultimate instrument, offering a unmatched degree of control. Mind you, that was a direct quote from a jazzer who had an unmistakeable sax slung round his neck. So perhaps it wasn’t an objective opinion. Nonetheless, he had a point – drawing most directly on the breath which embodies a person’s voice, the saxophone does have that extra human quality. If you want to score a thoughtful film noir tableau, you’re not gonna use a mandolin, are you?). I digress (and you could, but anyway…)

Robin Blick plays saxophone (as well as dabbling in orchestral horns, trumpets, flugelhorns and even the possibilities of industrial piping). His son Andrew Blick plays trumpet and manipulates sound treatments. Both are jazzers at heart. Both are also the heart of the disarmingly-named Blowpipe, an attempt to marry instrumental jazz to the electronic humanism of club culture dancefloors. Yes, yes, sounds familiar. But this isn’t just a case of glueing jazz horns down to a club beat; neither is it one of producing music to validate your own cappuccino-classiness to.

‘First Circle’ (on which the Blicks are teamed with sequencer whiz Stephen Watkins and guitarist Paul Reeson) is a sort of ‘Kind of Blue’ for the chillout room. This is what acid jazz could’ve been if it had been motivated by jazz rather than a deep desire to appear in liqueur adverts. Warm layers of Watkins’ quilted and deceptively digestible electronica interacting with the Blicks’ horns: bopping and undulating along in fine fashion, free as the air. It’s as if Gil Evans had met the Aphex Twin; if ‘In a Silent Way’ had been remodelled by Goldie; or if Squarepusher had been given an enforced Prozac overdose to turn down the heat on his flashy, glistening jazz fusion leanings.

Certainly it’s unmistakeably jazz-rooted, and not merely the product of jazz listeners. The amnesiac guitar shimmer, skittering boogie bass and toppy forebeat of Conc provide the base for Andrew’s sustained trumpet and Robin’s muted, sleepy soprano sax to weave fine brass threads around each other, and to pay homage along the way to Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, and Chet Baker. Prop blazes immediately into mariachi-funk action with an irrepressible verve: massed and chortling wah-wah trumpets, Robin’s reproving jazzy alto, and Reeson’s clotted McLaughlin-y solo and stratospheric guitar washes. On Chixalub the guitar and beats chop out a skinny, tight funk (with the occasional drum’n’bass echo trap), while the ranging trumpet is wah-ed and flanged to buggery. Only the sax is untreated here, dropping in late in the day with witty bebop twiddles; and long notes of flute hang in the background like Aztec decoration.

But Blowpipe are more than lite-jazzers squeezing themselves into clubbers’ catsuits. And the first impression of “cool-school jazz for acid housers” is too simplistic. Blowpipe might not be up for pugnacious, aggressively twisted modern jazz along the lines of Charles Mingus or Julius Hemphill, and they do aim at accessible melodies. But they’re still more than ready to explore outside the usual margins, in the tradition of true jazz mavericks.

The title track of ‘First Circle’ follows in the footsteps of Wynton Marsalis, Django Bates and Mark Anthony Turnage: a fascinating collision between modern jazz and contemporary classical. Beneath the randomly precise interjections of guitar and sax, and the corkscrewing Philip Glass runs of trumpets, trapped snippets of rock bass drum pin down the restless rhythm. Shredding violins teeter up the scale on high-wire atonality, wobbling higher, higher… and lurching out. On Toba, a modal tenor explores over electronic metallophone, Reeson’s tart Fripp-coloured sustained guitar swells, and a cymbals and high toms beat. Suddenly, there’s a crunch of hurricane-blast guitar noise before it all drops away into echoing, perturbed ambience: dead strings, echoing growls of trumpet, a few sparks of brass in the darkness.

It’s also sure that Blowpipe have an ear pressed against the connecting wall, listening to the electronic dabblings of that obsessive-looking teenager in the next flat. Why else the twinkly, computer noise/soft industry dub opening Trench, before the beautiful trumpet lines, minimalist string arpeggios and birdsong sax drift in like a warm front? On a moodier tip, the ascending brass duets of Kucou are wrapped in the same sort of ambience David Sylvian used in order to coax Kenny Wheeler, Percy Jones or David Torn into the arms of his misty balladry: a thoughtful snare beat, forest textures, Durutti Column guitar points and a minimal, thrumphing, clay-spattered bass sound. Even with the last minutes hijacked by quacking-duck cartoon trumpet, ambient sophisti-pop still leaves its mark.

Unkindness takes things the furthest, into more hostile atmosphere. A broody frown of menacing sound for openers, with sparse, warping antique sequencers and distant electronic booms. Arid knuckle-tapping hand drums, trumpet decorations fluttering down like flaking gold plaster, quiet robotic emissions from the tenor sax all hanging inside a vast bleak whoosh of ambience. It’s like being an ant trapped inside an enormous high altitude jet engine at cruising power, miles and miles above the earth: everything around you is far too big for you to comprehend, or to destroy you, but it can and does cause a profound sense of dislocation and discomfort. True, the jazz does win through when the ambience drops out to make way for trumpet, sax and conga, but it’s not long before things are back to the Moog-warping sounds of the intro. This is what you’d get if Labradford or Biosphere took up a residency at Birdland.

When they’re stretching themselves, or letting their sense of history shake hands with their zest for technology, Blowpipe are grasping at music far beyond simple genre; inhaling air and transmuting it via both electronics and manual valves into something new. You could call it all post-rock-jazz if that wasn’t such a stupid name. “Encryption fusion” might be a better way of putting it. ‘First Circle’ is certainly one to put up on the phuture-jazz shelf with Guru’s ‘Jazzmatazz’, Courtney Pine’s work with DJ Pogo, and Us3’s ‘Hand On the Torch’. This is breath-driven futurism: at their best, Blowpipe aim and – puff – hit the mark.

Blowpipe: ‘First Circle’
Needlework Records, STITCH6CD/LP (5 034061 000629)
CD/vinyl album
2nd June 1997
Get it from: (2020 update) Best obtained second-hand or streamed.
Blowpipe online:
MySpace Amazon Music
Additional notes: Robin Blick now leads Blick Trio; Andrew Blick leads Gyratory System.

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