I have been trying very hard not to like this album. Both the broadsheets and the rock press seem to have latched on to it in one of their occasional forays into leftfield, dance or black-based music. Cinematic Orchestra are flavour of the month and the dreaded phrase “Album of the Year” is already being mooted. There is something particularly galling about these would-be trendsetters informing you of their longstanding admiration for the group and especially the vocal genius of Fontella Bass who guests on the disc. Now I may be mistaken, but when one of last year’s finest records, Travellin’ by the same Fontella Bass, slipped out I don’t remember much collective falling over in the rush to review it.
Still, that is hardly the fault of Jason Swinscoe and the excellent performers that he has gathered around him for this follow up to 1999’s Motion set. So, despite my snobbish misgivings, I have to agree that Everyday is undeniably a very fine record. I am not sure it is quite as groundbreaking as some of the more breathless bandwagon-jumpers have claimed, but it has more than enough intelligence and inventiveness to merit attention. It is also, for such a downbeat affair, both soothing and oddly uplifting. Less reliant on Reichian tape-looping than Cinematic Orchestra’s earlier work and with an emphasis on “real” musicians, the disc foregrounds a song-based, melodic thrust that knits together the nu-jazz and electronica elements in a way that is both accessible and enterprising.
Swinscoe has been experimenting with a similar mélange of jazz, orchestral and digital samples since his days as a Cardiff student. Over the past decade he has established himself as a composer and producer of vision and some singularity. At bottom, I still believe he is operating in territory first mapped out by Bristol’s Massive Attack, if at a somewhat more rarefied and abstract level. The modern jazz and 20th century classical sensibilities are distinctive and increasingly well-honed. His choice of players is felicitous indeed and though most attention will fall on guests Bass and UK rapper Roots Manuva, the “house band” are equally praiseworthy.
Co-producer and bassist Phil France, drummer Luke Flowers and keyboardist Mike Fell are central to the album’s success. Turntablist Patrick Carpenter adds edge and energy to the proceedings. As a bonus, Tom Chant on soprano sax and harpist Rhodri Davis produce at least two of the album’s musical high spots. All play their part in the enhanced textural richness that has been the most critically celebrated feature both of this set and recent live appearances.
Lasting a full hour, Everyday consists of just seven tracks. Bass sings on two, Roots Manuva features on one number and the remaining four pieces are primarily instrumental. Without in any sense being monotonous, there is a suite-like consistency of both concept and mood to the whole affair and one puzzle is that the darkness and near-despair of some of the themes does not result in a depressing experience, but one that is oddly invigorating.
I say puzzle, because Everyday is unremittingly downtempo and at times quite minimalistic. Though it draws its beats from jazz, rare groove and drum’n'bass, this is sedentary rather than dancefloor fare. Nonetheless there is something cathartic about listening to this music. Haunting and beautiful in equal measure, it is perhaps that “orchestral” feel that offers, in the end, a sense of equilibrium and tranquility. Not your usual ambient or chill-out session, each composition is rather too demanding for that, but overall Everyday does leave you with a warm and satisfied feeling, whatever the content might suggest.
Opening with the first and superior Fontella Bass contribution, the very moving “All That You Give”, Swinscoe both sets out his musical stall and gives himself a hard act to follow, for emotional intensity at least. A lament rather than a ballad, Bass invests this song of loss (for her late husband,trumpeter Lester Bowie?) with a depth and honesty few could hope to emulate. Despite the much mentioned “soul diva” status that the journos have belatedly granted her, Bass actually reins in her gospel influences, producing instead a starker, lonelier tone particularly appropriate to the song’s aims. This style, on the brooding “Evolution”, becomes dangerously toneless and lacking in nuance which may explain its popularity with the aforementioned “cognoscenti”.
In between these two tracks is the peculiar but powerful “Burn Out”, whose bleakness seems initially at odds with the elegant electric piano of Phil France,but eventually resolves itself into a satisfactory whole. France’s solo alone stands as sufficient rebuttal to those critics who cannot accept Cinematic Orchestra as jazz in any shape or form. Even more undilutedly “jazz” is “Man With a Movie Camera” with an unfettered soprano sax straight out of the Greg Osby handbook. Both of these pieces operate a delicate balancing act between moody introversion and genuinely expressive individual playing.
Roots Manuva is the most respected rapper the UK has yet produced. Although his thoughtfulness and individuality are undeniable, I find neither his vocal style nor his lyrics as convincing or profound as most seem to do. On the other hand, the harp-playing that graces “All Things to All Men”, as it does the opening track, is majestic and much more than mere embellishment. There is an Alice Coltrane harp-sample kicking around somewhere too, just to show Swinscoe’s historical awareness.
The long title track that closes the album is perhaps the nearest thing to the more abstract digitalism of Motion (and its influential re-mix variant). It is one of those atmospheric pieces where nothing much seems to be happening, yet you find yourself gradually drawn in and held captive. Exoticisms, cut-up samples, half-understood allusions and various layers of sound all meld into an understated but all-embracing finale. Mention must be made here of bass player France, who acts as a sort of latter-day Ron Carter in holding everything together.
Like the whole Cinematic Orchestra project, “Everyday” belongs to no one genre but is engagingly and fluently hybrid. That is Swinscoe’s special gift. The actual feel and resonance of Everyday is not too dissimilar to the work of many operating at the deeper reaches of dance, lounge and downtempo styles. What is different is the lack of awkwardness in the various juxtapositions he uses to create this musical landscape.
That, and the high level of musicianship, ensure that, even if this is not the best album of 2002, it is one of the most intelligent and articulate to enter the increasingly complex nu-jazz field. Be wary of some of the overly adulatory noises being made about this record but do at least give it a listen. So much of the current music scene is crass and cynical, that thoughtfulness, when it comes along, should never be ignored.