Tag Archives: Blowpipe

May 1998 – album reviews – Blowpipe’s ‘Pendulum’ (“half given over to Blowpipe’s previous grace, half to a new and more aggressive club attack”)

18 May

Blowpipe: 'Pendulum'

Blowpipe: ‘Pendulum’

In jazz, things move on, and Blowpipe are no exception to this. Father-and-son brass-and-reed players Robin and Andrew Blick joined forces last year, making a mark for themselves last year at the point between hips and heads for their own spin on jazz-meets-clubland, sliding in alongside acid jazz with something a little more sophisticated and challenging.

The enthralling ‘First Circle‘ was the outcome: a rich and rewarding chill-out-and-expand intertwining of busily-bubbling electronica with old-school jazz conversation. Alongside guitarist Paul Reeson and the remarkable electronic sound-weaver Stephen Watkins, the Blicks set up a heartfelt and fertile union of jazz expression and latter-day dance-floor pulse, a tapestry of burbling intelligent techno, deft horn dialogue and fluent electro-acoustic textures. It was a joy to listen to, and its success has been recognised in one direction, at least.

‘Pendulum’ (a hot-on-the-heels follow up to ‘First Circle’) comes after Blowpipe’s deeper welcome into the ongoing club revolution – they’ve played on the new album by drum’n’bass pioneer Grooverider – and a big line-up shake-up. Whether burnt, inquisitive or disillusioned, the Blicks have opted to change the band’s instrumental chemistry. Blowpipe’s armoury of blowables (which already featured the Blicks’ trumpets, saxes, assorted horns and abused pipework) has been expanded by the addition of Nick Reynolds’ harmonica; they’ve also added a steady bass player in Tom Harrison; and there are frequent guest appearances (and stronger links to the jazz world) from saxophonist/flautist John Burgess of the Harry Beckett band and the Tom Bancroft Orchestra. But most crucially, both Reeson and Watkins are now out of the picture (apparently, halfway through recording). Consequently, while half of ‘Pendulum’ is given over to Blowpipe’s previous acoustic/ambient/electronica grace, the other half is shaped by a new and more aggressive club attack.

Of the old school stuff, Airport Woman is the most graceful: a mass of beat-free, blurring big spaces: back-and-forth cello loops, rainy-night muted trumpets, glows of soprano sax and a brief return from Paul Reeson. The Spell is Broken is wrapped in a backwards bassy ostinato (padded up by Tycho Andrews’ wah-guitar) like an orchestra in a North Sea fog, thick hazy air through which Andrew Blick’s trumpet clarion cuts like a lone lighthouse beam. Muting down and vague-ening in the heavy atmosphere, it gently illuminates (above the clanking guitar rhythm and the creak-crunching sonics).

However, this album’s signature is definitely made by the harder breed of Blowpipe pieces, by the post-Grooverider drum’n’bass influences. This could have been a good thing, given that music’s ferociously intelligent, toppy rhythmic attack: the bebop of the club scene. But in practice? Um… maybe not.

The main problem is a loss of that crucial Blowpipe balance. Neither of Stephen Watkins’ on/off successors (Patrick Mosley and Mike Servent) possess any of his subtlety, meaning that the detailed electronic textures of ‘Full Circle’ have been overturned in favour of synth washes and more blatant beats. And while the Blicks remain as eloquent as ever, Nick Reynolds’ harmonica virtuosity is of the tinny, bullying breed: a soulless Mark Feltham cop. Sometimes the new marriage is a happy one, as on Avanti’s drowsy harmonica patina and cloudy brass blankets, mixing it up with breakbeats, Harrison’s Bootsy bass, and Andrew’s cold trumpet motif. But when it’s at its worst, the Blicks seem sidelined within their own project, locked down in the cages of snare drum.

The analogue gut gurgles and video games blippery of Usurper work quite well, as Reynolds’ sharp harmonica riffs mingle with fluent fluttering sax and muted trumpet. But Unravel’s tight fast rattle and saurian bass quakes are overcome by the belting raucous harmonica and brass. Robin Blick’s soprano scribbles too frantically, Andrew’s echoed trumpet sounds busy and sour. The raw power of Scorched Earth’s distorted breakbeat and Harrison Wobble-y bassline can’t make up for the yammering, overbearing harmonica overkill: Reynolds blowing flatulently all over the Blicks’ bitty chips of sax and trumpet and Katherine Blake’s skidding tremolo violin. And School Disco (working title or what?) is just clodhopping: a flatfooted stomp which sounds like it was recorded in an underpass. John Burgess’ guesting flute fights to keep grace going against the dirty swathes of distorted harmonica.

When Reynolds is kept on a tighter leash, things work out much better. On the climactic Phoenix, for example, where Burgess’ bass clarinet and Andrew’s dawning trumpet lines repeatedly criss-cross each other over didgeridoo droning and Robin’s sax hangings. Or on Pendulum itself, which uses power without clumsiness. Rising off a big Bonham-y stomp with overdriven trumpet and giant floppy bass, Robin laces in some ascending saxes and curtains of brass. There’s a guest tenor scrawl from John Burgess: then, amid the whale-song trumpets, an incongruous Scott Walker sample pops up to breathe in bluer air. “The little clocks stop ticking now…” Everything does stop ticking. Everything kicks off again. Marvellously perverse, and a particular highlight on an album which sometimes fails to live up to Blowpipe’s initial promise, reminding us of how good they can be once they’re back in focus.

Blowpipe: ‘Pendulum’
Robot Records, ROB 001 (5019148617297)
CD-only album
Released:
15th May 1998
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.
 

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

30 May

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
Released:
26th May 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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