Mike Walker: Ropes

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Anyone expecting a feast of state-of-the-art jazz-rock guitar pyrotechnics – as demonstrated, e.g., on the surpassing A Big Sky (Roy Powell, 1994) or North by Northwest (Roy Powell, 1998) or Escapade (Julian Arguelles, 1999) – might be disappointed, at least in the first track and and some of the second. The celebrated Walker guitar doesn’t appear until a minute or so into track two. Up to there, it’s impressionistic strings, and concomitantly not much of jazz. And in track two it’s still all romantic, lyrical restraint. Could the artist be speaking from the chastened circumspection of age and experience?

There’s a little more urgency – and more evident improv – in track 3, led by Iain Dixon’s always reliable soprano saxophone and featuring a solo from Les Chisnall – like Dixon another north-west of England compatriot of Walker’s going back decades. A little of the orchestration and melody suggests something of the Weather Report and/or Jaco Pastorius’s orchestral world. Then, over brisk straight-eights recalling Tony Williams on In A Silent Way, Walker burns – or simmers – warmly in his inimitable way, evoking – is this allowed on a modern British jazz record? – Larry Carlton, surely an early influence via The Crusaders and/or Steely Dan, albeit in a joust with strings. Was Don Sebesky in the air? At any rate, from a guitar point of view, the goods are delivered.

Elsewhere, rhapsodic strings led by Dixon’s clarinet fill “Ropes Movement 3”; “Devon Bean” is a short, uptempo modal jazz swinger showcasing soloist Gwilym Simcock; “Wallenda’s Last Stand”, a soft samba lament in 7/4 (cf. Pat Metheny) is from the songbook of The Impossible Gentleman, Walker’s group with Simcock, while “Madhouse and the Whole Thing There” references Walker’s 2008 album of the same name. It’s not a tune on that album, and given its own life it turns out to be another winsome chamber piece with strings set alight in the coda by some more treacly, Carltonesque guitar. “Slip Not” is a barely perceptible end-piece from Chisnall’s solo piano.

Ropes has a long history, originating in a 2008 commission by Manchester Jazz Festival with Arts Council and PRS funding and some while ago projected to be recorded in 2015. This might be the fruition. There’s a sense it’s a lifelong project, or at least a theme that’s preoccupied Walker for a long while. There’s a poem, titled Ropes, in the slipcase, Walker being a man of literary bent and some very considerable skill with words. If he weren’t a superb musician he’d surely flourish in another field. I think before the guitar took over he was considering teaching English.

Discography
Still Slippy Underfoot; Ropes Movement 1; Ropes Movement 2; Ropes Movement 3; Devon Bean; Wallenda’s Last Stand; Madhouse and the Whole Thing There; Slip Not… (48.34)
Collectively: Iain Dixon (cl, ts, ss); Ben Holland (vn); Jennifer Langridge (clo); Walker (elg, kyb, pc); Les Chisnall (p, elp); Gwilym Simcock (p); Steve Rodby, Rob Mullarkey (elb); Steve Watts (b); Adam Nussbaum, Myke Wilson, Steve Gilbert (d); Paul Allen (pc); Psappha strings, conducted by Clark Rundell. Cumbria, Manchester and Halifax, date unknown, possibly 2015.
Madhouse 002