Montauk Variations by Matthew Bourne
Formats: CD (BAY 77CD) Digital (BAY 77E)
Release Date: 6 February 2012
Delius was inspired to make music by ‘late swallows’ at Grez-sur-Loing, Vaughan Williams by a lark on its ecstatic flight. Just about everyone else has tried to work out what exact interval a cuckoo sounds. By contrast, pianist and composer Matthew Bourne has his feet firmly on the ground, to the extent that he is able to take inspiration even from situations that most recording musicians would regard as a maddening distraction, like the drone of a lawnmower.
That most English of inventions makes a fitting appearance on Matthew Bourne’s new album Montauk Variations – remarkably, his first ever solo studio album. One of the highpoints of the record is ‘The Greenkeeper’, which came about when Matthew was recording at Dartington Hall in Devon. There, the grounds are kept as immaculately as the pianos, and one of the groundsmen made an unintended appearance just as Bourne was preparing to play. “The lawnmower’s distant drone I found to be a D,” he deadpans. “So in the spirit of improvisation I went with it rather than waited until it disappeared!”
The spirit of improvisation has been as central to Bourne’s career as his reinvention of English pastoral. A restless, endlessly exploratory musician, Bourne first came to prominence at the age of 23 when he won the Perrier Jazz Award in 2001, following that with a BBC Jazz Award for Innovation the next year. He has spent the ensuing decade working in a bewildering variety of contexts, from the manic structures and free flights of his trio with bassist Dave Kane and percussionist Steven Davis as Bourne/Davis/Kane (one of the few genuinely innovative piano trios of a period when ‘innovative’ pianos trios have been as common as crows), to the fluid, contemporary sound of The Electric Dr M, to free playing with Tony Bevan, Barre Phillips, Tony Buck and others, and even forays into the strange and marginal world of broken and neglected pianos (2009’s superb Songs From A Lost Piano project). 2011 alone has seen him performing with Nostalgia 77, Frank Vigroux, Laurent Dehors’ Trio Grande and The London Sinfonietta, and with his own groups – the proto-metal of Bilbao Syndrome and the squalling electric jazz of Collider. (You can find details of all his recent collaborations on his new website, which will also feature downloads of previously unavailable recordings).
With Montauk Variations, Bourne has reinvented his approach by stripping away the clutter and quirkiness characteristic of previous work. Fragility and romanticism have now become key focal elements in highly personal performances that still carry the Bourne hallmarks of unpredictability and elliptical intensity. This is the first of a series of album projects to be released through a new partnership with The Leaf Label, displaying a melodic lyricism that is quite unexpected - it even closes with a plaintive version of Charlie Chaplin’s much-covered ‘Smile’ (from the 1936 movie Modern Times). Future releases under the ‘Matthew Bourne Presents’ banner will include an audio-visual project recorded with his beloved Memorymoog analogue synthesizer, and an album with vocalist Seaming To under the name Billy Moon, which you can expect to hear in the next 18 months or so.
Bourne – not to be confused with the choreographer Matthew Bourne, who’s much older – is revealed as an unashamed romantic. Born in Avebury, Wiltshire, where ancient human constructions have become part of the ‘natural’ landscape, and now resident in a village on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales, he has a typically English, but nowadays largely overlooked, ease with the natural world as subject matter, finding it anything but alien, more familiar than sublime, a matter of specific human engagements rather than big metaphysical clashes and dramas. His music on Montauk Variations expresses a previously undeclared – but suspected – passion for English composers of a particular era and style. Where once upon a time, ‘A Willow Grows Aslant A Brook’ would have been found in the music case of every well-bred young lady or forbearing piano pupil, such pieces have long languished in the unvisited museum of last-but-one styles. Matthew Bourne doesn’t do ‘new directions’ because he isn’t the kind of artist who runs on tramlines anyway, but Montauk Variations might surprise some of his fans. “It’s a little different to what I’ve been known for in the past, but I feel that my love of Finzi, Bridge [composer of A Willow…], Cyril Scott and Sorabji somehow came ‘out of the closet’, so to speak, at Dartington.”
These are not names that one hears very often in the world of improvised music which Bourne usually inhabits. Perhaps more familiar in this world is that of Keith Tippett, who made a justly famous solo piano recording at Dartington on the magnificent Brownwood Steinway that used to belong to Paderewski. Matthew Bourne doesn’t use that instrument, which is in the studio at Dartington, but recorded in the Great Hall (“I really wanted its ambience, including its disturbances”) and he does reference Tippett on a track called ‘One For You, Keith’ which echoes the Dartington Concert’s subtitle/dedication ‘One for you, Dudu’, Keith’s farewell to saxophonist Dudu Pukwana.
Bourne metaphorically throws open the doors, risks interruption and hayfever, recasts the piano not as a chamber instrument, but as the ‘harp in a box’ Leigh Hunt wrote about, a sound machine as practical and mobile as the lawnmower, and considerably more harmonious.
Montauk Variations is a fine example of creative music that is as accessible and immediate as it is daring and intricate. It marks an important new stage in the evolution of a daring and – not to overstate the point – very English musician.
1. I. Air (for Jonathan Flockton)
2. II. The Mystic
3. III. Phantasie
4. IV. Infinitude
5. V. Étude Psychotique (for John Zorn)
6. VI. Within
7. VII. One For You, Keith
8. VIII. Juliet
9. IX. Senectitude
10. X. The Greenkeeper (for Neil Dyer)
11. XI. Abrade
12. XII. Here (in memory of Philip Butler-Francis)
13. XIII. Gone (in memory of Philip Butler-Francis)
14. XIV. Knell (in memory of Philip Butler-Francis)
15. XV. Cuppa Tea (for Paul Bolderson)
16. XVI. Unsung
17. Smile [written by Charles Chaplin] OTHER
Montauk Variations sampler