Spring Heel Jack


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There Are Strings (1995), 6/10
68 Million Shades , 7/10
Busy Curious Thirsty , 6/10
Treader , 7/10
Disappeared , 8/10
Masses , 7/10
Amassed , 8/10
The Sweetness of the Water (2004), 6/10
Songs and Themes (2007), 5/10
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(Clicka qua per la versione Italiana)

The Spring Heel Jack project was launched in 1994 by the duo of John Coxon, ex guitarist for Spiritualized and Ashley Wales, ex collaborator of Shock Headed Peters , and soon established themselves at the helm of "ambient jungle", a melodic and atmospheric take on drum'n'bass fundamentals. The EP Sea Lettuce (Rough Trade, 1995) worked as a sort of manifesto of the new genre.
Compared with most drum'n'bass albums, There Are Strings (Rough Trade, 1995) is a symphonic extravaganza that weds synth-pop and cartoon soundtracks while pumping up the manic breakbeats of the genre.

The drum'n'bass remix of Walking Wounded (the Everything But The Girl track) captured the attention of the media, but the duo instead responded with an even more ambient work, 68 Million Shades (Island, 1996), weaving lush arrangements that bridge Jimi Hendrix and free jazz, Ry Cooder's soundtracks and romantic orchestras. The relatively melodic electronica of Midwest and the relatively straightforward dance of Take 1 are complemented by complex and erudite compositions such as Suspensions (influenced by both John Cage's prepared piano sonatas and Steve Reich's minimalist chamber music) and Taker 3 (a parade of quirky noises in the tradition of Edgar Varese). The album is an eclectic heap of ideas. Pan deconstructs a piece of orchestral music, leaving behind only floating fragments of harmony. Plates mixes frenetic brasilian rhythm, reverbs of jazz trumpet and melodic keyboard lines. Eesti has the trance quality of Tibetan mantras. 60 Seconds recycles in a minimalist manner a sleepy, jazzy horn pattern. And Bar is the industrial-music version of their compositional technique. One wishes that Spring Heel Jack dispensed with the mechanical beat and focused on what they do best: dress up harmonies with intriguing dynamics.

Busy Curious Thirsty (Island, 1997) is their stripped-down concession to jungle, but with more than a passing quotation from big-band jazz and avantgarde music. The musicians move up to the front fast-paced dancefloor deliriums but then inject them with enough neurosis (robotic horns fanfares, atmospheric trumpet solos, ghostly vibraphone tinkling in Bells, disjointed industrial repetitions and jazzy staccatos in Casino) to turn them into psychotic nightmares rather than night-long dances.
The duo's innovations are also outstanding in less cerebral moments: the quasi-reggae limping of Happy Baby, the futuristic setting of Sirens and, best of all, the thunderous, pseudo-raga impetus of Fresh Kills Landfill. Melody is conspicuously absent from these abstract, geometric formulas, except for the chill-out adagio of Bank Of America.
How little Spring Heel Jack belong to the world of dance music is proven by the addition of three experimental tracks: a minimalist piece in the slowly-building manner of Steve Reich (Galapagos 3), including a coda of dissonant chamber music; a composition for bells reminiscent of Wolff & Hennings' classic Tibetan Bells (Bells 2) that ends in a cloud of free-jazz/new-age electronics; and the symphonic mess of The Wrong Guide.

If the 68 Million Shades displayed their melodic side and Busy Curious Thirsty displayed their rhythmic side, Treader (Tugboat, 1999 - Thirsty Ear, 2000) is yet another face of their multifaceted art: a wild excursion into 20th century classical music, minimalism and be bop. Most of the tracks sound like symphonic poems, i.e. thick, thematic orchestral narratives built out of samples, loops and echoes. Is weaves together thundering keyboard clusters and suspenseful melodies. Its dramatic overtones are matched by fast pace and sharp timbres, one of the album's key principles of composition.
Blackwater's tribal bacchanal relies on a syncopated locomotive of percussion and keyboards. It slowly mutates in tone thanks to the keyboards' powerful glissando. It's industrial music to the square, merged with jungle rhythm and ignited by rocket fuel.
Winter opens with Hendrix-ian guitar noises and Sonic Youth-y metallic dissonance only to take off in a whirlwind of galactic noises and bebop nuances. At nine minutes, this is one of the duo's most ambitious and accomplished scores, endlessly recycling its magmatic material and swinging between jazz and cacophony.
More Stuff No One Saw lays down a melancholy saxophone theme over an android pow-wow, and then spins it around. The loop's crescendo achieves epic proportions. Outerlude weds orchestral scrawls, jazz reverie and dub reverbs.
The harmonic fireworks of some tracks evoke early Soft Machine records. Eyepa swallows a distorted circus fanfare and methodically chews it to pieces in a cauldron of clockwork machines. Toledo deconstructs 1960s' easy listening.
Compared with previous Spring Heel Jack outings, Treader's amalgam flows more elegant and flawless. What used to be fragments are now a organic whole. By smoothing out the brusque contrasts, the duo has found an almost miraculous balance of rhythm and melody, where neither prevails and each supports the other. Last but not least, they have reinvented the meaning of the word "orchestration".

