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Thursday, May 22 2014 | 12:31
Image: 1589103 Nat Birchall is one of the UK’s most special musicians, a spiritual, soulful saxophonist who has drunk deeply from the endless well that is the music of John Coltrane. A modest man, Birchall is happy out of the limelight but nonetheless has found international acclaim for a series of fine albums on Matthew Halsall’s Gondwana label as well as more recently his own Sound Soul and Spirit imprint. This, his sixth album, is his first ever live recording and is released on vinyl and download only. A decision Birchall took on listening to the tapes and thinking the music really suited the warmth of vinyl. It features the core band from his last recording World Without Form: pianist Adam Fairhall, vibist Corey Mwamba, bassist Nick Blacka (GoGo Penguin) and drummer Paul Hession. They all bring something to the music as Birchall explains: “Adam has been in the band since the beginning and he's there because he understands the music and plays with conviction. Corey is in the band because of his unique approach to playing, it doesn't actually matter that he plays vibes. I asked him to play because of his playing, not his instrument. He is a free spirit but knows when to play and when not to play. Nick is a great bassist who has a great ability to improvise strong melodic lines within his accompaniment, which is actually pretty rare. Paul is a very great drummer who can play seamlessly throughout a piece if it goes from "time" to free tempo and back again, and makes it sound natural”. The recording came about when Birchall played two nights at the Duende Jazz Bar in Larissa, Greece in May 2013 – where, despite the tiny stage, the warm welcome and overwhelmingly positive reaction to the music inspired the band to reach deep within themselves for two nights of truly inspired music. Thankfully the tapes were rolling and despite the tiny stage and proximity of the mics (a nightmare for mixing) the music was really happening. As Birchall recalls: “There was such a positive atmosphere at the gigs, with people so obviously coming to hear the music with open arms ( and ears ) that we felt very blessed to be on stage. I think the record documents how the band sounds on a given night, with original songs, and one or two by other people, played in an extended way. With everyone able to stretch out and play as long as they like”.

Live In Larissa opens with John Coltrane by the bassist Bill Lee (father of Spike Lee) from Clifford Jordan’s classic Glass Bead Games album – a lost 70s classic on the Strata East label. Everyone solos and the band really stretch out with the performance taking up the whole of Side A of the LP. Divine Harmony is from Nat’s World Without Form recording and the title comes from the harmony that exists throughout the universe and the song has a hymn or prayer-like quality to it. Return To Ithaca is a densely textured musical journey also from World Without Form. Side C opens with Journey In Satchidananda - a classic song by Alice Coltrane. This, along with "John Coltrane" have been in Nat’s set list for the past ten years at least and although the song is pretty much just a bass-line it leaves plenty of room for improvisation and Birchall’s playing here is based on the original recorded melody (as played by Pharoah Sanders). World Without Form is inspired by how musicians aim to "make something out of (almost) nothing" when they improvise on simple melodies and forms. Both this and Divine Harmony are songs where the tenor plays the theme in a strong way, leading the ensemble, who accompany according to the melodic lead. On The Black Ark the bass, piano and horn/vibes parts are simple but rhythmically subtle and "lock" together to make the song work. This gives the music a particular sense of swing without having a walking bass line. Finally the album closes with Sacred Dimension, the title refers to the attempt to reach a higher state of mind when playing music. To try to transcend the notes and get to a place where the music happens by itself. In order to do this there are several things that need to be in place, the right musicians and the right audience and on this rare occasion in a small jazz bar in Larissa the magic happened and the band and audience reached that special place and praise be indeed that the tapes were rolling!!!

"In a scene dominated by jazz graduates who are fluent in the language but don't have much to say, the music of saxophonist Birchall screams" (Phil Johnson)
"Truly transcendental" (Andrew Male)
"Beautifully exemplifies the new flowering of Northern jazz soulfulness...deeply felt and beautifully executed" (Jazzwise)
"a beautiful life-affirming album, a legal high even." (Gary Booth)
"The music has an exuberant, dancelike quality... Birchall gets Coltrane's spiritual message at a deeper level than many" (John Fordham)
"One of the best Musicians in the UK, no question about that." (Gilles Peterson)

1. John Coltrane (Live Version)
2. Divine Harmony (Live Version)
3. Return to Ithaca (Live Version)
4. Journey in Satchidananda (Live Version)
5. World Without Form (Live Version)
6. The Black Ark (Live Version)
7. Sacred Dimension (Live Version) Available from 02.05.2014
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