Télémaque are a trio of improvisers, made up of Joe McPhee, John Pope, and Paul Hession. Their debut recording, The King’s Hall Concert, has just been released in April 2020, but it’s actually a live recording from Newcastle Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music back in 2018. The trio performed their set in 2018 to a real live audience, yet only now is it being released to the wider public – and it’s an intense listen. Featuring McPhee on sax and trumpet, Pope on double bass and Hession on drums, the trio freely improvise together on two lengthy A and B sides. The free improvisation may be challenging for many listeners, yet the ideas displayed are stimulating and take the listener along on the trio’s journey. There are moments of tentative and quiet playing contrasted by big, climactic builds which create senses of tension and resolve. If you love improvised and live music, this is definitely the exploration for you.
“extended techniques are being used throughout the piece in order to explore new sounds and to push each instrument to its boundary.”
‘St Elmo’s Fire: Part I’ is the A side, opening with unusual sounds from the bass and sax. It sounds as though someone is crying out, as though they’re in pain or in prayer. There are strange sonorities being explored in this piece, as the bass often sounds like a horn and the horn often sounds like a voice. The ideas are extremely exploratory, as the trio are improvising live in the King’s Hall in Newcastle. As Pope begins to bow on the bass, the chromaticism is reminiscent of Indian and Middle Eastern melodic shapes.
There seem to be lots of influences at play with this trio, and it’s difficult to know exactly where they’re drawing from because the ideas seem so varied. Lots of extended techniques are being used throughout the piece in order to explore new sounds and to push each instrument to its boundary. As the drums enter, there’s more movement to the piece – but it still feels deliberately disjointed and stilted rhythmically. This is definitely a challenging piece for the average listener, but as the players begin to call and respond, it’s easier to follow. As McPhee begins to play sax, the musical ideas feel more cohesive and the pace becomes faster and the texture busier. The trio begin to build the intensity and the playing becomes frantic, creating a point of climax which then finally resolves. ‘Part I’ definitely takes the listener through many different sounds, textures, emotions, and modes – this is what improvisation is all about.
“an exploratory and sometimes abrasive, fiery approach can create something otherworldly.”
‘St Elmo’s Fire: Part II’ is the B side of the recording, and opens with a tentative bass solo which follows a beautiful contour. It’s probably important to explain that St Elmo’s fire is a weather phenomenon in which luminous plasma is created, usually during a thunderstorm or volcanic eruption. With this context in mind, the way in which the trio approach the music makes more sense to the listener – an exploratory and sometimes abrasive, fiery approach can create something otherworldly. As Hession enters on drums, there is an increase in movement again and also a warmth to the piece which feels different to ‘Part I’.
This piece also features more repetition than ‘Part I’, making it easier to follow in many ways – the sax tone from McPhee is also really smooth, so that his repetitions feel graceful. The piece does begin to become more intense as McPhee begins to shred over Pope and Hession’s backing, but again this resolves into a quieter atmosphere. The sax playing really begins to feel as though it’s a lamenting melody by the end of the track, and both rhythmically and harmonically the trio truly play as one. ‘Part II’ definitely features more ‘ensemble’ playing than the previous piece, in that the three strands of exploration come together in moments of unity.
“the moments which are most satisfying for the listener are those which noticeably interweave the different strands of improvisation and create unity.”
The King’s Hall Concert is an exploration from three extremely talented musicians in a live, improvisatory space. Pope, McPhee and Hession each reveal their musicianship during the course of the performance, yet the moments which are most satisfying for the listener are those which noticeably interweave the different strands of improvisation and create unity. The quote which is included alongside the album by Télémaque also reinforces this feeling – ‘Let our rejoicing rise/High as the listening skies/Let it resound loud as the rolling sea’.
This quote from James Weldon Johnson epitomises the feeling which the trio have explored throughout their performance, and also links back to the title of the pieces – St Elmo’s fire. If you love stimulating music, or free improvisation, this album is for you. If you have never heard anything like this before, it’s always eye opening (or ear opening!) to hear exploratory musical ideas like this – we hope you enjoy the journey.
Review by Evie Hill