Now Hear This! Feature on The Cinematic Orchestra by Adam Green
In an era when technology enables people to write music without ever touching an instrument, it is no surprise that the tunes often lack the associated components; melody, chord sequences and technical proficiency. It is for that reason that Motion, The Cinematic Orchestra’s 1999 release on ninja tune, was notable. It broke new ground by combining sample, digital and loop techniques with technically assured, improvisational jazz.
The architect of TCO, Jason Swinscoe, had managed to integrate technology and jazz with clarity and confidence, against great odds. Miles Davis and Teo Macero made a valiant attempt on Get Up With It, via tape splicing techniques, as had Steve Reich, but the technology wasn’t behind them. In the 1960’s meanwhile everyone did everything they could to sound whacky. However whereas rock and folk records gained definition as much by recording methods as the style of playing, jazz has remained essentially ‘live’ (compare Kind of Blue, recorded in a little over 48 hours, with Sgt. Pepper, taking over a thousand). It is for this reason that the attempt to combine jazz with edits and put improvisation through the stilted, abstract kaleidoscope of a microchip is so full of promise and difficulty. Nonetheless, Swinscoe’s appropriation of new technology combined with an obvious reverence for jazz and funk, a facility for arrangement and a very able band, resulted in a record of energy and polish, a soundtrack to life between city and night.
It was followed three years later by the calmer Everyday; a lush, cleanly conceived record. Straightforward but engaging chords and melodic, arresting bass lines combined with gadgetry and tastefully minimal synthesisers and horns. Choice vocals from Roots Manuva and Fontella Bass also contributed to a progressive, thoughtful and accessible record. At times it teetered on ‘lounge jazz’ in so far as it was soothing and ambient, but there is an undeniable design and subtlety to the record. It was never clear, though, where TCO would turn next, as there was no doubt they were heading for contentment. For all its charms, Everyday could not be described as an urgent record, and lacked the unease that characterised Motion. Would TCO go the way of Zero 7 and Groove Armada and churn out dull chill-out blandola, or would they return with something as fresh and daring as Motion?
A five year gap has ensued since Everyday, during which time Jason Swinscoe dwelt in New York and Paris, also travelling to Mali, Senegal, Tanzania and Kenya. One gets the impression this was partly to take a break but also to draw in new inspiration, a literal change of scenery. ‘Your environment has a massive impact on you’ Swinscoe tells me, during an interview for Pop Matters, ‘what’s around you, the beauty and the sounds that you hear everyday. If you are in the Sahara you are going to write a very different record than if you were in London. I’d say Paris definitely influenced the record, in that sense, the tonality of it and of course it’s more romantic and sensual.’ In many regards this fairly lengthy hiatus was necessary to ensure that when he returned for the ‘difficult’ third album (in apostrophes since what album isn’t difficult?) he would have moved onto unfamiliar ground. Word that he had recruited Patrick Watson, perhaps Canada’s finest contemporary singer-songwriter, fanned the flames of anticipation.
Their recent album Ma Fleur, released this May, is the outcome, and represents a confident step. Within seconds of the opener Build a Home it’s obvious we are on unfamiliar ground. It is a ‘song’ in the old-fashioned sense and, Swinscoe claims, a synopsis of the whole record. The lyrics are unlike any on earlier TCO tracks – more detailed, and imparting a story. Patrick Watson’s vocals are probably the most unusual and touching I’ve heard since Jeff Buckley and the arrangement services the song perfectly; a sad piece about loss, friendship and sanctuary. In fact, Build a Home wipes the floor with Hey Jude.
It is clear from this and what follows that TCO have produced a more emotional, acoustic record. ‘I wanted to achieve something more musical, in the song form. To take out the drums, and the overtly soul-jazz club thing, take out the ninja references, and do something for everybody. Overall I wanted to accentuate the minimalism that was in Everyday but probably overshadowed’. He has certainly done that. Double bass and drums are far less dominant. They do feature, with both Luke Flowers’ intricate, technical rhythms and Phil France’s driving bass-lines providing trademark elements of the Cinematic sound, but on the whole it is the piano, voice and guitar that form the main ingredients of Ma Fleur. This makes it a surprisingly stripped album, and in places one of stark beauty. In addition to the opener, Breathe and Into You are beautiful compositions musically; austere and emotive. All this is augmented by superb vocal performances throughout from Patrick Watson and Fontella Bass, making Ma Fleur at times a touching record, with a charming childishness and honesty, qualities nowhere more evident than on the title track itself, which was, Swinscoe tells me, ‘the breakthrough’.
The reason for this change of direction, Swinscoe tells me, is that Ma Fleur has a new priority; an emphasis on lyricism, storytelling and the ‘song form’. To pursue these dimensions he even worked with a scriptwriter, who developed a narrative love story based on a handful of characters and inspired by what he heard from an early burn of the record. This is a continuation of the commissioned project TCO received soon after Everday, when the band were approached to develop Man With a Movie Camera - a score composed to Djigavertov’s 1929 Russian film of the same title. They performed to the silent film around the world, often playing in the theatre ‘pit’, below the screen. ‘It’s interesting because you are working with an artefact, in that case an already completed artefact. That artefact, whether it’s a film or script in the case of Ma Fleur, stimulates the music, which stimulates images, which stimulates lyrics. Film has less boundaries in that sense, less rules have been laid down’.
The subsequent attempt to develop a script for Ma Fleur occasionally flounders, but it demonstrates the forward-thinking, rule-dodging approach that marks out TCO from so many others. To facilitate a change of focus they have removed the dance-hall beats when everyone else is cramming them in, stripped down the instrumentation when other acts are adding strings, and they have cut out the ninja references just as they have become cool. This third record, then, puts to bed fears that TCO would ride the wave of earlier success. ‘I didn’t want to make another Everyday,’ Swinscoe says. ‘Repetition is not an option’.