Saxophonist Nat Birchall has always been something of an enigma, a sublimely soulful saxophonist hidden from view in the Northern hills. His debut album Sixth Sense (1998) first announced him to the jazz world as an urgent tenor saxophonist with a feel for pulsing modal hard-bop. But it was his cult hit and now highly sought after soulful slice of spiritual jazz Akhenaten (released on trumpeter Matthew Halsall's label, Gondwana Records, in 2009) that suggested that the spirit of Coltrane was alive and well in Northern England. Acclaimed by the critics (MOJO for one hailing its 'spacial sunship beauty' and 'lyrical heat haze hypnotism') Akhenaten together with Halsall's own releases 'Sending My Love' and 'Colour Yes' helped create the unique sound that the Independent On Sunday described as 'rain soaked spiritual jazz from Manchester''. Growing up in a Northern Village, Birchall was hardly exposed to jazz but through some friends fell in love with roots reggae and dub in the early '70s and it was the legendary Jamaican jazz-influenced saxophonists, Cedric Brooks, Tommy McCook, that inspired him take up the saxophone and through them that he discovered the music of John Coltrane. Lessons with an enigmatic local player, Harold Salisbury, followed as well as playing with various bands including Akay Temiz's Zaman. Birchall led a hip-hop influenced jazz band Corner Crew in the early '90s and started to make a name for himself on the local scene but felt unsatisfied with the music and despite some encouragement from the legendary record producer Tony Hall (Dizzy Reece, Tubby Hayes etc) Birchall resisted the call of the London scene and continued to search for the music he felt inside. Meeting trumpeter Matthew Halsall and a group of like minded players (including pianist Adam Fairhall, bassist Gavin Barras and drummer Gaz Hughes) gathered around Matt & Phreds in Manchester proved an inspiration 'Suddenly I felt something special in the music. My music is very simple, harmonically and melodically, so you have to play with as much conviction and soul as possible because there's nothing to hide behind, just the truth of how you feel the music.'' And it is this soulful elegance that illuminates both Akhenaten and Birchall's more expansive follow-up Guiding Spirit. Guiding Spirit opens with Open Up The Gates invoking the idea of huge ancient gates being opened to allow the procession through but with a subtext of acceptance and recognition. Keep the Light Shining is a sunny tune, infused with the optimism of a new day, while Higher Regions has something of a McCoy Tyner vibe and features harpist Rachel Gladwin on kora. Going To The Mountain is inspired by a simple phrase that Birchall heard Pharoah Sanders play and has an eastern feel ''I've always been in awe of how some musicians can play the simplest things yet invest them with so much meaning, I try to achieve the same quality when I play, and in working with this phrase I ended up with this melody''. The uptempo Becoming is named for something Duke Ellington once said, that he liked to have his music always ''in a state of becoming'' (which Birchall feels as something like a flower opening as you look at it rather than just seeing the flower already opened) and is enhanced by Fairhall's luminous solo. Finally the rubato Guiding Spirit hints at the hidden forces or unconscious decisions (those gut feelings) that for Birchall drive both life and his own deeply felt music.
The sleeve photo of Mancunian saxophonist Birchall leaning on the trunk of a majestic tree could be something of a metaphor. Nature provides him with stability and a certain solace. Alternatively, the tree is the mid-60s music and philosophy of John and Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, and Birchall is one of many branches. The themes of universal consciousness, harmony and devotion that he uses for his song titles–Open Up the Gates, Keep the Light Shining and, of course, the title-track–make the lineage clear, as do the techniques which he applies for his original compositions.
Coltrane's use of scales and modes, with all the startling emotional power derived from the dramatic splash of two or three piano chords upon the constantly rotating floor of double bass, is faithfully adhered to. Equally appealing is the occasional burst of hard swing, during which Birchall's rhythm section, impressively manned by drummer Gaz Hughes, bassist Gavin Barras and pianist Adam Fairhall, flies forward as assuredly as a bird departs the bough of a baobab. Along with trumpeter Matthew Halsall, this is the same group that appeared on Birchall's 2009 release Akhenaten and the players build on the cohesion showed in that session, but important additions are kora/harp player Rachel Gladwin and percussionist Chris Manis, both of whom enhance the meditative, slightly hazy ambience by an economic rather than expansive use of notes.
Then again, one of the defining features of Birchall's aesthetic is the use of space, subtlety and restraint in both his melodies and improvisations, perhaps to best evoke sprawling, open landscapes and inner peace. Although his work on tenor strikes a fine balance between stirring overtones and languorous, floating phrases, his timbre on the soprano has an almost gossamer lightness that swirls effectively around the slow, yearning dredge of the double bass on hymnal pieces such as Going to the Mountain or Higher Regions. Although clearly a Coltrane disciple of sorts, Birchall is assiduously developing a gospel of his own, and it will be interesting to see what form his profound neo-spirituals take in the future.
--Kevin Le Gendre
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