We are in the age of the improvising musician who explores new sounds. Michelson Morley wholly embody this spirit of adventure in Strange Courage, the follow-up to their critically acclaimed 2014 debut album Aether Drift. The forward-thinking Bristol group – Jake McMurchie [saxophones], Will Harris [bass guitar], Dan Messore [guitar] and Mark Whitlam [drums]– augment acoustic instruments with electronics to create a vast array of timbres that are set to arrangements which are both thrillingly imaginative and fearlessly eclectic. Which is no surprise, given that the aforementioned have played with some of the leading lights in modern British music, from Alexander Hawkins to Portishead.
The repertoire of Strange Courage draws on jazz-fusion, ambient music, synth-pop and minimalism, but if there are echoes of anybody from Miles Davis to Arvo Part via Steve Reich, Brian Eno and Kraftwerk, the net result is music that has a strong personal identity. As McMurchie, known for his work with Get The Blessing, explains, the overriding creative focus is the development of a bold collective voice.
“We employ a minimalist, evolutionary approach to group improvisation where improvised phrases are repeated and allowed to evolve slowly. Time and space are important,” says Jake. “There is less emphasis on harmony and more on improvising with sound, using electronic manipulation of acoustic instruments to provide a sense of movement, to subvert expectations and to provide a broader sound palette.”
Crucial to that mission statement is the input of Dan Messore, the talented guitarist-composer who has already made a sizeable impression on the UK jazz scene under the moniker Indigo Kid. Messore was initially a special guest in Michelson Morley but has become a fully-fledged and very valued member of the band. His chords and countermelodies, at times spiky, at times soothing, mesh perfectly with the compelling atmosphere of each composition.
Whether Michelson Morley are weaving together simple, limpid melodic patterns or crafting long, sumptuous ribbons of sound that flutter in the air in the most understated but resonant way their arrangements are marked by a strong cinematic character.The Last Of Me Will Wait has a string of elegiac melodic phrases framed by airy electronic trails that convey a wry romanticism while There Are No Perfect Waves unfurls an endless digital surf that swells into a potent funk-rock backbeat.
Time Varying Fields is piece in which the spacious soundscapes and subtle rhythmic phrases are layered to good effect, but the emotional and musical versatility of Michelson Morley is emphatically expressed by Ammageddon, in which driving, turbulent unison lines unleash a deep primal energy that hits a fearsome peak when the groove breaks down to a raw sax-drums duet. The dread of the title is eerily called forth.
Using sound to convey a series of strong images is very much at the conceptual core of Michelson Morley, as McMurchie makes clear. “We hope that it paints a picture and evokes a strong and distinct emotional space,” says Jake. “Many of the songs have a story or visual scene as a starting point. It’s important that each piece has a sense of narrative. Sometimes an image or scene is evoked as a basis for improvisation with instruments asked to fulfill specific roles within the scene, which forces people to approach improvising in unusual ways.”
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