Two very different offerings from Manchester-based tenor saxophonist Birchall, a man who has gone about bolstering his discography for some two decades now from within the world of the Tranes (Alice and John) and Pharoahs circa late ‘60s.
The first disc is very much in the vein of recent albums insofar as the deeply meditative, eastern-Influenced template of the aforementioned role models is studiously applied, and the result is palatable. Birchall’s improvising has the requisite depth to hold the interest over lengthy ostinatos while the sustained, soaring glide of Adam Fairhall’s harmonium has a richness of timbre that is a wily alternative to a piano à la McCoy.
Sounds Almighty sees Birchall turn his compass to Jamaica of the late ‘70s, when dub was king, in the company of producer Al “Breadwinner” Redfern. Once again, the decision to compose within a classic vocabulary and the attention to detail—from the heft of the bass to the crispness of the percussion and the crack of the offbeat guitar—is flawless. As one would expect from a Trane devotee such as Birchall, there is a sense of poise, if not grandeur, in some of the tracks, which on occasion recall the masterworks of JA horn heroes Cedric “Im” Brooks and Tommy McCook.
Breadwinner’s mix is spot on, creating the all-important light and shade around the instruments, bringing the echo chamber into play when the moment lends itself to it. In fact, there is no fault to be found with regard to the accuracy with which players and producer have managed to convincingly summon the sound of a bygone era.
Yet, for all the undeniable musical beauty their union has yielded, there is a nagging doubt over the artistic worth of the result, primarily because the arrangements are almost too authentic for their own good, so much so that it is possible to see where certain tunes are going from the outset. Crucial as musicianship and production may be, fresh ideas are at a premium, and it is a shame that artists of this calibre have not been able to really stamp a sense of themselves on this session, which lacks the immediate strength of character of Cosmic Language. Birchall is an excellent player whose versatility is there for all to hear. But the question is one of originality.
Nat Birchall, Cosmic Language (Jazzman)
Nat Birchall, Sounds Almighty (Tradition Disc)