The EP The Sound Of Music (Tugboat, 1999) remixes two Rodgers & Hammerstein songs. Needless to say, very little is left of the originals.

Rachel Point opens Disappeared (Thirsty Ear, 2000) with methodically pounding drums, Miles Davis-style trumpet licks and looping keyboard wails. The calculated geometry of this track contrasts with the Wagnerian intensity of Mit Wut, a mind-warping distortion clashing with symphonic staccatos over a martial pow-wow beat, first interrupted by a gentle piano figure, then torn apart by a hard-rocking bass riff and the whole finally soaring via a church-like organ drone, a minimalistic piano pattern and insistent drumming. Galina is no less extreme, at least the way it sticks cascading dissonant sounds into the crevices of tribal, resounding, robotic, industrial beats. These are Spring Heel Jack at their best: a storming, Foetus-like power that crushes a steady flow of sonic debris. Often, these dances are driven by a titanic bass propulsion (Bane) The grotesque, distorted horn theme and the gargantuam rhythm of Wolfing end the album on a comic note.
Not all tracks are so sonically challenging. The duo's romantic side surfaces in the epic trumpet crescendo of Trouble And Luck and the Bacharach-tinged orchestral aria of the reggaefied To Die A Little. A playful, funky, quasi-surf theme turns I Undid Myself into post-modernist musical graffitis.
Aided by jazz-rock glory John Surman in person, the duo vent their passion for jazz in two shimmering interludes that deserve to be called chamber concertos. They both begin with harsh notes and dissonances, but then settle into trance-like moods, although of a very different kind: Disappeared 1 is a languid, dreamy lake of neurotic saxophone and romantic vibraphone noises; Disappeared 2 weaves minimalistic fanfares of clarinet and saxophone that sound like Anthony Braxton waltzing with Albert Ayler.
Coxon and Wales play all instruments, and would easily rank among the best players of each instrument for the year. They seem to have an unerring talent for secreting the best out of every musical source they touch.
The way they mix those spectacular sounds is no less spectacular, and they would also rank among the most original composers of modern music.

The official bootleg Oddities contains six unreleased tracks that belong to the duo's most experimental side (Piece ofr Six Turntables, 2nd Piece For La Monte Young).

Masses (Thirsty Ear, 2001) completes Coxon's and Wales' conversion to avantgarde jazz. The album is actually played by one of the most sensational ensemble in jazz history: Matthew Shipp on piano, Evan Parker and Tim Berne on saxophones, Roy Campbell on trumpet, Daniel Carter on flute and saxophones, Ed Coxon on violins, Mat Maneri on viola, William Parker and George Trebar on double bass. Of course, this is not a collective improvisation as they used to do them in jazz. This is a collage of those players' improvisations over the digital doodling provided by the Spring Heel Jack duo. Samples, loops and found noises interpolate the sparse and dejected piano tones and the distant saxophone wails of the nine-minute Chorale. The core of Chiaroscuro is a soaring saxophone solo against the double bass' stentorian ringing against a clangorous backdrop.
Needless to say, the collaborators tend to steal the show and their superb fragments often prevail over the duo's "glue". The owners regain control of the situation in the soft, dusty Art Ensemble of Chicago-derived soundscape of Masses, in the menacing post-nuclear wasteland of Red Worm and in the psychedelic/concrete cacophony of of Coda. Spring Heel Jack has surrendered the drum'n'bass magisterium and is now attempting a new kind of fusion, between studio manipulation and improvisation.

