Darren Pickering – Small Worlds Volume 1 (Rattle) REVIEW
Sometimes musical contemplation is just what the doctor ordered and Small Worlds massaged GARY STEEL’s aural cavities in just the right way.
Darren Pickering composes and performs a kind of jazz that back in the 1970s, I would have considered way too pleasant and easy listening. Rock was the centre of my musical universe, and jazz had to be hard-edged or really out there. But there’s been a subtle and very gradual evolution over time so that what once seemed only worthy of background for a cocktail bar has been elevated to art music.
Small Worlds is a fine example of this shift in perspective. The kind of jazz his quartet performs here isn’t so far removed from the jazz/new age twinklings of Oregon or artists on the briefly successful Windham Hill label. The difference is not so much that the music has changed but that there’s been a gradual shift in our perspective.
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In the 1970s, German label ECM established a Euro-slanted chamber jazz sound (“the most beautiful sound next to silence”, went the blurb) where exacting production and engineering enhanced performances by a select group of artists prone to interior musical journeys. Back then, the gorgeous introspection was countered by wilful experimentation, but as the label moved into the 21st century its artists – the pianist Keith Jarrett springs to mind – began toning it down to a hushed kind of extemporisation. It was still chamber jazz of a sort, but it was easy on the ear. The level of artistry going into this music was always worth your full attention, however, and that brings us back to Small Worlds, a nine-track album made in Christchurch, New Zealand.
The first time I played Small Worlds, I made the mistake of putting it on in the background. It made a pleasant accompaniment to my work but also made little impact, and I was inclined to label it an also-ran. But with Steve Garden’s already-legendary Rattle having established itself as a kind of ECM of Aotearoa, I figured the record warranted closer scrutiny. And it did.
Darren Pickering’s compositions are lovely and have a remarkable ability to convey both a sense of journey and a somewhat mournful deep contemplation. His melodic lines are almost instantly memorable, and he’s prone to emphasise them with repetitive cycles. Pickering’s piano is seldom left on its lonesome, however, and especially notable is the fact that Mitch Dwyer’s guitar often doubles those piano melodies to pleasing effect.
For a taste of what to expect, go no further than ‘Simple Ballad’, the seven-minute opening track which begins with a suspended ‘orchestral’ note, and softly-softly melancholy piano and guitar with brushed drums. But like me, I’m sure you’ll want to hear what comes next, too.
‘Moody 7’ at a mere 2:49 doesn’t have long to do anything but strike up a mood, but its repetitive piano figure and skittering drums make it seem like a solid contender as a theme for a slightly mysterious television series.
‘In The Know(er)’ in contrast meanders along seemingly trying to find its feet and make up its mind where it’s going, but there’s something great about it, as it feels like an organism that’s alive, figuring out in the moment its particular collective emphasis, and it proves that as an improvising group they capable of summoning up both turbulence and introspection in the same piece.
‘Ixtapa’ is another track that aptly describes their modus operandi. There’s a hint of gadget glitch and found sounds (Pickering is credited with “modular, iPad” as well as piano) but overall it’s resoundingly pretty and melodic and is very good instrumental storytelling, with natural peaks and troughs and hints of both drama and grief. At one point the rhythm section completely pauses to let the piano breathe, and when they return the ensemble get into an enjoyably circular bit of riffing on the melody.
Perhaps the peak track is the penultimate ‘Klazmus’, another piece enhanced by a little bit of stray digitalia but at heart another moody track that’s just a bit more expansive and explosive than the others, with Mitch Thomas’s drums getting into a whiplash mode that makes them sound a little like the fabulous Bill Bruford.
The two pieces that didn’t quite gel for me were ‘Standing’ – the only composition by an outsider (Andrew McMillan) and with its agitated lack of composure one that simply sounds out of place – and ‘Estonia’, which is docked a notch for some gratingly noodle-some guitar soloing from Dwyer.
I should also mention that while the sound quality is perfectly okay, it’s also not special, which is a pity. If the album had been engineered in a studio capable of bringing out just a little bit more sonic juice, it would be an album I would have found just that more irresistible. Specifically, I don’t hear the depth of soundstage I hanker for, and while the drums sporadically sound quite dynamic and deep, Pete Fleming’s bass work feels a little bit lost in the sonics.
Overall, however, Small Worlds is a wee beauty and I look forward to hearing its second part.