Of Time and Light

The Act of Noticing, Espial (Discus Music)
, Rhodri Davies, Andrew Leslie Hooker (Scatter Archive)
Live at the Luggage Store Gallery, Ernesto Diaz-Infante, Ezra Sturm (Muteant Sounds)

You could describe the music of Espial as jazz, but there’s a lot more in there than that. It emerged from discussions between keyboard player David Beebee and percussionist Martin Payne about how to develop the work they’d been doing as a duo. Beebee suggested recruiting sax player Josephine Davies, which they duly did.

On this, their first album (The Act of Noticing), all but one of the tracks are improvised, although all three musicians pay such close attention to each other, intuitively structuring the music, that it’s sometimes hard to tell (not that all improvised music should sound that way, only that this does). The name of the ensemble is a bit of a giveaway in this regard: ‘espial’ is an archaic word for ‘the act of watching or observing’ – a word almost synonymous with the title of the album.

As I said, it would be wrong to pigeon-hole this music as simply jazz. For example, from the very beginning of the first track I was immediately put in mind – not for the last time – of the music of Debussy. It’s entitled ‘warm air heavy with the scent of flowers’, though the sleeve notes tell us the titles were added afterwards and that the music ‘informed the titling decisions’. The musicians quickly establish a luminous, dream-like sound-world. There’s some vibraphone-driven movement towards the end, but the music never really rouses itself from the dream. The first sign of edginess comes with the third track, ‘the secret life of the forest’. Lines cycle nervously round groups of notes, sometimes trying to settle in more sustained melodic lines, but never quite succeeding. The fourth track is one of the jazziest: it occasionally reminded me of early Weather Report. The fifth track begins with Martin Pyne playing the balafon. For those who don’t know, the balafon is a gourd-resonated xylophone associated with West Africa. I know I’ve used it before, but ‘luminous’ is a word one comes back to again and again when trying to describe this album. This track immediately put me in mind of the work of the artist Henri Rousseau. In fact, anyone making a documentary about him and in search of music to go with it could do worse than drop Espial a line. Track six, ‘fresh snowfall at dawn’, is the one that incorporates composed elements. Most of the time this is not immediately apparent, although here and there the musicians play snatches of melody in unison. Track seven, ‘the breeze over the meadow’, is a sax solo. There’s a hint of a Japanese sensibility here: Davies’ playing makes the instrument sound uncannily like a shakuhachi. This mood is carried over into the next track. It has an uneasy wistfulness about it, which probably inspired its title, ‘the moment summer turns to autumn’. The next track contains some of the most frenetic music on the album. Listening to it got me thinking how the album as a whole never has to resort to turning up the speed or the volume to engage one’s attention. I said, of the first track, how it reminded me of Debussy. Of course, the music is far more jazz orientated but, like him, Beebee, Payne and Davies are masters of understatement. They know how to make you want to listen without raising their voices. It strikes me, though, saying all this, that perhaps Debussy was creating elements of modern jazz decades before it emerged and if he were alive today, one could imagine this is the kind of combo he might put together.

Welsh harpist Rhodri Davies has been making improvised music for decades: in the late nineties and early noughties he was associated with the London-centred reductionist school of improvisation. The reductionists were interested in quiet sounds, the use of silence, extended instrumental techniques and unconventional timbres. It was a highly influential movement which has clearly left an imprint on Davies’ playing to this day. On this album, he’s joined by Andrew Leslie Hooker, a visual artist and composer of no-input music. No-input music, for those who don’t know, takes the internal noise of electronic devices as its starting point. One might, for example, connect the output of a mixer to one  of the input channels and amplify the result. No-input systems bring with them a degree of unpredictability that one has to work with and one might describe them as ways of creating electronic music that aim to stimulate creativity by sidestepping the obvious ways of generating sound


The title, Deuawd, is simply the Welsh word for ‘duo’. Together Davies and Hooker create a rich, often understated, slow-moving sound-world which draws you in to focus on the sounds themselves. As Hooker puts it himself in a poem included in the album notes:

Exploding inwardly
Time will stop once and for all
All sound
All movement
Folded in on itself

I don’t think one has to read the notes to pick up a sense of what he’s getting at from the music. Deuawd is definitely an album I’ll be coming back to.

California-based improvising musician Ernesto Diaz-Infante has recently been working a lot with his guitarist son, Ezra Sturm. Live at the Luggage Store Gallery is, by my count, their second album; you might want to check out their first, The Escape, which is also available on the Muteant Sounds Bandcamp label.

Founded in the 1980s, the Luggage Store Gallery (also known as the 509 Cultural Center)is a community arts project in San Francisco, serving the Bay Area. The first track on this album is a recording of a live performance there. The second track, entitled ‘The Rehearsal’, is a studio performance Ernesto and Ezra recorded a few days before. Though the music is often fast-paced, change tends to happen very slowly. Stretches of mantra-like strumming suddenly open out into areas of exploration which, in turn, give rise to new mantra-like figures. There is an uneasy tension between the mental poise one might achieve through a mantra and the visceral tension two distorted guitars can create. It’s a contradiction which whoever wrote the album notes (Ernesto? Ezra?) probably had in mind when they described the two tracks here as ‘guttural duetting yet maybe duelling free form experimental guitar performances’. ‘Duetting yet maybe duelling’ sounds like a pretty good description of a father-son relationship to me.

When I first started listening to this album, I wasn’t sure if I was going to enjoy it or not. I found myself drawn in, though, and was sorry when it ended. There are some great musical ideas in there.



Dominic Rivron


The Act of Noticing: https://discusmusic.bandcamp.com/album/the-act-of-noticing-172cd-2024

Deuawd: https://scatterarchive.bandcamp.com/album/deuawd

Live at the Luggage Store Gallery: https://muteantsoundsnetlabel.bandcamp.com/album/live-at-the-luggage-store-gallery

The Escape: https://muteantsoundsnetlabel.bandcamp.com/album/the-escape

The Luggage Store Gallery website: https://www.luggagestoregallerysf.org/




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