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REVIEW – Theo Travis: ‘Heart Of The Sun’ album, 2001 (“one of Britain’s finest yet least precious saxophonists”)

12 Aug

Theo Travis: 'Heart Of The Sun'

Theo Travis: ‘Heart Of The Sun’

Having followed a series of assured, wide-spanning loops passing through jazz, art-rock, prog, ambient electronics and Gong’s fertile psychedelic universe, perhaps it’s time for Theo Travis to come home. Or, perhaps, to build a home.

One of Britain’s finest (yet least precious) saxophonists, Travis has paid tribute to the post-bop traditions of Coltrane and Tyner, blown full improv and racing fusion, played balladeer and pop romanticist, and breathed frost over ambient darkness. ‘Heart Of The Sun’ summarises this breadth on a single album, unifying itself around his compositional variety and the flexible determination of his playing voice. It’s remarkable for the humility and warmth of its approach – partly from Steven Wilson’s beautifully atmospheric mixing (an object lesson in letting jazz studio performances breathe as naturally as live gigs), but more significantly from Travis’ uncomplicated attitude towards allowing music to happen.

A sometimes-unguarded, sometimes-studious musician – who gives his all either way – Travis is also someone who doesn’t need to throw a leader’s weight around. Subtly poised and authoritative, he stands back from the obvious limelight throughout ‘Heart Of The Sun’, allowing his guests (in particular, pearly-toned trumpet veteran Palle Mikkelborg) to illuminate the music, and then gracefully reflecting that light back himself. Grinding no axes, ‘Heart Of The Sun’ sits itself down at the accessible end of jazz, with Travis discreetly polishing his musical breadth to a smooth evanescent ‘Kind Of Blue’ consistency.

His standard quartet members – David Gordon on piano and organ, Andy Hamill on double bass and Marc Parnell on drums – are the album’s backbone (with occasional rhythm section substitutions from Stefan Weeke and Björn Lücker). Theo’s partnerships with these players allow him to exercise some more straightahead jazz moves, via a tenor sax tone blending the polished New York bite of Michael Brecker and Dave Liebman with the earthier strengths of British bluesman Dick Heckstall-Smith: as demonstrated on the velvet-smokey blues of All I Know. On the other hand, the standard crew also raise the stakes on Fast Life, in which Andy Hammill makes the most of his experiences backing contemporary drum’n’bass luminaries like 4 Hero and LTJ Bukem. It’s a nimble, daring demonstration of how clubland’s drum’n’bass beatscapes are both nourished by jazz and able to feed back into it. Hammill, Parnell and Gordon slip and slide through a succession of sleek, exciting, ever-morphing junglist pulses, like Red Snapper in black ties. Travis and Mikkelborg travel cheek to cheek over these flexing surges, quoting mischievously from mariachi and Mission Impossible, Mikkelborg occasionally rinsing the beats in a wash of wah-wah’ed electric trumpet.

It’s also the standard quartet who are behind the very different approach of Northern Lights – texturally, a close cousin to Travis’ dark-ambient work as half of the electronica duo Cipher. His soprano sax (making its only appearance) stands poised in a lonely, bowed-head intro, redolent with melancholia, over Eno-esque dark-water atmospherics. Mikkelborg responds with a silvery, fantastically tender muted melody – comforting and passionate – that comes and goes like caught breaths and compassionate advice above the carpet of Gordon’s Hammond organ, slowly warming and soothing that initial exposed chill.

The quartet – this time augmented by Mystics guitarist Mark Wood, a companion from Travis’ nights in the improv lab – turn in a relaxed yet magnificent performance on Barking Dogs And Caravans. A musical picture of childhood holidays and British holiday camps, it provides Travis’ best melodic solo of the album. But with its friendly air of disarmed tongue-in-cheek pomp, the barrel-organ Hammond figures and Wood’s Frisell-ish lacing of bell-like guitar, it’s also an opportunity for Travis to explore the more unselfconsciously affectionate corners of the British jazz impulse. Here, you can hear the same mingling of warm, pubby matey-ness and superbly expressive playing as found in the Loose Tubes school of Django Bates and Iain Ballamy: particularly when Travis cuts loose with some celebratory, laughing tenor wails.

Elsewhere, British improv-scene tendencies get a look in on That Old Smile: initially a deceptive, straight sounding blues strut driven by Parnell’s haughty cymbal. Wood – using a solid-yet-limber blowtorching tone – moves outward from a supporting position via a series of iridescent bubbles of sound, allying themselves with Gordon’s increasingly shardlike organ, The piece’s impatiently accelerating choruses (and its nods to the excitability of prog) moves to a point where the playing melts, with a dropping silence, into a heated atonal Bitches Brew jam. Inflamed by hissing cymbal work, Wood’s Sonny Sharrock-ish car-crusher guitar explorations utterly displace the saxophone as the heart of an aggressive whirl of mutinous invention.

More extra-curricular activities are represented by Gong guru Daevid Allen. His infamous glissando guitar (a gentle, thrilling shiver of sound, like sheets of luminous rain stroked by fingers of wind) adds an unearthly, spine-prickling element to offset the familiarity in the album’s lone cover – Van Heusen and Burke’s Here’s That Rainy Day. The returning Mikkelborg (on serenely confident flugelhorn) and Travis (in luxuriant, purring ballad mode) handle the traditional melodics, while the subtle icicle colorations of Gordon’s piano and Björn Lücker’s steady click of rimshot mingle with Allen’s eerie distortions of the atmosphere.

More outright subversion of tradition comes with the surreal Last Flight From Twinwood – an impressionistic, pulse-free, last-days-of-Glenn-Miller tribute in which a spectral big-band sound is provided care of multi-tracked Travis flutes and the one-man clarinet ensemble of Stewart Curtis (moonlighting from Kletzmer Groove). Mikkelborg’s delicately wah-ed electric trumpet haunts the music’s open spaces; Travis’ sometimes anguished tenor cuts across them. But the trump card comes in the unrepentant, disincorporated screech and spring-noise of Mark Wood’s distant guitar, a harbinger of failing aircraft machinery…

The sixteen-minute trail of Bass Rock is a final piece of Travis landscape portraiture, tracing a fluent and understated post-bop slide. Its freedom is defined by Stefan Weeke’s beautifully-timed, gliding elisions on double bass and the casually intent whisper of Lücker’s brush-drumming. And also by its cessations into near-silence but for oscillating ambient loops. Here, Gordon’s flickering touches of piano are sometimes the only foil to Travis’ sax – liberated now from discretion or restraint, to cry with a kind of baffled joy into the night. An open-ended homecoming.

Theo Travis: ‘Heart Of The Sun’
33 Jazz Records,  33JAZZ063 (5020883330631)
CD/download album
Released: 2001

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