Emma-Jean Thackray has long been a singular, devoutly independent voice within UK jazz. Live, the composer – alongside her long-time band: drummer Douglas Taylor; pianist Lyle Barton; tuba player Ben Kelly – is capable of conjuring experiences more in line with club music, such is the physicality of her improvisational rush. Yet it remains, at its core, indebted to jazz, tethered to the sense of possibility that name suggested.
Debut album ‘Yellow’ is Thackray at her most expansive, and transgressive – a swirling morass of sonic influences, the LP is designed as “a psychedelic trip”, recalling everything from early 70s spiritual and deep jazz, through to the beatific harmonies of the Beach Boys, or even the myriad strands of house music.
‘Mercury’ is an intriguing opener, recalling the first moments upon waking. The sound of a group adjusting to one another, the album suddenly clicks into gear with ‘Say Something’ – melodically gorgeous, its bucolic vocals are set against the headlong improvisational rush jazz provides. It’s a truly thrilling experience.
‘Green Funk’ seems to re-contexualise George Clinton as a fusion prophet, with its schlurping synthetic sound chained to a rugged beat. ‘Spectre’ is a further sign of Emma-Jean Thackray’s compositional ambitions, with its twinkling harmonies recalling Brian Wilson at his most charming.
Yet this project isn’t just about notes on the page. Emma-Jean Thackray has long had an interest in Taoism, and the sense of duality, and seeking out balance permeates her work; at times its explicitly spiritual – ‘May There Be Peace’ for example – but it’s often merely suggested, utilising astronomical sign posts as track titles; ‘Venus’, ‘Sun’ et al.
Opening and closing with ‘Mercury’ and ‘Mercury (In Retrograde)’, everything about this album feels carefully sculpted, and expertly contoured. Self-consciously designed to echo a transformative lysergic experience, ‘Yellow’ comes to embody everything Emma-Jean Thackray strives towards, and describes: you emerge in a quite different space than the one you entered in, the world around you subtly transfigured.
Words: Robin Murray
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