With Amassed (Thirsty Ear, 2002) Spring Heel Jack managed to top their best work in the genre that they invented. Featuring an all-star jazz line-up of Han Bennink (drums), Ed Coxon (violin), John Edwards (bass), Evan Parker (saxophone), Paul Rutherford (trombone), Matthew Shipp (piano) and Kenny Wheeler (trumpet), and adding the "shoegazing" guitar of Jason Pierce (Spiritualized) to the proceedings, the duo composed eight mini-concertos straddling not one stylistic border but pretty much all possible borders.
They make their point with impeccable grace in the lengthy One Hundred Years Before, a pale fresco of abstract chaos that fluctuates like a magma, releasing smoky filaments of melody from several centers of gravity. The piece is yet another essay in cubistic decomposition and fusion, but the duo's surgery has never been so lyrical.
Lead-off track Double Cross is the real manifesto here: a hybrid of chamber music, bebop jazz and dissonant avantgarde that relies on the infinite subtleties of the musicians' counterpoint. The virtual absence of rhythm (sparse beats wander in a quantum lactice) opens unlimited space and relinquishes harmony to imagination. The way soulful bass lines and cubistic trumpet balladry coexist is not music, it is magic.
The jazz element is stronger in Amassed, the frantic drumming and the petulant horns recalling a Soho loft circa 1965, replete with Albert Ayler's cacophonic bacchanals and liquid piano a` la Weather Report.
Funereal bells and martial chords open Wormwood. A sense of tension is built by free notes that get darker and darker, ever more distorted. The instruments join in a cacophonic symphony, while the ideology of the absurd cultivated by Pere Ubu in Art of Walking weds the most nocturnal jamming of Jimi Hendrix.
The search for order is a recurring theme. Spring Heel Jack make a point of following the most daring and contorted route, as in the surreal ballet of Duel, where structure arises from the primordial fire of the saxophone, via the piano's minimalistic repetition and the apocalyptic drumming. The geometric saxophone improvisation over a bed of guitar distortions in Maroc recall a younger, colder Anthony Braxton. That quest culminates in Lit, where the trumpet intones a tender psalm over a majestic organ melody, some musique concrete and a moving piano motif, a post-psychedelic sonic barbeque that harks back to Pink Floyd circa Atom Heart Mother and constitutes the poetic core of the album.
The mesmerizing Obscured is a summa of all the techniques, styles and ideas lavished on the previous seven tracks, with the addition of a soul and rock element that bestows on it a very "earthly" quality. Soul organ drones breath over a jungle beat (a rhythmic pattern that continues steadily for nine minutes) while the instruments take shifts at howling their joyful desperation, thereby concocting one of the most exhilarating orgies in modern jazz.

Live (Thirsty Ear, 2003), recorded with Bennink, Evan and William Parker, Shipp and Pierce (aka J Spaceman), is a work of pure genius. Divided into two tracks (36 and 39 minutes), it explores a vast landscape of moods, colors, styles. The mood swings from loud, dense, noisy, chaotic, frantic to sparse, melodic, romantic, elegiac; and from glacial, geometric, android to hot, rough, swelling, ebullient, almost symphonic. massive and kaleidoscopic The hypnotic maelstron of dissonant horns, solemn piano notes and background drones that soars in the middle of the second track evokes the most heroic and funereal moments on Robert Wyatt's Rock Bottom.

Increasing their commitment to jazz, Spring Heel Jack teamed up with trumpeter Leo Smith, saxophonist Evan Parker, bassist John Edwards and drummer Mark Sanders for The Sweetness of the Water (Thirsty Ear, 2004). Smith intones the mournful hymn of Track Four (the title of the first track) over disjointed rhythm and subliminal noise, and the equally melancholy meditation of Track One (the fifth track) over hypnotic metalic banging. Some collaborations seem to lack cohesion and focus: Quintet is a gentle chaos of fragmented melodies; Track Two is an exercise in barely sketched jamming. The distorted organ melody of Lata, looped over and over again, is both the simplest track and the emotional peak of the album. A close second is Autumn, mostly a duet for massive electronic sounds and romantic trumpet that, finally, achieves real drama.

Over the years Spring Heel Jack were engaged in many collaborations with jazz musicians: with saxophonist Evan Parker and percussionist Mark Sanders on Sanders' Trio With Interludes (2004), with saxophonist John Tchicai on his With Strings (may 2005), with percussionist Han Bennink for his Amplified Trio (recorded in 2006), etc.

Spring Heel Jack's Songs and Themes (2007) is a lightweight, fragmented version of their freejazztronica, a collaboration with trumpeter Roy Campbell, saxophonist John Tchicai, bassist John Edwards and drummer Tony Marsh (and occasional contributions by Spiritualized's guitarist Jason Pierce, vibraphonist Orphy Robinson, drummers Rupert Clervaux and Mark Sanders).

In 2009 Hot Chip's Alexis Taylor (on vocals, electric piano, bass, synthesizer and electric guitar), This Heat's drummer Charles Hayward, Spring Heel Jack's John Coxon and keyboardist Pat Thomas formed About Group and recorded the improvised About (july 2009) and Start And Complete (2011), entirely composed by Taylor.

Matthew Shipp on Farfisa organ, J Spaceman and Spring Heel Jack's John Coxon on electric guitars, and Steve Noble on drums formed a quartet that debuted with the 38-minute piece of Black Music Disaster (february 2010 - Thirst Ear, 2012).

Spring Heel Jack's John Coxon, Evan Parker (tenor sax) and Eddie Prevost (drums & cymbals) recorded the 55-minute live improvisation of Cinema (march 2008).

Hackney Road (october 2016 - Treader, 2018) documents John Coxon (guitars, kalimba, harmonica, piano and samples) and Ashley Wales (samples, loops, electronics) playing with jazz great Wadada Leo Smith (trumpet), Steve Noble (drums) and Pat Thomas (piano and synthesizer).

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