Writing by Jim on the album 'Strange Beauty (Every Way Ok)'
Album liner notes -
For this, our second album, it felt a natural progression to use elements arising from my interest in electronica, synthesisers, sound design and field recordings alongside the standard instrumentation of the piano trio format.
What became apparent over time in the creation of the music, both in the act of composition and the sound worlds created in the production process, was a strong autobiographical element - namely my journey with my two severely autistic sons Sam and Joseph (20 and 18 at the time of writing).
Autism burst into my life like a kaleidoscopic torrent of chaotic, fascinating, unfathomable, messy, isolating, disturbing ‘Strange Beauty’ - inevitably all these complex and emotional layers have informed much of the music on this album.
Perhaps in retrospect, there was an unacknowledged desire to give my non-verbal sons a ‘voice’ in my music and, in the world of autism which often feels isolating for both the person with the condition and parent alike, feel a shared connection through making my sons part of the creative process.
Jim Blomfield December 2018
Notes on individual tracks -
Strange Beauty - Using open sounding harmony, shifting melodic fragments in the piano and bass and cascading piano and glockenspiel arpeggios I feel the resulting piece evokes a kind of spacious melancholic beauty...
Sometimes memories can be invoked more powerfully through a sound recording than a picture, and this piece begins with a loop I created from a a crude iPod recording I made in 2005 of my eldest son Sam on a swing in Greenwich Village, New York - the loop connects me back to that time and place with a vivid resonance with all the surrounding memories it evokes...
At the time I was seeking out ways to try to help the severe autism of Sam together with his brother Joseph who also had also been diagnosed with autism. The recording’s squeaky swing has an eerie prominence that suggests a focus and preoccupation with detail that often seems to be a characteristic of the autistic mind. At times such a narrow focus over a wider experience must seem confusing and disorientating, whilst at others it takes on an enrapturing experience of ‘Strange Beauty’. My sons have certainly directed me to see the world in certain ways I might never have seen if I had not been so directly immersed in the world of autism, and I have used that experience as a creative inspiration.
Lung Rebellion is a kind of odd meter rock and Latin beats mash up with shifting time signatures. The opening riff was something that just came up when I was warming up on a piano at a gig. I find most of my best ideas seem to emerge spontaneously rather than when I’m actually ‘trying’ to create ideas...I then later explore further possibilities around the initial idea and shape them into an overall composition I’m happy with. Some pieces come together quickly - others, like this piece, go through a series of rewrites and development during rehearsals and through playing out live.
Intermezzo is a Robert Schumann piano piece (from a suite called Faschingsschwank aus Wien) that I notated as jazz harmony many years ago. I always found the harmony challenging to solo over and it took until now before I felt I could have a go at recording it. The original is fast and fiery, whereas in this context I slowed the tempo right down, feeling that the beautiful tune and rich harmonies worked really well in a jazz ballad context.
Scene and Herd is the first of three sound world ‘vignettes’ on the album. This one combines my treasured Prophet 6 synthesiser and a spontaneous recording I made on my phone when a ‘river of goats’ all wearing cow bells around their necks appeared out of nowhere on a Cretan road before flowing away into the distance...
Bits and Pieces - a jazz electronica piece (‘jazztronica’?!) that uses a hypnotic offbeat keyboard bass figure with an interlocking drum groove. I particularly like the resulting timbre of the blend of synthesiser and bowed acoustic bass when playing the angular melody in unison.
Mellow Drama - My bassist Tosh Wijetunge once described my music as ‘cinematic prog-jazz’ and perhaps this is an apt description for this composition with its varied transitions and shifting sound worlds. The piece started life as a general concept of conveying my experiences as a carer and parent of my two autistic sons and the idea of trying to remain calm and centred in the crazy off-kilter strange disorientating world I had found myself immersed in. In the album post production process, what emerged was that the composition became more specifically about my eldest son Sam - I found an old recording of him engaged in water play and the sound texture and his non verbal vocalisations seemed to fit well into the atmosphere and tonality as a whole. The final section of the piece sees the piano looping a sequence of sonorous repetitive calm whilst the bass and drums play jagged thrash metal like phrases in independent time to the background figure which decreases in tempo on each occurrence. Chaos and calm that finally meet together on the last note...
Full Circle - a Latin inflected ‘montuno’ piano figure is at the heart of this buoyant sounding tune. It began life as a much longer ‘epic’ arrangement but over time as we played it out live and even during the recording process itself, we simplified its form and found the stripped down more concise version worked much better.
Boarded Up (Stranger Beauty) - the quirky title is a nod to electronic duo Boards of Canada whose mastery in creating atmospheric sound worlds, sometimes of very short duration, I have always loved.
This track was the result of improvising in the studio with the Prophet 6 synth and getting Tosh (with effects pedal) and Mark to spontaneously react to it. Post production Tosh and I edited it down to the most interesting sections to create the album’s second vignette.
Every Way OK is a ballad I wrote quite quickly - fairly straightforward in character with the odd unexpected turn of phrase or harmonic shift. Our approach to the tune rhythmically was to play it more from a rock inflected angle rather than purely as a jazz ballad.
Free Fall is based around a cycle of arpeggiated chord patterns I wrote on the Prophet 6 synth and layered together with acoustic piano. It appears first in an ambient setting against a three bar programmed drum loop and synth bass cross rhythm before transforming into a freer more intense improvised groove with live drums and a piano/synth solo ‘battle’. This track was one we pieced together in the studio from multiple takes of various elements and augmented post production with other textures and synth parts. The studio setting and production became very much part of the composition process and as a consequence we’ve had to figure out how best to realise that in a live context...
Stillness in the Sadness - During a hiatus in the recording of the full trio set up, I recorded some freely improvised solo piano pieces. The melancholic piano theme of this final vignette (with reversed audio of some of it’s segments later on into the piece) came from that session. Sometimes in our lives we are haunted by resonances of sadness or loss - but if we can sit with that with acceptance rather than resistance, we can experience, if perhaps only for a brief moment, a sense of tranquillity...
Buddha in the Barcode - this title just popped into my head ‘out of the blue’. I’m not sure what it actually means but I just liked the phrase and it seemed to fit the meditative, reflective nature of the repeated piano note rhythmic motifs that recur throughout. One of my personal favourites, I feel it conveys both simplicity and complexity simultaneously.
Jim Blomfield 2019