The Cinematic Orchestra [London]

The Cinematic Orchestra
Ma Fleur

Improvising in a Scripted Environment

In an era when technology enables people to write music without ever touching an instrument, it is no surprise that the tunes often lack the associated components — melody, chord sequences, and technical proficiency. It is for that reason that Motion, the Cinematic Orchestra’s 1999 release on Ninja Tune, was notable. It broke new ground by combining sample, digital, and loop techniques with technically assured, improvisational jazz.

The architect of the Cinematic Orchestra, Jason Swinscoe, managed to integrate technology and jazz with clarity and confidence, and against great odds. Miles Davis and Teo Macero made a valiant attempt on Get Up With It via tape splicing techniques, as did Steve Reich, but the technology wasn’t behind them. In the 1960s, everyone did everything they could to sound whacky. However, whereas rock and folk records gained definition as much by recording methods as the style of playing, jazz has remained essentially ‘live’ (compare Kind of Blue, recorded in a little over 48 hours, with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, taking over a thousand). It is for this reason that the attempt to combine jazz with edits and put improvisation through the stilted, abstract kaleidoscope of a microchip is so full of promise and difficulty. Nonetheless, Swinscoe’s appropriation of new technology combined with an obvious reverence for jazz and funk, a facility for arrangement, and a very able band resulted in a record of energy and polish, a soundtrack to life between city and night.

It was followed three years later by the calmer Everyday; a lush, cleanly conceived record. Straightforward but engaging chords and melodic, arresting bass lines combined with gadgetry and tastefully minimal synthesisers and horns. Choice vocals from Roots Manuva and Fontella Bass also contributed to a progressive, accessible record. At times it teetered on the edge of ‘lounge jazz’, insofar as it was soothing and ambient, but there is an undeniable design and subtlety to the record. It was never clear, however, where the Cinematic Orchestra would turn next, as there was no doubt they were heading for contentment. For all its charms, Everyday could not be described as an urgent record, and lacked the unease that characterised Motion. Would TCO go the way of Zero 7 and Groove Armada and churn out dull chill-out blandola, or would they return with something as fresh and daring as Motion?

A five-year gap has ensued since Everyday, during which time Jason Swinscoe dwelt in New York and Paris, and travelled to Mali, Senegal, Tanzania, and Kenya. One gets the impression that this was partly to take a break, but also to draw in new inspiration, a literal change of scenery. “Your environment has a massive impact on you,” Swinscoe says, “what’s around you, the beauty and the sounds that you hear everyday. If you are in the Sahara you are going to write a very different record than if you were in London. I’d say Paris definitely influenced the record, in that sense, the tonality of it and of course it’s more romantic and sensual.” In many regards, this fairly lengthy hiatus was necessary to ensure that when he returned for the ‘difficult’ third album (in apostrophes since what album isn’t difficult?), he would have moved onto unfamiliar ground. Word that he had recruited Patrick Watson, perhaps Canada’s finest contemporary singer-songwriter, worked to fan the flames of anticipation.

The Cinematic Orchestra’s latest album, Ma Fleur, released this May, is the outcome, and represents a confident step. Within seconds of the opener, “To Build a Home”, it’s obvious we are on unfamiliar ground. It is a ‘song’ in the old-fashioned sense and, Swinscoe claims, a synopsis of the whole record. The lyrics are unlike any found on earlier TCO tracks — more detailed, and imparting a story. Patrick Watson’s vocals are probably the most unusual and touching I’ve heard since Jeff Buckley, and the arrangement services the song perfectly; a sad piece about loss, friendship and sanctuary. In fact, “To Build a Home” wipes the floor with “Hey Jude”.

It is clear from this and what follows that TCO have produced a more emotional, acoustic record. Swinscoe states, “I wanted to achieve something more musical, in the song form. To take out the drums, and the overtly soul-jazz club thing, take out the Ninja references, and do something for everybody. Overall, I wanted to accentuate the minimalism that was in Everyday but probably overshadowed.”

He has certainly done that. Double bass and drums are far less dominant. They do feature, with both Luke Flowers’ intricate, technical rhythms and Phil France’s driving bass-lines providing trademark elements of the Cinematic sound, but on the whole it is the piano, voice, and guitar that form the main ingredients of Ma Fleur. This makes it a surprisingly stripped album, and, in places, one of stark beauty. In addition to the opener, “Breathe” and “Into You” are beautiful compositions, musically — austere and emotive. All this is augmented by superb vocal performances throughout from Patrick Watson and Fontella Bass, making Ma Fleur an at times touching record, with a charming childishness and honesty, qualities nowhere more evident than on the title track itself, which was, Swinscoe tells me, “the breakthrough.”

Photo by Martin Leitner

In places, though, the record moves from spirit to hot air. Sections drift past without breaking a sweat, while the edits, once daring and unexpected, sometimes serve to add curls of atmosphere rather than manipulate the playing. This is a pity, since it was the constraint that digital control held over live performance that marked out their previous two records.

The reason for this change of heart, Swinscoe informs me, is that Ma Fleur has a new priority — an emphasis on lyricism, storytelling, and the “song form.” To pursue these dimensions, he worked with a scriptwriter who developed a narrative love story based on a handful of characters, inspired by what he heard from an early burn of the record. This is a continuation of the commissioned project TCO received after touring Everday. Swinscoe and the band were approached to develop Man With a Movie Camera, a work of music composed to Djigavertov’s 1929 Russian film of the same title. They performed to the silent film around the world, often playing in the theatre pit, below the screen.

“It’s interesting because you are working with an artefact, in that case an already completed artefact. That artefact, whether it’s a film or script, in the case of Ma Fleur, stimulates the music, which stimulates images, which stimulates lyrics… film has less boundaries, less rules have been laid down.”

Of course, there is a significant difference between writing to a long-ago finished film and developing a script alongside a record. In both cases, though, whether film or script, the extra medium provides a limitation, framework, or sense of reference. “It tied the record down, and was a template for arranging and defining the music.”

While this is an interesting strategy, the content of this script doesn’t always come across as strongly as it might. With the exception of the opening track, the lyrics are too vague to convey meaning. This is purposeful, since Swinscoe wants the listeners to fill in the gaps and imagine the story, but lyrics need to set a scene and mark out the grounds of meaning, otherwise they grant the imagination nothing to work with.

But if the subsequent attempt to develop a script for Ma Fleur occasionally flounders, taken as part of a three-album discography Ma Fleur is still a great deal more than the Cinematic Orchestra’s contemporaries would dare attempt. It demonstrates the forward-thinking, rule-dodging approach that marks out TCO from so many others. To facilitate a change of focus they have removed the dance-hall beats when everyone else is cramming them in, stripped down the instrumentation when other acts are adding strings, and they have cut out the Ninja Tune references just as they have become cool. This third record, then, puts to bed fears that the Cinmeatic Orchestra would ride the wave of earlier success. “I didn’t want to make another Everyday,” Swinscoe clams, “because repetition is not an option.” Applaudable, since so many other acts repeat themselves ad infinitum, and no one can call this record a repetition.