Reflections on the story so far....

I'm listening to the tracks as they sound after five sessions at Playroom Studio. Most of the work so far has centred around preparing the template tracks and adding Tom Phelan's keyboards. The results are really positive, with Tom adding so much to the arrangements, including both great solos and a lot of new music improvised from the existing material.

A few months ago, I organised an exploratory gig at The Verdict in Brighton whose purpose was to 'comprovise' new music from key themes and fragments from the Trees repertoire. The players on this gig were Trees regulars Milo Fell on drums and percussion, Tom Phelan on piano, Paul Nieman on trombone, Beccy Rork on saxophones and myself on bass. The music that came out of this 'Roots and Branches' session encouraged me to integrate this approach into this round of recording sessions, with the inclusion of open sections in each piece allowing for such 'comprovisation'. Tom is a master at this, and has added wonderful new sections to each piece.

Rather than recording the whole group live in a large space, then editing and repairing the results, and overdubbing new material as we did for Heart of Oak, I decided that this project should be a studio recording, done in the way in which I worked on studio albums with The Enid years ago, and as I recorded 'Palimpsest' ten years ago. The Cloggz album 'Sawdust and Spangles' was also created this way, with rhythm tracks recorded first and the other parts overdubbed. The process is equally creative, albeit in a different way, with the arrangements gaining a degree of flexibility and malleability that recording the whole group together, as we did with Heart of Oak, does not allow in quite the same way.   

Further into the Woods

It has been nearly two years since Trees recorded the second live session for the album Heart of Oak at Hawthbush Farm. In that time, I have written a lot of new music, some of which has been rehearsed and/or performed at gigs, but has not yet been recorded. New music has also been written by Paul Nieman and Greg Maddocks. 

Among these new pieces are 'Dakar', ' No Wind', 'Muito Obrigado' and 'S/Pulse/S'. I have also reworked an older piece called 'Palimpsest', which was the title track of an album I recorded in 2009 with Mark Edwards, Enzo Zirilli, Bobby Wellins, James McMillan and other friends.

'Dakar' is a tune inspired by music I heard during a trip to Senegal a few years ago. This is a very simple piece in terms of its harmony and remains in one key throughout. It is a heavy 12/8 groove, driven by a number of interlocking riffs in the bass, guitar, keys and horns, with a 'call and answer' motif as its melodic content. It has a long open section at its heart in which the musicians are free to explore possibilities based on the groove and other rhythmic, melodic and harmonic content.

'No Wind' is a piece written by Greg Maddocks, arranged by Greg and myself and orchestrated by me. It's based on a quirky drum pattern in 3/4 (6/8?) that came to Greg as he was sitting on the beach waiting for enough wind to go windsurfing. The pice changes key a number of times, starting in D minor, it changes to Eb in the middle for another long open improvised section and goes through D major, F major and E major during its second half.

'Muito Obrigado' is based on a 5/4 bass riff using the sound of E Phrygian (the 3rd mode of the C major scale) and was inspired by the music of Letieres Leite and his wonderful Orchestra Rumpilezza from Bahia in Northern Brasil. The bass riff is played in unison by the fretless electric bass and the bass trombone, and these are joined at times by the tuba, the other trombones, the acoustic bass, the baritone saxophone, the bass clarinet and the left hand of the piano. The first melody is a very simple counterpoint to the bass line, but uses the sound of F major instead of C major, creating some harmonic tension. 

The second section begins with a fairly rapid exchange between by the woodwind sections, piano and mallet percussion before the opening theme is recapitulated in the brass, and the bass riff returns, leading the band to the first improvised section. This is open again for the percussionists (and others) to explore the material freely. The third section is a contrapuntal exchange between the reeds and strings, and then the whole band, leading to another open section for improvisation, which is followed by a piano solo based on the chord sequence of an older piece called 'Sette Sorelle' which was recorded on the album 'Sawdust and Spangles' by The Cloggz a couple of years ago. The piano solo is followed by a reworking of the 'Sette Sorelle' theme in 5/4 for unison trombone and flugelhorn and the rest of the band. The finale is a recap of the first two themes. 

'S/Pulse/S' is a medley of two older pieces: 'S' by Mark Edwards and my tune 'Pulse'. Mark's piece is based on a tone row in 3/4 and a dark, slow moving melody which is full of harmonic tension and which refuses to settle in any one key. This theme is played twice by the ensemble before dissolving into 'Pulse': a slow 4/4 bass riff in D minor overlaid with another dark melody played by the soprano saxophone. It reflects my obsession with John Coltrane and echoes pieces like 'Equinox' and 'Africa Brass'. The theme is followed by an open bass solo and a trombone duet, leading to a new section driven by a bass riff in 12/8 and a recapitulation of both 'S' and 'Pulse'. The finale is a return to the main theme from 's' in a slow 4/4 and new key(s).

'Palimpsest' is an overlaying of melodic, harmonic and rhythmic ideas, based on a chord sequence originated by Frederic Chopin and borrowed by Antonio Carlos Jobim for his beautiful piece 'Insensatez'. It starts with a 'shimmer' played by the band over a double tempo drum groove, yet to be decided(!). The shimmer is improvised and is never the same from one performance to the next. A bass riff (in D minor, of course) enters and is repeated several times before the first them enters: slow moving, contrapuntal lines over the chord sequence. After an interlude, the chord sequence is repeated twice over an obstinate tumbao figure in the bass, with the introduction of a new melodic idea in the second half of the sequence. The next repeat develops this new idea, which is played by the whole group. The last repeat recaps the first melody with variations, and the piece ends with an open improvisation over the bass riff.

Into the Woods - The Journey begins

On Friday 21st September, I began work on a new Trees recording project at The Playroom Studio near Arundel with engineer and producer Mike Saunders. 

The process is as different from Heart of Oak as it could be, with each track being created from the scaffolding formed by my arrangements on Sibelius and built up over time. 

There are two reasons for this approach. The first is financial. Recording Heart of Oak was an expensive undertaking, with more than 40 musicians playing together and the music being recorded to both audio and video simultaneously. Secondly, building the tracks in the studio gives us much more control over the sound, and also over the music itself. 

On Friday 10th October, Greg Maddocks and I took part in a further preparatory session at Playroom, and on Tuesday 16th, we were joined by pianist and composer Tom Phelan to add keyboards to Dakar and No Wind. The results were magical, with Tom adding so much to each track. Our flutenist friend Mike Guest was also there to capture Tom’s work on film, and we hope to share a few snippets of this and future work as we go along. 

I spent a few hours in the studio on Thursday 25th October, preparing Muito Obrigado and S/Pulse/S for Tom’s next session on Tuesday 30th October. More news soon.