Eight years ago, Jason Swinscoe gathered a group of adventurous jazz musicians in London to record the ideas floating through his head. The Cinematic Orchestra (whose members expand and contract with each new album, sometimes including a string section, often collaborating with vocalists like legendary Fontella Bass and newcomer Patrick Watson, and now consisting of top free jazz saxophonist Tom Chant and pianist Nick Ramm) responded to Swinscoe’s musical ideas by creating the debut Motion, a soundtrack to an imaginary thriller.
The startling album was voted best of the year by listeners of Gilles Peterson’s Radio One Show, and the band went on to create an orchestral soundtrack for the 1929 avant garde film Man with a Movie Camera, directed by Dzigo Vertov.
While The Cinematic Orchestra’s musical roster has evolved with each new release, their sound has remained steady in its uniqueness and attempts at recreating powerful moods through layered compositions. Ma Fleur, their fourth album, is no exception. An existential tour through a swinging spectrum of emotional highs and lows, the album rawly reflects on the contemporary and universal crises faced by both jazz and humanity.
Conceived as a narrative to an as-yet-unmade film, the album begins with chords on a quietly insistent piano that open into the crescendoing strings and vocals of “That Home”. The song’s gentle lyrics, a reflection on a place (“Where the windows are breathing in the light/ Where the rooms are a collection of our lives”), serve as an apt metaphor for the remainder of the album. As Patrick Watson continues, “This is a place where I don’t feel alone/ This is a place that I call my home”, you feel as though the orchestra is inviting you into their emotional home, to breathe in the light, to experience their mood swings and along with them, an atmospheric progression.
The stage set for an emotionally weighty drama, the album continues with “Familiar Ground”, and the musical plot evolves into an orchestral conflict. While Fontella Bass’s soulful voice resonates with the simple but meaningful repetition of “how near/ how far”, the orchestra tracks the historical and sentimental spectrum. Cheery plucks on an acoustic six-string interlude to a downtempo, bass-driven jam that sounds as if it belonged in a Prohibition-era speakeasy before petering out to a funereal post-Motown chorus.
It’s a metronome of feelings that may come off as bipolar in the hands of other musicians. Instead, as the album progresses, the orchestra welcomes you into the drama by playing with levels of intensity, sporadically offering an anti-depressant to keep your spirits lifted. The transition to the title track renews the tempo momentarily by highlighting Chant’s saxophone stylings with an uplifting instrumental before sliding into the melancholic “Music Box”.
And as soothing as a sleeping pill, you enter into a lullaby that, as its title suggests, tinkles like the sampled recording in your grandmother’s jewelry box. While an acoustic guitar affects a quietly intense relationship, vocalists Patrick Watson and Lou Rhodes whisper a duet that cinematically responds to love by offering a premonition of future loss. The two themes of loss and love that maintain prominence throughout the album grow as the climax nears.
With “Time and Space”, which features smoky-voiced Lou Rhodes, the orchestra’s passion multiplies and encompasses a greater range of electronic instrumentals, resulting in a concentrated composition that, like Prozac, overwhelms all the emotions that have come before. Here is where the album takes on its greatest form.
The songs that come after, while maintaining the dynamic of The Cinematic Orchestra’s sound, shift into heavier instrumentals. “As the Stars Fall”, weighty with bass, is countered with an ecstatic snare and tweaked electronically, thus creating an uplifting crescendo that sinks with “Into You”, and dances through the redemptive “To Build a Home.” In between, vocalist Fontella Bass returns with “Breathe”, a raspy-voiced narrative that seems to both comfort the melancholy and atone for the cheeriness of the previous tracks. As she meditates on a weight lifting, the heaviness of the album lightens and the story begins to resolve.
Like a film, Ma Fleur both drains and uplifts. It’s a demanding and complex album that has proven to be one of the best albums I’ve heard in years, a universal soundtrack to a life that requires no visuals to imagine.