It’s a long way from Fletcher Moss Park in Manchester, named after a local politician in 1919, to Longshan Temple in Taipei, built in 1738, and dedicated to the bodhisattva of mercy, Guanyin – which lends its name to one of the tunes on Into Forever. It’s a musical and spiritual journey that has taken Matthew Halsall, the Manchester-based trumpet player and composer, just three years.
In truth, Halsall had demonstrated his musical ambition before this, but the depth of his vision became more apparent on When The World Was One, the 2014 album credited to Matthew Halsall and The Gondwana Orchestra. Kind Of Jazz referred to this album as one of the finest British jazz records of the modern era, a label we stand by today, praising its spiritualism, warmth and melodicism.
The prolific Halsall returns with the Gondwana Orchestra just eighteen months later. The influence of Alice Coltrane, and to a lesser extent, the early 1970s recordings of McCoy Tyner, can still be heard, but the Orchestra has a markedly different feel second time around. Saxophonist Nat Birchall drops out, and Halsall himself only appears on two tracks – both at the end of the album.
Many of the other musicians are unchanged, thus ensuring there is a real continuity to the Orchestra’s sound. The rhythm section of Taz Modi on piano, Gavin Barras on bass and Luke Flowers on drums – all Halsall regulars – remains intact. Likewise, Rachel Gladwin on harp, Keiko Kitamura on koto and Lisa Mallet on flute, all of whom made an important contribution to the feel of When The World Was One, return on Into Forever.
The change to the sound primarily reflects the presence of two singers. Manchester-based vocalist Josephine Oniyama sings on four songs, whilst Bryony Jarman-Pinto takes lead on the final track, Jamais Vu. In addition, the Orchestra is joined by a string quartet, which plays a prominent role on most tracks.
On Kamasi Washington’s magnificent opus, The Epic, the lead vocals – as opposed to the choir – often felt like a distraction. That is certainly not the case here, which is testament to Halsall’s skill as a composer and songwriter, and the rich singing of Oniyama, in particular, whose voice has the strength and depth required to bring these songs to life
It’s worth noting that despite the wealth of talent on display here, the arrangements are delicate and subtle, allowing plenty of space for the music to breathe and unfold. Credit must also be given to the distinctive, resonant sound of Gavin Barras on bass, who helps to underpin many of these compositions, and the inventive drumming of Luke Flowers of The Cinematic Orchestra, whose restless energy helps to drive instrumentals such as The Land Of.
Halsall is only heard on trumpet on the title track and the haunting Daan Park, which is one of the album’s many highlights. Despite this, his presence can clearly be felt throughout, and he clearly thrived on the challenge of painting pictures with a fresh sound palette.
The sumptuous sound and gorgeous arrangements on Into Forever make this a contender for our top ten albums of 2015. Highly recommended.