The very big screen
It’s really hard not to like Ninja Tune. It’s that one independent label that seems like it has always been there, always turning out great music, never afraid to not only do their thing but also to keep redefining what that thing is. I already had a pretty big stack of Ninja Tune vinyl on my shelf when I first read about the Cinematic Orchestra. And not surprisingly my prior knowledge about what that label does sort of led me in a wrong direction.
This might partly also be due to whoever wrote the article about this album and an upcoming tour of Germany. Must have been in 2000. I was reading about this guy who was working for Ninja Tune in their international distribution department and who was spending his free time in their studios, recording Jazz pieces with friends to load them in samplers, recombine and rearrange to create something that the article somehow led me to think of as a Jazz version of what DJ Shadow was doing.
So when the album came I was sort of oh okay now this clearly is Jazz. Not that it was a disappointment, not at all, but somehow what I had gathered from that article was not really in line with what I heard. This didn’t sound like someone was having an elaborate sample project based on Jazz – it was way more Jazz than much of the New Jazz stuff that was in fashion at the time, and a whole different ballgame compared to what you fund on those Future Sounds Of Jazz samplers.
Still. Even when I went to the concert I was quite surprised when I entered the hall. Karlstorbahnhof in Heidelberg, Germany. A wonderful little venue. I walked in, looked at the stage – and what I saw was anything but a setup for a sample based project, Jazz or no Jazz. Drums, keys, upright bass, brass, and yes, there was a desk with a DJ setup. And what followed still ranks high among my fondest concert memories.
First of all – the album was still brand new and the tour might have been scheduled a little early. The place wasn’t exactly packed, you might say. Maybe fifty people, if that many. Usually not the kind of crowd that would serve as motivation. Clearly not a problem for Jason Swinscoe and his band – they played a truly enthusiastic and spirited set, going through the whole album in lavish live versions.
It was obvious that everyone in the audience was blown away by what they heard. And even for the small audience, they went through three encores, preceded by a small announcement that they had come to the end of their repertoire and that they’d need to play some of the songs a second time. They could have played everything five times and everyone would have been fine with that. I am sure that everyone that was there that night will still smile when they think about the concert.
Another thing that I remember is that I didn’t really think the name of the project was all too creative. The Cinematic Orchestra – it sounded a little bit more like a description than a real name. But then you lower the needle and let them start into “Durian” – the seven minute opener – and you need to admit that it is what it is, not just any cinematic orchestra – The Cinematic Orchestra. Every track on this album is a cinematic experience, and you don’t need to know that Swinscoe and his friends are big fans of French film noir to immediately dive into scenes in black and white with a really dense atmosphere, a never ending drizzle, a mix of the unknown, the unexpected, the unfulfilled, of uncertainty and beautiful solemn solitude.
“Durian” is a great opener as it is able to introduce us to two different shades of the TCO formula. It starts with one of the album’s finest bass themes and a slow, contemplative tempo, the slightly ominous atmosphere intensified by several vocal samples from Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” – and then uses a short break to swiftly move on to what could easily be a thriller soundtrack theme from the sixties. You almost expect Steve McQueen to arrive in his muscled up Mustang.
Great openers also set the scene for what follows – and the next two tracks are the ones that make all the difference between a great album and a game-changer. “Ode To The Big Sea” has one of those drum themes that can just go on and on forever without even remotely running the risk of boring the listener. Jumping right in as if Dave Brubeck was still among us, and the drums don’t stop, they just go wild during two marvelous drum solos that manage to shortly break the flow and heighten it at the same time. The horn section is not arranged for comfort, it slightly challenges the listener, just a simple repetitive theme that further elevates the whole thing, yes Ladies and Gentleman, you may have noticed, we have left the Ninja Tune orbit, even the surrounding galaxies, off beyond space and time on a Jazz tangent.
The greatest cinematic moment is still to follow though – on “Night Of The Iguana”. Moment is not exactly the most appropriate word for something that lasts for more than 13 minutes, but if you just take that time, sit down in front of it and let it do its thing – then it is just one long moment, one scene, one sensation, one infinite glimpse. And still I sit there time and again, listening to the drums enter the scene, not really comprehending how it is possible to create something that is so not straight, so decelerated, so beyond simple measures and so not trying to give us a chance to nod our head or tap our feet – how something like that can project such a smoothly rolling impression. The bass is big and warm and elegant, a great ally to the drums, and during the breaks it is displayed to almost tangible dimensions. Big horns, plenty of drama, effectively connected and accompanied by strings, and whenever the horns seem to be getting almost in each other’s way, we get another break with soothing strings and organ, a few more vibrations from the strings of the bass – and then the drums start their seemingly reluctant course again. Tom Chant is as great on soprano sax as Jamie Coleman on trumpet, supplying solos that add to the mood more than they try to display virtuosity. I can’t help it, this thing keeps giving me goose bumps and shaking my head – all the way to the end when the magic is cautiously deconstructed. In my eyes and ears, TCO have never been better than during these thirteen minutes and nineteen seconds.
The album really doesn’t let us down on “Channel 1 Suite” either. Another one of those intricate yet grooving drum rhythms, the same warm, simple and effective drum, a muffled trumpet and a few vocal samples are conjuring up yet another variation of the Cinematic Jazz formula. The high level is also on display on “Diabolus”, the track that started the whole story one and a half years earlier on a 12″, returning to the mood of he opening track and prominently featuring Tom Chant’s great talents on saxophone. The lavish ambient string and harp excursions towards the end of the piece make for a great finale of this album.
Finale? Well, yes, there’s still “Kalima”, the bonus track you get with the double vinyl – but in my eyes it really doesn’t count. I’m also unsure whether a challenging contribution like “Blue Birds” is really adding to the spectrum of the album, trying to prove that a more progressive approach to the concept is not out of question either, or whether it’s just there for the sake of disruption – after this, I always welcome the soothing after hours mood of “And Relax”.
More than twenty years after its release “Motion” still is a great album – and the one Cinematic Orchestra album I keep returning to. As so often, the first album is the one that doesn’t have to prove anything, the album that is most closely centered around one idea, one concept, and the one that received the largest amount of unconditional love – and this is felt throughout the album. Close to greatness.
Release for review:
THE CINEMATIC ORCHESTRA – MOTION – Ninja Tune – ZEN045