REVIEW: Mike Walker's Ropes at RNCM, Manchester

Mike Walker (second from right) with Gwilym Simcock, Steve Rodby, Iain Dixon, Adam Nussbaum and string players from Psappha. Photo credit © Adrian Pallant

Ropes by Mike Walker
(RNCM, Manchester, 12 October 2016. Review by Adrian Pallant)


Back in 2008, Manchester Jazz Festival commissioned a new project, Ropes, from acclaimed Salford guitarist Mike Walker (the same year in which he released his debut album Madhouse and the Whole Thing There), performing to a sell-out audience at RNCM, Manchester. A suite inspired by his love of orchestral jazz, such as the work of Nelson Riddle and Vince Mendoza, Walker’s ambition was to bring together the worlds of jazz and classical music, seamlessly balancing and blending jazz quintet with 22-piece string orchestra.

Some six years later in 2014, a successful Crowdfunding project (*) enabled a recording of Ropes to become a reality. It is now ‘in the can’ and set for release in 2017. But ahead of that, last night, an enthusiastic RNCM audience once again enjoyed the beautiful, maturing elegance of Mike Walker’s compositions. For the quintet – who else but stellar Impossible Gentlemen colleagues Iain Dixon (clarinet, saxes), Gwilym Simcock (piano), Steve Rodby (bass), Adam Nussbaum (drums); the strings – Manchester-based Psappha, celebrating their 25th year of presenting new music in collaboration with living composers of the 20th and 21st centuries; and all directed by renowned guest conductor Clark Rundell.

The three identified movements of Ropes were interlaced with four more of Walker’s pieces, opening with the limpid piano and cello delicacy of Still Slippy Underfoot (from the guitarist’s debut album, the title humorously alluding to his mother’s characteristic weather observations); and with folksung clarinet over lush strings, it seemed blissfully redolent of Richard Rodney Bennett’s romantic orchestrations such as ‘Enchanted April’. Metheny-like rivulets of guitar and piano coloured rhythmic Devon (named after Bermudan sprinter DeVon Bean’s 100-metre dash at the 1975 Olympics); the slow-patted bossa equilibrium of Wallenda recalled the fateful ‘last stand’ of the American tightrope walker through Dixon’s mysterious, melancholic soprano, Simcock’s precariously meandering piano, and perfectly-poised guitar and violin solos; and ebullient Madhouse and the Whole Thing There, with Dixon on tenor, pictorialised Walker’s affectionate expression of the chaos of his childhood household, adding, “It was beautiful.”

Already referenced in those interludes, Walker offered some background to his Ropes suite: “Ropes can be a help or a hindrance. I became interested in the lines that, musically, spiritually, physically and metaphorically bind us together or pull us apart.” The first movement displayed an urgent, chordal strength, the strings’ accentuated ebb and flow reminiscent of Gerald Finzi; and the guitarist’s mellow, crystalline melodies melded organically with the momentum. Walker chose a string orchestra specifically to balance the sound, providing fullness without saturation – and the second movement’s focused, velveteen strings (at times, in unison, recalling disco) provided an effective ‘big band’ weight which supported the quintet’s liveliness, including a delicious soprano and guitar tune, as well as Simcock’s countrified, bluesy authority at the piano. And the final movement’s cinematic longing – at times suggesting the slow movement of an English clarinet concerto when pared down to Dixon’s lyricism and gossamer string dynamics – created a beauteous melancholy.

The concert’s first half had consisted of minimalist works by Steve Reich and Gavin Bryars. Reich’s Triple Quartet, which is performed by a single quartet with the remaining eight players pre-recorded, featured the composer’s recognisable, relentless pulse (a slightly disconcerting experience whenever the players present are inactive) – and the interpretation by a quartet from Psappha was compelling to follow. Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet – the sensitive, building harmonisation of a looped recording of an old man’s singing, captured whilst making a 1970s film about people living rough in London – is quietly affecting. Across its eighteen minutes or so, the repetitious voice might be expected to overwhelm with sorrow – but the progressive, reassuring, tremulant swell of this performance seemed to breathe life into this simple song of certainty, full strings communally embracing the gent’s solitary conviction.

A concert full of warmth and appreciation, connecting contemporary jazz and classical idioms – and a reminder of Mike Walker’s immeasurable, unique and continuing contribution to British jazz.

(*) LINK: Our feature / interview with Mike Walker about Ropes in 2014

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